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Obama’s Doomed Strategy

By Matthew Yglesias on February 3, 2010 at 1:45 pm

"Obama’s Doomed Strategy"

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Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny report on the White House’s political strategy:

The White House’s goal is to show voters that Mr. Obama is willing to engage Republicans rather than govern in a partisan manner while forcing Republicans to make substantive compromises or be portrayed as obstructionist given their renewed power to block almost all legislation in the Senate.

I think this is doomed to fail. Hulse & Zeleny, to their credit, take the rare step of noting that actual events in the world rather than political strategy are the most important thing:

While the strategy addresses some of Mr. Obama’s short-term political problems, it is not clear that it will help him with the more fundamental issue facing him as the leader of the party in power, which is showing voters results before Election Day, especially with unemployment in double digits and the health bill stalled.

But I think it’s hard to work even in the short-term. The problem with this strategy is that it relies on massively overestimating the amount of attention people give to political events and the level of detail on which it’s possible to persuade them. Ezra Klein has a great post on the relevant literature:

This focuses Americans on the part of the political process that scares them: disagreement. In their book “Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work,” the political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse use focus groups and voluminous survey data to show that people don’t know much about policy and don’t care much about policy. Instead, they believe in broad goals for the country, and they think that political actors working in good faith could accomplish those goals with a minimum of disagreement if they were interested in doing so.

“People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals,” write Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, “and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests.”

You know how annoying “Village” pundits inside the Beltway tend to take a “pox on both houses” response to any sign of political gridlock, no matter how obvious it is that the blame should be assigned primarily to one party? Well, the point is that your average American living his average life pays much less attention to detail than even the laziest pundit and thinks the exact same way. If the GOP refuses to negotiate in good faith and nothing gets done, people will assume that nothing is getting done because “people in Washington” aren’t negotiating in good faith. The only way for the blame to be assigned to one specific party would be to persuade the broad mass of people to stop spending time doing the things they normally do (working, taking care of the kids, spending time with family & friends, watching TV, etc.) and start paying attention to the details of congressional debates.

In the real world, if your problem is that 41 Senators are playing procedural hardball and making it impossible to get things done, the solution is for 59 Senators to play hardball in return and stop letting the 41 stop things. Recognize that zero voters will punish you for engaging in procedural hardball and that the number of voters who will even realize any of it happened is approximately zero.

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