Obama’s Obsessive Focus

I assume the entire progressive blogosphere will agree with me that trying to pursue a more “bipartisan tone” in Washington is a substantively foolish idea for the White House to pursue. But the fact of the matter is that I think the smart thing for any President to say is that he wants to pursue a bipartisan tone, so it’s hard to know what to make of that remark.

What I find more troubling is Obama’s remark about his obsessive focus on policy in his first two years in office. Politicians say things that aren’t true all the time, but what you really need to worry about is when they start believing those things. And this is the kind of self-pitying half-truth that I worry people in the White House actually believe, especially since the President said something similar to Peter Baker recently about how he “spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right” and has learned that “you can’t be neglectful of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”

It’s of course true that you can’t just totally neglect marketing, PR, and public opinion. But I think these kind of remarks reflect a fundamental misapprehension that’s taken hold in some circles. The way this narrative goes is that the country was struck by a terrible economic crisis in late 2008. That crisis required measures that were unpopular but successful and the President is now paying the price for their unpopularity. There’s some truth in all of that, but the more important truth is much more simple if economic conditions today we good or rapidly improving, then the President would be popular and his anti-recession measures would be seen as vindicated. But conditions aren’t good, they’re not rapidly improving, and the President isn’t popular. What’s more, whatever Obama was personally focused on “obsessively” it’s just not the case that the policy outputs of the Obama administration reflect an obsessive focus on improving the economic situation. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was deeply shaped by a desire to avoid politically damaging accusations of waste, fraud, and abuse rather than shaped to get maximum stabilization bang for the buck. The administration forgot to appoint anyone to Fed vacancies for over a year. And the Affordable Care Act is providing zero (if not negative) short-term stimulus out of a politically motivated desire to achieve a deficit-negative 10-year CBO score.

I’m not going to pretend to be shocked to discover that there was politics happening in the American political system and not just an obsessive focus on policy. But political success and policy success are deeply intertwined in a recession, and a White House that thinks “too much policy focus” has been its big sin is unlikely to turn things around.