On Presidential Focus, Presidential Credit, and the Homestead Act

September 17, 2011

There are two distinct ideas floating around the chattering class right now that I think are related. The first is a criticism of the Obama administration — articulated here by Bruce Bartlett — which argues that they made a major mistake by turning to health care after the stimulus passed, instead of staying laser focused on helping the economy.

The second is something that I heard over-and-over again in panels at the American Political Science Association convention three weeks ago, and continue to hear from liberals (and Andrew Sullivan) around DC: Obama is simply not getting credit for all the helpful policies (ARRA, Dodd-Frank, Cash for Clunkers, drawdown in Iraq, killing Bin Laden, ending DADT) enacted since 2009.

As a substantive matter, the Bartlett thesis is refuted by Kevin Drum here, and by Seth Masket here (and, in part, by Jonathan Bernstein here). And I think their points are fundamentally correct: the President, almost regardless of situation, is never “laser focused” on anything. There’s a massive executive branch of workers, policymakers, and advisers who can and do keep the President up to speed on everything. Even in the midst of the health care debate, the President wasn’t even close to single-minded in focus on that; on any (and probably every) given day, the President is focused on a dozen different things, and most of the time the top of that list is national security and international affairs.

Still, I think this rebuttal misses the mark. This isn’t about substantive Presidential attention, it’s about messaging and perception. During the summer of ’09, the President appeared to be single-minded in his focus, and that focus was on health care. It doesn’t matter that this was far from the case; any low or moderate-information voter was going to assume that the President was spending his time on health care, not national security or the economy.

Nor do I think that Bartlett or other critics see this is a substantive progressive-policy mistake.¬† After all, the President got both the stimulus bill and the health care bill. It’s not like there’s an easy counterfactual in which he gets more policy generation by staying on the economy. (Best case scenario: Dems hold Congress and we’re fighting out health care right now, no?). Rather, the critique is a political-electoral one. It’s point is that Obama might have been able to save his own hide in 2012 if he had been giving a jobs address to Congress in September 2009 instead of a health care address. It doesn’t matter what he’s actually spending his time doing. But it does matter, when the economy is this bad, that people don’t think he’s focusing his energy on other things.

The analogy I’ve been using as of late is Lincoln in the winter of 1863-1864. The Republicans¬† had passed the Homestead Act in May of 1862. This was not small potatoes; it was one of the longest-standing policy goals of the Republican Party (albeit the party had only been around for 8 years), and had been continually stymied in Congress. The Act was intended by design to deluge the west with free soil settlers, aid in the downfall of slavery, and help conquer the continent. As a national policy, it was probably second only to anti-slavery as a constitutive component of the GOP, especially prior to the war.¬† Still, it would have been nothing short of insane for Lincoln to make the Homestead Act his focus, as a PR or messaging maneuver. The war was only possible thing to be publicly focused on. That doesn’t mean you don’t ever talk about other things; life and politics and government must go on even in the face of civil war. But it does mean that when you have to choose, you go up to Gettysburg and give an address rather than trumpet your new western land policy.

And this applies double to re-election concerns, which brings us back to the liberals, APSA attendees, and Andrew Sullivan. No matter how awesome Cash for Clunkers or Dodd-Frank or DADT repeal was, all those things are the Homestead Act as far as Obama 2012 is concerned. Political scientists should know better than this; it’s been generations of research that link presidential re-election very tightly to some measure of economic fundamentals, with everything else trailing way behind. To decide that Obama should be re-elected (or receiving better public standing) simply because he passed his own little Homestead Acts is non-sense. And it’s double non-sense because it’s the administration itself which is proclaiming that we are still in the midst of devastating crisis. Now I’m not saying we aren’t; I’m just saying that if you spend 2.5 years telling everyone it’s the modern economic equivalent of the civil war, don’t expect the modern equivalent of the Homestead Act to save you. (Note that I’m not making an argument here against the stimulus or other Obama economic policies; as I’ve written before, trying to explain marginal effects to voters is a nightmare of massive proportions).

Nor do I think the GOP gets off easy here, either. Watching the last two primary debates has been surreal. Somehow, the GOP equivalent of the Homestead Act — reforming social security — has become the central feature of the debates, encased in a general critique of the White House for, evidently, mismanaging the civil war. It’s strikingly off-key, in much the same way Bartlett sees Obama. Perhaps the GOP is resting on the idea that they can win the election without much of a jobs/economic plan of their own, or at least the individuals can get through the primary in that manner. If we push the 1864 analogy further, I don’t know if this makes them War Democrats or Copperheads. But, unlike McClellan and his (misguided) laser-focus on the war, it surely doesn’t make them seem presidential.

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