#59 Presidential Politics

On September 26, 2011

Hello Everyone,

I started these commentaries almost five years ago when Barack Obama announced his candidacy, for the purpose of introducing him to those who didn’t yet know him. Then, I moved on to trying to understand the nomination process and sharing what I learned. They have continued to evolve.

Now it seems like it is back to the future. I’m feeling the need once again to understand what is happening with presidential politics as we stand thirteen months from the next election.

In the past ten days, the picture has been coming into focus. As others are starting to observe, it seems that the President has decided that he needs to follow his political instincts. He is going to deemphasize his quest for bipartisanship in the face of intractable opposition. Instead, he will focus on improving his standing with voters while trying to do some “discreet good” on jobs and the deficit along the way, but relenting on his efforts to do “systemic good.” He would prefer a nobler, grander, longer-term approach, but that is no longer possible.

As usual, the first piece that got my attention in this process was David Brooks’ column on September 15 (see Attachment 1). In it he writes:

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman [a progenitor of behavior economics]…calls this “the planning fallacy” [failing to realize how limited an individual’s powers really are].

… Over the past three years, the United States has been committing the planning fallacy on stilts…The key to wisdom [following a crisis] is to make the distinction between discrete good and systemic good. When you are in the grip of a big, complex mess, you have the power to do discrete good but probably not systemic good.

When you are the president in a financial crisis, you have the power to pave roads and hire teachers…But you don’t have the power to transform the whole situation.

This is a good reminder that those demanding that the President “fix” the economy are being wholly unrealistic, as I argued in my last Obamagram. The best thing he can do is some “discreet good” now, while urging us to “out-educate, out-innovate and out-build” our global competition over the long term.

Brooks followed the “planning fallacy” piece with one in which he expressed his frustration – which many of us share – that since President Obama has not been able to find the bipartisanship he has so ardently sought, he has decided instead to focus on winning reelection. This is entirely understandable to me.

The President has tried for two and a half years to be bipartisan, to compromise, and to be civil in trying to change the environment in Washington and all he has gotten is grief for it – from both sides. Recently, his “job approval ratings” have slipped and the buzz is that his presidency is “in trouble.”

So, it might well be that the President and his team have decided that enough is enough. We’ll try the high-minded stuff again after the next election. Now it’s time to win.

A column entitled “Why the White House Changed Course,” by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post was referenced by Brooks in his lamentation (see Attachment 2). Klein makes great sense to me.

Since the [mid-term] election, the Obama administration’s working theory has been that the first-best outcome is striking a deal with Speaker John Boehner and, if that fails, the second-best outcome is showing that they genuinely, honestly wanted to strike a deal with
Speaker John Boehner…

The collapse of [the “grand bargain” on deficit reduction with Speaker Boehner] taught them two things: Boehner doesn’t have the internal support in his caucus to strike a grand bargain with them, and the American people don’t give points for effort…

[The President] would like to win by governing effectively, by cutting deals with the other party, by making Washington work. He doesn’t want to run a generic Democratic campaign hammering Republicans for being willing to cut Medicare even as they cut taxes on the rich…

The choice, it turned out, wasn’t between winning by making tough choices and hard compromises and winning by running as a populist. It was between losing because he was unable to get

Washington to make tough choices and hard compromises and trying something else. So now the White House is trying something else.

The new theory goes something like this: The first-best outcome is still striking a grand bargain with the Republicans, and it’s more likely to happen if the Republicans worry that Democrats have found a clear, popular message that might win them the election. The better Obama looks in the polls, the more interested Republicans will become in a compromise that takes some of the Democrats’ most potent attacks off the table [emphasis added]…

But the second-best outcome isn’t necessarily looking like the most reasonable guy in the room. It’s looking like the strongest leader in the room…

That isn’t how the White House would prefer to govern. It’s not how they would prefer to campaign. It is, let’s admit it, politicsas- usual…But it’s also the only option they have left [emphasis added].

In an Obamagram, entitled “Flak From All Sides,” that I wrote over three years ago, I said:

In my humble opinion, it is time for us to recognize that Barack Obama is also a politician. A world class politician…His nomination was not an immaculate conception. He’s no innocent. And, thank God for that.

We can fantasize about Barack being “apolitical,” “post-political,” “post-partisan,” or what have you. The fact is that he is a masterful politician. He proved that in the primaries, defeating more “privileged” rivals.

But, “politician” doesn’t need to be the pejorative we have come to assume. John F. Kennedy, himself an accomplished politician, once said, “Mothers may…want their favorite sons to grow up to be president, but…they do not want them to become politicians in the process.”

Perhaps Politician Obama has realized he has to take a more circuitous route than he prefers. As Klein says, “The better Obama looks in the polls, the more interested Republicans will become in a compromise”…

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on http://www.obamagrams.com.


adobe pdf file Click here to download this article in PDF format.


adobe pdf file Attachment: The Planning Fallacy


adobe pdf file Attachment: Why the White House Changed Course


Comments are closed.