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Little David Axelrods Oversimplify Tax Cut Politics

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These days, everyone's a strategist. The tactics-obsessed media/blog ecosystem has created an army of little David Axelrods who are convinced that they have the (imaginary) solution to President Obama's problems. The second segment of the pre-election episode of This American Life, for instance, consists entirely of writer Jack Hitt blaming the party's problems on poor messaging.

The latest example of this attitude comes from liberals who have faulted President Obama for failing to hold his ground on the Bush tax cuts for families making more than $250,000 despite public support for his petition. (Under the agreement reached yesterday, all of Bush's tax cuts will be temporarily extended.) Even the normally sensible Jon Chait has gotten worked up about Democrats' failure on this issue.

The issue is that the president's position tends to poll well in national surveys of adults. As a result, most liberals think Obama and the Democrats should have the advantage. However, the political reality is more complicated.

First, public opinion in more conservative states is likely to be less favorable to Obama's original position than national polls. Several of these states are represented by senators whose votes Obama needed and failed to get (e.g., Ben Nelson from Nebraska, Jim Webb from Virginia, Joe Manchin from West Virginia, etc.).

Second, support for the plan may be weaker among likely voters. For instance, the 2010 electorate that senators just observed was divided on the issue between Obama and the GOP (with an additional 15 percent favoring full repeal):

Thirty-nine percent of voters wanted these tax cuts continued for all Americans, but about as many, 37 percent, wanted them continued only for families with incomes under $250,000 a year. The rest, 15 percent favored letting them expire for all.

Finally, as Princeton's Larry Bartels noted before the election, supporters of extending the tax cuts for all Americans have more intense preferences than opponents.

Given these factors, it's not surprising that the party couldn't get more than 53 votes for Obama's proposal, especially since so many Senate Democrats are up for re-election in 2012 (including Nelson, Webb, and Manchin).

The other commonly advocated strategy of the mini-Axelrod contingent was to let Bush's tax cuts expire and hope Republicans cave to public pressure next year, but it was never clear how this plan would succeed. The president is the political figure who is held accountable by voters for economic outcomes. As a result, the GOP would still have had the upper hand in any negotiations.

Liberals may find it comforting to blame the tax cut deal on the White House's tactical failures, but Obama was playing a much weaker hand than most people realize.

Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com.

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