The debate over the Obama administration among liberals has broken down between what you might call the idealists and the fatalists. The idealists think that Obama could win if only he would adopt the right message and the right legislative strategy. If he adopts a clear-cut populist position and lambastes Republicans for opposing it, he can force them to relent. The fatalists say that’s all wrong. Obama’s problem is that he’s an incumbent during an economic crisis. The opposition party has no incentive at all to support Obama’s proposals, and there’s nothing he can do to make them.
We’re currently undergoing a kind of experiment to see which side is correct. The fatalists are, unfortunately, winning the argument.
Obama’s fall offensive is a perfect rendition of the play the idealists want him to run. He’s proposed a new jobs plan that wins acclaim from nonpartisan economists, consisting entirely of measures that enjoy overwhelming support from the public. To appease deficit hawks, he proposes to pay for the long-term costs with even more popular proposals to raise taxes on the very rich. But what happens?
Step one is that the entire Republican party lines up in opposition. This is easy for most Republicans, who represent conservative states. It’s a little trickier for moderates, but the moderates can always devise some procedural pretext for their "no" votes. If you’re a Republican Senator from Maine, you need to vote against Obama to avoid a right-wing primary challenge. But you also need to signal a vague conditional openness to voting "yes" under alternative circumstances. It's best to avoid putting specific demands on the table, because Obama can always meet them. The winning move is to signal general agreement with Obama but vote "no" on procedural grounds.
Maine Senator Susan Collins explained that she voted "no", despite allegedly supporting most of the jobs bill, because of the administration’s “take it or leave it” posture. If Obama took her desire to talk it out at face value, then the bill would get sucked into a legislative morass for months on end while the public grew disenchanted with the horse trading and the lack of progress. Either way, they’re going to vote "no" in the end.
Step two is for the Democratic moderates to give political cover to the Republican moderates. Imagine you’re a Democrat representing a conservative state — say, Joe Manchin from West Virginia. Your popularity hinges upon distinguishing yourself from Obama, who is highly unpopular in your state. You need to take every opportunity to oppose him, and to identify yourself as more centrist. You also know that your Republican opponents will run ads saying “Manchin voted with Obama X percent of the time,” so you want to rack up as many "no" votes as you can. Since the jobs act isn’t going to pass anyway, you might as well oppose it as too much big government. So a handful of moderates like Manchin are a no.
Now Republicans can boast that the support for the bill is entirely partisan — only Democrats support it — and the only the opposition is bipartisan. It doesn’t matter if the provisions themselves are broadly popular. Most voters still don’t know what the provisions are. Obama may be talking them up every single day, but voters obviously aren’t tuning in to his speeches, and reporters have no reason to transmit his claims day after day when he’s not saying anything newsworthy. If voters are following the news, and most aren’t, the message that will come through is that the bipartisan center is nervous about or outright opposed to the plan.
What most voters will notice, overwhelmingly, is simply that nothing has happened and things are not getting better. The New York Times has a story today about Obama’s efforts to sell his jobs plan. What comes through is that voters simply hold him responsible for the lack of progress:
Thomas O’Connell, a 20-year-old student at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, said that blaming Congress was not enough. “If he’s going to say the system is broken, he’s got to put forward something of substance himself,” he said.
Mr. O’Connell, who described himself as an Obama supporter but a disenchanted one
“We want to stand behind him and support him, but at some point we also want to see forward motion,” said Natalie Hopkins, an administrator in the Guilford County school district.
If the GOP can block Obama’s plan, and voters respond by blaming Obama for this, what possible reason do they have for giving in? Supporting Obama’s plan would, for the Republicans, be an act of monumental political stupidity.
The Times frames this story as being about the “risks” of Obama’s “caustic tone.” But for months we read about how Obama’s uplifting, post-partisan rhetoric was a risk because he wasn’t bringing the change he promised to Washington. The real risk is being an incumbent in hard economic times when the opposition party can block your plans.
Obama is not, of course, a pure bystander to his fate. He can help change the agenda and highlight Republicans’ lack of a short-term economic response. Polls show he has increased his standing vis-à-vis the Republican party on the question of who has a better plan to promote jobs. But he hasn’t helped his approval rating, which is the most important metric of his strength, and it’s hard to imagine what, within his control, could do so. We construct narratives assigning Obama’s success or failure to his own decisions or his own character because cold structural explanations are not simple or satisfying enough. We crave stories about presidents as masters of their fate. But the reality is far less satisfying than that.