Winning Changes Everything

Posted on 10. Oct, 2009 by in Uncategorized

One of the more vocal and consistent complaints voiced by liberals about President Obama is that while he’s frequently inspiring, he doesn’t appear committed to marshaling public opinion behind progressive ideals. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones sums up the argument:

His speeches soar, but they rarely seem designed to move the nation in a specific direction. Is he pushing the public to support cap and trade even though it might cost them a few dollars? Or merely to vote for “change”? It’s sometimes hard to tell.

This is hardly an original concern. Liberal pundits have been stewing for months over the question of whether Obama is too cautious to win big victories, too invested in a narrative of bipartisan unity to get his hands dirty in a real street fight. As a former community organizer he understands the power of direct action, but does he understand how to shift public opinion on a national scale? And is he willing to try?

This line of attack is starting to gain steam again because of the state of health care reform. Despite a high profile address before Congress last month, public support for Obama’s plans haven’t shifted much at all, despite a bump immediately after the speech. Political scientist Brendan Nyahn explains:

There was a small bounce in support for health care reform after the speech, but part of the effect dissipated. Meanwhile, estimated opposition to reform, which dipped in the wake of the speech, quickly rebounded toward previous levels and is now greater than it was before the speech. When Charlie Rangel said before the speech that “this level of involvement from the president could well be a game-changer,” I don’t think these were the results he had in mind.

I’m emphasizing this point because there’s a misperception among journalists that the president can easily move public opinion. As we’ve seen again and again over the years, it’s simply not true, but the lack of followup by the press means that the lesson is never learned. (At most, a failure to move poll numbers is blamed on some specific aspect of president’s message or strategy.) So we repeat the same cycle over and over again.

So does this mean that presidents, even those as persuasive as Obama, can’t move the ball down the field when it comes to getting their major legislation passed?

Maybe. But political scientist Jonathan Bernstein offers an alternative theory of the game, if you will:

That’s where we get to the real difference between 1994 and 2009: the decision by Bill Clinton in 1993 to have Ira Magaziner write a bill in secret, compared by the decision by Barack Obama in 2009 to buy off the key interest groups who might be inclined to oppose reform. Ezra thinks that Betsy McCaughey was stopped this time around because of the emergence of the blogs, MSNBC, and Jon Stewart, all of whom took on the crazy and explained to people what was truth and what was wacko lies. It’s true that those people all generated information, but I don’t think that’s what convinced anyone; liberals didn’t believe McCaughey in 1994 even without Keith Olbermann to transmit the counterarguments. No, what was different this time is that the stakeholders — the doctors, the hospitals, the drug companies, and the insurance companies — either stayed neutral or took Obama’s side on some of the key factual questions. Again, they didn’t do that because they were smarter or had more information than they had in 1994. They did it because they changed sides. And they changed sides because Barack Obama realized that the way to make this happen is to get as many allies as possible, even though that strategy has its own costs. (emphasis mine)

Another persistent criticism of President Obama is that he’s naive, but if Bernstein’s analysis is correct – and I think it is – then perhaps what we’re actually seeing right now is a display of shrewd pragmatism. What do you do if you observe that efforts to generate a health care bill from inside the White House failed? You pursue the opposite strategy, which is to let Congress write the bill. What do you do if you’re concerned about opposition from powerful interests like drug companies? You buy them off.

Is there an element of political expediency to all of this? Of course, but, at the end of the day, getting a bill signed is the most important thing. There’s even evidence that a bill backed by only Democrats would be popular with the public.

But what does all of that have to do with getting people to back progressive ideas? Back to Berstein:

John Zaller tells us that public opinion is led by elites, and that people basically are ready and willing to adopt the opinions of those they like and respect, while they are pretty good at ignoring and rejecting what they hear from those they don’t like and don’t respect.

Given that, if I had to advise a president, I’d say to think in terms of two audiences (with a third audience, solid partisans of the other party, beyond reach). For partisans, the president should reinforce basic beliefs, pushing them, if he wants, in whatever directions he thinks best. So Bill Clinton, for example, could, by repetition, convince Democratic elites and mass publics that “responsibility” was an important value of the party. Notice that with this task the president will have eager allies among the (other) opinion leaders of the party. But notice too that this job is basically pretty easy, especially if the president is relatively happy with where the party is. I think that’s the case with Obama; he’s a mainstream liberal, and so he really doesn’t have much to do to transmit his Big Picture Values to rank-and-file Democrats.

The other audience is different. It’s composed of loose partisans and true independents. It’s not going to suddenly adopt new political ideas; Reagan didn’t suddenly make loose partisans and true independents into real conservatives. You can’t really do that. Loose partisans and true independents aren’t ideologues and are unlikely to become ideologues. What you probably can do — what Reagan probably did — is to teach them, if they like you, to say that they’re “conservative” or “liberal” and to adopt a handful of public policy positions that you advocate (and since the specific issues fade, and since most people won’t change their views on public policy to match the “conservative” or “liberal” label, you aren’t really getting very much). But you don’t do that by reasoning with them, or with inspiring them with great speeches. You mostly do that, as crude as it sounds, by winning. You do it by creating winning coalitions that put Establishment People on your side. You make it so that the rank-and-file sees that the people they’re willing to listen to, opinion leaders in their own groups, support the president’s positions. And that’s what Obama is doing.

Pushing a good, strong health care bill across the goal line, then, is exactly what needs to happen. Obama hasn’t made the argument for health care reform in terms of ideology; he’s pushed it for fiscal reasons (it will save money in the long run) and moral reasons, but not for expressly partisan ones, even if, in the end, there’s a partisan benefit to be reaped. But for that to happen, Obama and the Democrats have to, in the words of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, “just win, baby”.

2 Responses to “Winning Changes Everything”

  1. miley

    01. Sep, 2010

    My Friend Asked me to Read your Post on Thursday.Your post was Well written.Please Keep it up .I Like reading on picture of baby.

  2. Water damage company

    18. Sep, 2010

    Well for what ever reason – fiscal or ideology, the health care reform bill is being pushed harder.