Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

I suppose it should be a SOTU question, with the big (such as it is) speech coming this week, and details beginning to be leaked out/pre-spun.

I want to set up a choice about what liberals should want out of the speech. The two things I can toss in are that, on the one hand, these speeches are never nearly as important as reporters treat them as in terms of presidential approval. They might make a bit of difference short term, but mostly they're forgotten in a few days, and any polling effect is gone rapidly. On the other hand, there's also no evidence that I know of that "bully pulpit" stuff works well in the long term.

Given all that, here's the two choices I can imagine. One is to go with poll-tested and focus group tested pablum designed to maximize short-term popularity for the president. Don't sneeze at that; my guess is that it really does make a difference whether the president is at 55% or 45% approval if there's a real budget showdown in a couple of months, and even though SOTU alone won't make nearly that much of a difference, it might, conceivably, be a piece of it. The other direction is to preach the liberal gospel, knowing that there will be a cost in short term approval for the president (not because liberal ideas are unpopular, but because by definition, as I set this out, the alternative is designed to maximize short-term approval), and knowing, as I said, that there's no evidence that long-term public opinion would in fact be affected by such a speech.

There is, by the way, something else that SOTU speeches actually can and do accomplish, which is to communicate the president's priorities to Washingtonians (that is, to Congress, to lobbyists, to activists). Presidents may not be able to affect public opinion very much (or, possibly, at all), but they certainly can put something on the Washington agenda, and high-profile speeches are opportunities to do so. However, for the most part that can be done in the context of either one of the above options, so I'm leaving that part of it off of the question: should the president try to maximize immediate public reaction to the speech, or should he try to maximize long-term education?


  1. I think the "popular" vs "liberal" is a false dichotomy. Obama is not going to deliver an in-your-face challenge to the GOP full of convention-type slogans, no matter how happy that might make Democratic Party activists. He's the President of the United States talking to a diverse audience about how he thinks certain policies would be in the best interest of the nation as a whole. Civics 101 -- coming together to meet the nation's challenges -- will be the unstated thread through out. And his willingness to at least appear to be sincere about bipartisanship will keep the onus on the GOP, where it already is after the last few weeks, for the battles over shutting down the government.

    So the speech is going to be (relative to the inmates who have taken over the GOP asylum) a (neo)liberal political program that is framed as an appeal to the country as a whole, even though at least a third will automatically tune out. I expect to hear most of Christine Romer's WSJ op-ed substance wrapped in the competitiveness theme that's been floated in the last week. That's a particularly nice frame for him to hook his personal big to-do list: education, energy and climate, infrastructure, and fiscal responsibility. Families, children, middle class, and small and innovative business will get heavy play.

    The competitiveness frame plays on anxieties, but instead of doom-and-gloom it allows an upbeat appeal to American exceptionalism: "only in Ameica", "our greatest days are ahead of us", but we must together "invest in America's future" to "get the country moving again" as "we've always done before" when the going got tough. I think both Reagan and Clinton, in their own ways, were masters at that mix, and it ought to be right in Obama's wheelhouse.

    That being said, I also predict that the political media will be disappointed because Obama won't square their favorite circle. On the one hand, he won't be "tough enough" about "hard choices" (deficit scolds, "he punted on Afghanistan", etc). But on the other, he'll also be too business-like -- too much policy (bo-o-o-ring) and not enough oratory that gives the pundits a thrill up the leg that they think the American public craves.

    We saw it time and again when they dumped all over Clinton's SOTUs (too long, too detailed, too much explaining and not enough soaring themes) and the public gave Clinton high marks for talking to them about serious issues like they were adults. And I think it served Clinton well, not for approval levels (which aren't going to be permanently moved by a SOTU) but as a set of policy markers that gave him credibility in the messy battles to come.

    And as with Clinton, the political media will make a huge to-do about the disappointment with Obama on "the Left". Which was (and will be) pretty irrelevant unless Democrats think Obama's going to give away the store on Social Security (by that I don't mean making minor adjustments in return for something awesome like meaningful tax reform). And then, it won't be just the Left that will freak.

    Will elements of the SOTU be focus-grouped like Clinton did? I'd assume so. Will Obama do like Clinton and include some items in the laundry list because they ring popular bells across party lines? Probably, though I don't think we're to the school uniforms stage yet. But the pieces will clearly add up to a (neo)liberal, not a "conservative", program. And they will fit together in a fashion that would only have been delivered by a Democratic president.

  2. These speeches, as you say, have no long term impact. In fact I doubt I'll even watch it.

    Since the GOP has decided to begin their reign in the House with a symbolic health care reform repeal and anti-abortion legislation, the President has a huge opening to address the things voters really care about: jobs and the economy. So I'd like to see him talk 90% about jobs and the economy and 10% laying down lines in the sand versus the radical conservative Republicans (he won't allow health care repeal, Social Security privatization, stripping the EPA of greenhouse gas regulation, financial regulation repeal, cutting education and other investment spending, etc.).

  3. Given the choice, and granting that any attempt at a popularity boost will be short-lived, I would go for the long term education. SOTUs may not mean a whole lot but it is an opportunity to lay out a broad defense of core liberal ideas and simultaneously tie them to an agenda of growth.


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