The Washington Post Is Wrong About Obama’s First Term

January 31, 2013

Often in politics we search for a unique cause to explain some turn of events, when what happened is really just part of the larger cycle of our system. I think Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, normally one of the smartest observers of politics, made this mistake recently when analyzing President Obama's first term.  


Cillizza believes that Obama "won the legislative fight and lost the message war — all of which precipitated historic gains Republicans made in the 2010 midterm elections."  In other words, if the White House focused more on pushing his agenda with the public, the President would have been more popular and Democrats would have lost fewer seats in the mid-term elections.  

But I don't think modern politics really works that way, and it particularly wasn't going to in 2008-2012. New presidents start out popular -- the blush of winning, the biographical coverage during the transition, the pomp of the inaugural -- and then as the fights over their legislative program begin, they get less popular. The opposition party always has an incentive to scuff up the new guy and make him pay the maximum price for his agenda.  

After the hard-fought 2008 election, it was always going to be even worse. Allegations of anti-Americanism and non-Americanism were thrown around during the campaign by third party voices. Many conservatives felt resentful of this new, relatively inexperienced former "community organizer" in the White House.  Some people unhappy that the president was black, or that a browner and younger coalition had overwhelmed the majority of older white voters who had voted for John McCain.  

Just like Bill Clinton -- or anyone pushing an agenda that wasn't just tax cuts for everyone -- trying to pass a substantive legislative agenda creates opposition and hostility.  It gives the other party, and voters who don't like the president or his ideology, something to rally against. Clinton used both outside and inside strategies, but the results were the same, politically, as happened with Obama.  Clinton's budget barely passed and caused howls of opposition, and his health care bill failed...and caused howls of opposition.  

I think Obama made the judgment -- partly on the advice of Clinton White House veteran and Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- that the political backlash was guaranteed, and that the only question was whether you got the policy achievements in return.  He used the large Democratic majorities in Congress, as LBJ had, to push his agenda and did the best he could on the politics.

A president's popularity doesn't depend on whether he gives enough speeches away from Washington, DC.  In fact, depending on the issue and the political climate, a closer association between a president and an issue can be a net negative (driving partisan opposition).  His popularity depends mostly on the state of the economy and whether independent voters like him as a person. Clinton benefited a great deal from the economy; Obama from his likability (and a clear White House strategy to maintain it). 

Cillizza, by the way, has some pretty good support for his position.  He quotes President Obama as saying he now wants to spend "a lot more time in terms of being in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington."  But I think the President is talking about the best ways to handle his job; the obligation of a leader to speak to the people of the country.  He was not suggesting that, as a political matter, his first term strategy was wrong.  And if he was, I disagree with him too.

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