Sunday, March 18, 2012

What bully pulpit?

Ezra Klein has an interesting article in this week's New Yorker summarizing the work of George Edwards and a number of other political scientists that tends to show that presidents' powers of rhetorical persuasion are not as great as they (and we) tend to think. When presidents take a strong stand on a particular issue--say, George W. Bush's initiative to privatize Social Security accounts, or Barack Obama's push for the American Jobs Act--and go barnstorming around the country to gain support, these studies have shown that they persuade hardly anybody who is not already inclined to agree. In fact, they tend to push people away who might have agreed with the idea in the past. We saw this happen, for example, with the individual mandate in the health insurance reform act. An idea that was championed by a number of prominent Republicans suddenly became anathema to them just because President Obama adopted it.

So not only is it a lot harder to persuade people to accept a new idea than we think, but the mere fact that an idea is espoused by someone of the opposite party--even an idea that people used to agree with themselves--makes people more likely to reject it. This means that the main purpose of a president's taking positions and articulating them strongly is to rally their own troops to the cause, not to gain new adherents from the other side. We think of Barack Obama as a much more effective communicator than George W. Bush, but somehow Bush was able to get his party faithful as well as some Democrats to line up in support of his priorities like education reform and prescription drugs for seniors. On the other hand, Bush couldn't even get his own party strongly behind immigration reform or Social Security reform. That tells us that the politics of an issue matter a lot more than the president's skill in selling his position. Obama, with all his oratorical skills, can't seem to get anyone from the opposite party to agree with anything he proposes. If Obama came out in favor of apple pie, Mitch McConnell would probably start talking about the dangers of apple pie. On the other hand, Obama manages to get nearly all of the Democrats in Congress to support his initiatives, which is not a small achievement. But it shows how polarized our politics have become, even when the president is espousing fairly middle of the road ideas.

Klein ends up concluding that it is our political system that limits the president's ability to persuade. Congress has become increasingly ideologically divided, more like a parliamentary system. And a parliamentary system without a prime minister doesn't seem to work very well. The president can only achieve consistent results legislatively when his party has the votes. The bills that get passed with bi-partisan support tend to get through by means of back room deals, with little public attention. It is by NOT talking about an issue that the president is sometimes about to take the heat off of the opposition members who support those bills. David Axelrod is quoted in the article as saying the administration did not push for the payroll tax cut until after the midterm elections for that reason.

How does a president with great persuasive powers, who came into office promising a new kind of politics that is less adversarial and less ideologically driven, manage to create change in this hostile environment? Ironically, just by espousing a bi-partisan approach, President Obama seems to have made the whole idea of bi-partisanship even less palatable to an opposition party that is intent on making Obama look like a partisan ideologue even when he suggests something they agreed with yesterday. So far, it seems the president has done a good job exposing just how extreme the Republicans have become in opposing anything and everything (but maybe I just think that because I'm already sympathetic to his position). But if they are going to be that intransigent, it seems that they do risk marginalizing themselves by their strident opposition.

2 comments:

  1. Yes, you are sympathetic to Obama. That is understandble.

    << How does a president with great persuasive powers, who came into office promising a new kind of politics that is less adversarial and less ideologically driven, manage to create change in this hostile environment? >>

    More accurately, how did a president who came into office promising a new kind of politics that was less adversarial and less ideologically driven, manage to create such a hostile environment?

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  2. Obama did not create the hostile environment. His political opponents deliberately created it so they could paint a false picture of him. People like Mitch McConnell have essentially admitted this.

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