A Reason, Not an Excuse

Let me commend Ezra Klein’s post pointing out that an awful lot of “if only Obama had done blah blah” type commentary seems to suffer from a bad case of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. He’s done a bunch of stuff. He’s less popular than he used to be. Congressional Democrats are going to lose tons of seats. Therefore, had he not done this stuff he’d be more popular and congressional Democrats would hold more seats. Realistically, Democrats are going to lose seats in the midterms because (a) it’s a midterm and the party in power almost always loses seats and (b) they have a giant majority, and the system has a tendency toward equilibrium*:


As for Obama, the comparative evidence is overwhelming that his popularity has dipped because (a) post-inauguration honeymoons are always unsustainable and (b) recessions always make incumbents unpopular.


Obama’s current approval rating of 44 percent beats Clinton, Carter and Reagan. All of them were between 39 percent and 41 percent at this point in their presidencies. And all of them were former governors who accomplished less legislatively** than Obama has at this point in his presidency.

A serious treatment of “Obama should have done blah blah and then he’d be more popular” has start with the idea doing blah blah blah would have worked substantively to boost the economy.*** Which is to say you need to talk about policy, not about political strategy.**** When people put this idea forward, it sometimes comes across as an excuse and I should say that I don’t mean it that way. I think there are things the administration could have done to improve the economy. That starts with the fact that I know the administration has been less persuasive vis-à-vis congress in terms of recovery measures than the administration wishes it had been. Blame for this falls primarily on the members themselves on the rules of the Senate, but neither the president nor his staff can be fully exempt from the blame. The administration also decided for bad political reasons to shift its rhetorical emphasis to fiscal consolidation way too quickly. It dithered inexplicably in nominating people to Federal Reserve Board of Governors vacancies and failed to press congress to confirm them once nominated. Elements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act deliberately shortchanged short-term macroeconomic impact in order to advance long-term policy objectives***** in a manner that history will show ultimately undermined the administration’s ability to pursue its long-term policy objectives.

And one could go on. Unfortunately, a laundry list of policy items along these lines wouldn’t make for a very good magazine article since it would lack a kind of narrative arc and explanatory parsimony that makes for a better feature. Footnotes below the fold!

* On average, we should expect the parties to split the congressional vote roughly 50-50 in any given election. Which means that the larger your pre-election majority, the bigger the defeat the average outcome of the next election will be.

** I think you can dispute whether Obama accomplished more in 2009-10 than Reagan did in 1981-82. A lot of the radicalism of the initial Reagan Revolution was (rightly) scaled back in 1983-88 but we don’t yet know what will happen with Obama’s bills.

*** I distinguish this from the pundit’s fallacy by observing that the important thing politically was to adopt substantive policies that actually would have worked, not to adopt the substantive policies that I happen to believe would have worked.

**** Part of the problem here is that most people who are paid to write about politics professionally are very comfortable writing about political tactics and have a weak grasp of substance. A related issue is that “so-and-so is losing popularity” is “objective” whereas “such-and-such policy would reduce unemployment” is “bias.” That makes no epistemological sense, but it’s the rules of journalism.

***** For example TIGER grants are better transportation policy than just randomly gifting money to state governments (and one could say the same about the better-known Race to the Top) but worse macroeconomic stabilization policy, and the administration’s ability to steer a good reauthorization of the much more important overall federal transportation bill is undermined by becoming unpopular.