07/22/2010 10:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

More storytelling about Obama's political standing

Writing in the New York Times, Matt Bai downplays the role of the economy in President Obama's current political struggles, arguing that "[i]t's just as likely... that much of the dissatisfaction with the governing party" is the result of Democrats having "failed to establish a rationale for such expansive measures [as the stimulus bill and health care] during the campaign":

Mr. Obama inherited a perilous economy from his predecessor, and his party has passed a series of consequential laws... yet all indications are that voters in much of the country -- and particularly independent voters -- remain furious with Democratic incumbents.

There are several trendy explanations for this "paradox," as commentators have taken to calling it. Conservatives posit that the problem is ideological -- that laws enacted by Congress have simply been too liberal for the voters. The president's allies, meanwhile, suggest that voters are blaming the party in power for a stubbornly sluggish economy...

It's just as likely, though, that much of the dissatisfaction with the governing party can be traced back to this whole choice-versus-referendum conundrum...

[In 2006] Democrats issued a pamphlet with gauzy notions of "broad prosperity" and health care for all, but almost nothing by way of specific policies or the costs involved. This campaign-by-referendum worked so well that Democrats barely altered the formula in 2008, when Mr. Obama and his party's Congressional candidates ran, successfully, under the vague banner of "change."

The problem with this strategy was that "change" meant wildly different things to different people, and neither of these elections amounted to a mandate for any discernible set of choices. The stimulus bill and the health care law may or may not have been good policy, but the sheer scope and cost of those agenda items seemed to jolt a lot of the independent voters who had conditionally supported Mr. Obama. Having failed to establish a rationale for such expansive measures during the campaign, Democrats were easily caricatured by their adversaries as a bunch of 1970s liberals who would spend money wherever they could.

It's not clear to me why Bai thinks Obama would be more popular if he had been more specific during the campaign. Ronald Reagan was arguably more clear than Obama in 1980 about the agenda he would pursue as president and was very successful in changing the direction of federal budget and tax policy once in office. And yet, given a similarly difficult economic situation, his approval trajectory was virtually identical to Obama's (PDF):


Indeed, the 1980 election was widely considered to be an electoral mandate at the time. So the fact that Reagan's initial legislative success didn't translate into increased popularity during his second year is a problem for Bai's argument.

One difference is that Reagan, unlike Obama, faced divided government, which limited his ability to enact his agenda. We could thus consider the other president who was widely considered to have received a mandate -- Lyndon Johnson, who won a landslide victory against Barry Goldwater in 1964. Under a unified Democratic Congress (like Obama), he was even more successful in passing an expansive legislative agenda, and yet his approval ratings declined significantly through 1965-1966 (albeit from a very high starting point).

What Bai doesn't seem to realize is that elections do not ever indicate the will of the people in some well-defined sense (there is a vast technical literature on this point). The best political science research to date convincingly argues that mandates should be viewed as a social construction. Moreover, it's not clear that presidents enact legislation intended to make them more popular. Contemporary presidents tend to pursue the agenda of their party, not the median voter. Finally, the public mood tends to shift in the opposite direction of the party in power. For all of these reasons, the appealing notion that presidential candidates will propose an agenda, enact that agenda in office, and be rewarded by the electorate for doing so rarely occurs in practice.

More importantly, given the primacy of the economy in structuring the public's view of politics, the idea that "much of the dissatisfaction with the governing party" could have been eliminated by simply "establish[ing] a rationale" for Obama's agenda during the campaign is implausible. Even if Obama and the Democrats could have anticipated the need for a stimulus bill and proposed one during the campaign, it's not clear that voters would be satisfied -- unemployment is still very high. And Obama did campaign on health care reform (albeit not in the exact form that was enacted).

In short, Bai's article is yet another invented explanation for Obama's current political standing.

Update 7/22 9:36 PM: Jonathan Bernstein also notes that "Obama had lots and lots of very specific campaign proposals... and he did, in fact, campaign on those proposals" and "all bill[s] are easily caricatured" regardless of whether you talk about them during the campaign.

[Cross-posted to]