Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What Can a President Do?

As ever, the economy looms large ahead of next week's elections. Forecasters are expecting incumbents to get tossed from their seats across the country, and voters say that the weak economy is the reason (A Newsweek poll actually puts the share of voters for whom the economy is the top issue about 20 points higher, but it's a pdf.)

The New York Times' David Leonhardt reminds us that when voters judge incumbents, policy positions take a backseat to perceptions of effectiveness. The early Spring Democratic strategy of complaining that Republicans were the "Party of No" highlighted the Democrats' inability to advance a centrist agenda over the objections of the minority party. Of course, the fact is that the Democrats achieved a large number of legislative goals in the 111th Congress. Compared to an average of 12 "major accomplishments" as picked by Wikipedia for a Congress since 1958, the 111th Congress has so far passed 22 major bills. That puts it as the second most productive Congress in the last 62 years, and the most productive under a Democratic president. However, the media narrative, driven by the "Party of No" strategy on the Democratic side never fixed on that data. The Republican contention that the Obama agenda has represented an unparalleled expansion of federal government power and spending implies efficacy of the Democratic majorities of Congress, but for some reason has not created a consensus that the 111th Congress has achieved much of anything. Only a third of Democrats think that this Congress has been more productive than recent ones, and that number goes down to one fifth of all American adults.

Democrats need to appear strong to win. Americans don't want to hear a sob story about an obstructionist minority who has blocked change at every turn. They want to hear about the change that's been made and the change that still needs to happen. Democrats were able to expand the electorate in 2008 by telling the American people what they would do for them. The current strategy of telling voters that Republicans are extreme isn't an improvement. Telling the world that you're afraid of something doesn't make you look stronger. In addition, it doesn't work.

If Democrats want to win, they need to campaign on their victories. The pithy saying here is that Winners Win. Winners are attractive. An interest group is going to align with a winning party in order to advance an agenda, but they won't waste resources helping a candidate who won't trumpet their own accomplishments. This is simple politics, and it's clear that national Democratic strategists just aren't getting it.

President Obama as the most visible leader of the Democratic Party, needs to be out there making the argument that Democrats will take concrete steps to deal with the economy. He needs to acknowledge that the initial stimulus wasn't enough--not because Democrats were forced to compromise and include tax cuts as a full third of the measure--but because initial estimates of the recession proved too small. It's a little late for the President to create an aura of strength and competence around Democratic legislators, but now would be a good time to try. After all, if he doesn't project strength now, his only strategy in 2012 might be running against an obstructionist Congress, and we already know that that's what Republicans are hoping for.

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