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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> September 2009

Does Obama Have a Republican Problem?

We all know that President Obama has a Republican problem, namely the 200 or so Republican members of Congress who refuse to go along with his health care reform plans. However, I think he might also be developing a republican problem. Namely, I think he is having trouble keeping his ego within the boundaries of an office that fundamentally reflects the republican quality of this country.

It is difficult to nail down precisely what "republicanism" means. It has had different meanings in different places at different times. In the United States, it conjures up the notion of self-government: the people are capable of ruling themselves, and the authority of the leaders derives from the consent of the governed, rather than some aristocratic pedigree or superior position in life.

The evidence of American republicanism is all around us. Consider, for instance, the title of address for the President of the United States. Originally, Federalists like John Adams desired a grand title, something like "His Highness." However, the simple phrase "Mr. President" was ultimately adopted.

Anybody who walks down the 1600 Block of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. will notice that the house of the most powerful person on the planet lacks the grandiosity that one might otherwise expect.

White House.jpg

Compare this residence to the head of the House of Windsor.


Or how about the old home of the French House of Bourbon.


The first home is the residence of a republican leader. It is formal and respectable, but not grandiose. In square footage terms, your place might be larger than the President's. You might also make more money than the President. Lots of people do, seeing as how we do not pay him that much. George Washington wanted to turn down the princely sum that the First Congress was prepared to pay him for his tenure. Generally, Washington's modesty and self-restraint helped establish the republican quality the office retains to this day.

Ironically, the sense that the President is no better than any of us is a major reason why the office is so powerful, or at least why it can be. A President who appears to be of the people, rather than above them, can more easily rally them to his cause, thereby forcing the Congress to do as he likes. It is not coincidental that the first stirrings of the modern, powerful presidency can be seen in the administration of Andrew Jackson, who was thought by his opponents to be the leader of a mob.

Since he emerged on the national stage, Barack Obama has not been the model of American republicanism. This was the case during the campaign, and it continues today. Juxtapose the simple respectability of the White House with these images taken from the Obama-Biden campaign website.

Creepy Obama Imagery.jpg

This is why I was not surprised to see that video of schoolchildren being taught to praise President Obama like he is a deity. Ultimately, the campaign that President Obama waged hinted at such ideas. Is it a shock that a few, overly enthusiastic supporters thought it appropriate to proselytize in such a fashion?

That "Progress" picture is easily the most non-republican of the bunch. The image suggests that Obama's campaign is somehow a source of goodness for the people. From a republican standpoint, the imagery in the picture should be reversed, with the people being the source of goodness from which the candidate benefits.

I had hoped that the President would find his inner republican upon ascension to the office. I have been disappointed. His speeches are too full of references to himself. His omnipresence suggests a disregard for the people's tolerance levels, as well as for the idea that ours is a limited government and we are entitled to enjoy our lives without these constant executive impositions. Additionally, I share Michael Gerson's sentiments regarding his address to the U.N., which was typical of other speeches he has given to the international community:

Obama's rhetorical method in international contexts -- given supreme expression at the United Nations this week -- is a moral dialectic. The thesis: pre-Obama America is a nation of many flaws and failures. The antithesis: The world responds with understandable but misguided prejudice. The synthesis: Me. Me, at all costs; me, in spite of all terrors; me, however long and hard the road may be. How great a world we all should see, if only all were more like...me.

On several occasions, Obama attacked American conduct in simplistic caricatures a European diplomat might employ or applaud. He accused America of acing "unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others" -- a slander against every American ally who has made sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan. He argued that, "America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy" -- which is hardly a challenge for the Obama administration, which has yet to make a priority of promoting democracy or human rights anywhere in the world.

There are two problems with the attitude that Gerson has correctly identified. First, it's fair to criticize the actions of the previous administration to a point, but speeches like his U.N. address often move beyond that to suggest a broader failure, one that implicates the mass public. For instance, the best rejoinder he has to those who question the "character" of his country is: "look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months," which he suggests are "just a beginning." This rhetoric does not befit the leader of a democratic republic, especially one as great as the United States of America. The President should be willing and able to defend the "character" of his country beyond his own, inconsequential-to-date actions.

Second, the implication here is that his administration has sanctified our character. No administration can do that in a republic because no administration possesses the moral standing to offer such a blessing. He is the equal of the people in every measure. He temporarily holds an office whose magnificence is dependent upon the goodness of the people he represents. Yet this President implies a claim to such moral superiority - in the above quoted sentence, then later on when he says: "The test of our leadership will not be the degree to which we feed the fears and old hatreds of our people." No President should suggest that his people would fall prey to fear and hatred were it not for his leadership - even if he thought this were true. And he surely should not air such "dirty laundry" to an international audience that does not understand how this country actually functions. Instead, he should claim that he leads a great people who have the wisdom and equanimity not to fall prey to such fears, and it is his hope that he can emulate them.

Ultimately, this President stands a better chance of success if he embraces the republican character of the people who imbue his temporary position with its power and majesty. The fact is that we are a republican people who tend not to think that anybody is better than we. If we begin to intuit that the President thinks he is better, it could impede his efforts to rally us to his side.

It is also a fact that staunch republicans created the presidency, and the office reflects their preferences even after 220 years of intervening history. By explicit design, the President is not a leader-for-life. Instead, he must face the judgment of his peers just 48 months after he wins the office. The Constitution endorses the view of the supremacy of the people because it delineates a timeline for when the executive power leaves the President and returns to the people (originally, as represented by the state governments). As if that were not enough, the 22nd Amendment forbids a President from seeking a third term, meaning that the people of this democratic republic will be around long after the Obama Administration has come to an end.

-Jay Cost

The President's Choice

Poll after poll shows the public has real concerns about the health care proposals working their way through the Congress, as well as the President's handling of the issue. Even the latest CBS News/New York Times poll - whose 22/37 Republican/Democrat split has probably not been seen in an actual election since 1936 - shows a confused and divided public.

In this country, it is highly inadvisable for political leaders to pass such sweeping reforms absent a consensus that is both broad and deep. Such a consensus simply does not exist on this issue. If the President and Democratic leaders move forward with their plans anyway - despite these plainly and clearly expressed doubts - they risk reaping the whirlwind.

The Framers of the Constitution learned the lessons of the 17th century well, when the Stuart monarchs claimed Divine Authority and persistently harassed and undermined the English Parliament. The men who designed our system had the good sense to mandate regularly scheduled, frequently occurring elections to the House of Representatives. In most instances, the public does not feel compelled to use this opportunity to impose drastic changes on Washington, D.C. In 2006 and 2008, it did feel so compelled, and the political implications of its actions were far-reaching.

If the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats continue putting forward reforms that (at best) divide and confuse the public (and depending on the poll, unify the public in opposition) - they risk the wrath of the electorate in just 14 months time. Per the Constitution, "all bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives." If it is the case that the Republicans take a House majority - or win enough seats to form a practical center-right coalition with Blue Dogs - the House's power of the purse will be sufficient to halt the President's domestic policy agenda in its tracks. I suspect that Republican leaders would take a cue from Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats circa 2007: they would intuit that their best bet was to grind the government to a halt by not working with President Obama, and force him to defend a "broken" system come 2012.

It does not have to be this way. If the President would narrow the scope of these overly ambitious reforms, it is likely that he could formulate a broad legislative consensus on changes to the health care system. He would not win the more conservative legislators, of course, but he would win moderate and moderately conservative Republicans, and by extension enjoy broader public support. This would help minimize his party's losses come next November, and put him in better shape for reelection.

This is the President's choice. By all indications, he is choosing the ambitious reform package that the country is wary of. If he ultimately does select this option, my prediction is that the next few years in politics will be unpleasant for just about everybody.

-Jay Cost

How Close are the Democrats on Health Care Reform?

Some commentators have suggested that the Democrats are pretty close to finalizing a comprehensive bill on health care. But like Mickey Kaus, I am not as certain. Last week, I listed several questions I had about the bill's progress. Here's an update on that post, plus a few extra considerations.

What Happens When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object?

I saw this in the Huffington Post today:

The Blue Dog Coalition is engaged in a member-to-member whip operation in the House, beginning with a survey of its 52 lawmakers, to find out where they stand on critical health care issues. The principal focus is the public insurance option, but the canvass also touches on various tax and revenue increase proposals to pay for reform.

The pressure is being mounted after three House committees already passed reform bills and House Democratic leaders are working to merge them into a final floor package.

For the first time since they formed in 1995, the Blue Dogs have been out-organized by their liberal counterparts. The Congressional Progressive Caucus completed its first survey and began whipping back in the spring. They launched a final whip count last week that will be finished by Wednesday evening.

This does not seem like a beneficial development for reform efforts, in my opinion. You have one faction within the Democratic Party whipping in one direction, another whipping in the opposite direction. And we're supposed to be just six weeks out from a final bill? Importantly, I've not yet seen evidence that one side or the other is prepared to buckle. Until I do, I have to conclude that serious hurdles remain.

Relatedly, there are reports that Pelosi intends to push the House bill to the left. Is this a sign that the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) holds the most sway in the chamber? Or is it a reflection of her policy preferences? Either way, what happens during the conference process if the CPC remains staunch in its support of a robust public option?

Also, I have seen a lot of Baucus-blasting on the progressive blogs over the last few weeks. There has also been fighting between DailyKos and FireDogLake, on the one hand, and Blue Dog leader Jim Cooper on the other. That is not a positive sign. If Democrats are prepared to come together around a single measure, I have not seen a heck of a lot of evidence of it. It is quite possible that not just Republicans - but some faction of the Democratic Party - is going to be on the outside looking in if a bill is passed.

Is There a Compromise Position?

I do not know of one yet. I've heard a lot of talk about "triggers" for a public option. This seems to work for approximately two people: Rahm Emanuel and Olympia Snow. That's not enough to pass a bill through the Congress! Nancy Pelosi sure does not like the trigger idea. Leaders might find common ground - heck, they might have found it just now, as I am writing this! - the point is that I have not seen anything yet that can unite these factions.

The public option is not the only thorny issue. Another one is whether they can produce a bill that does what the progressives want without alienating the budget hawks who will be needed for passage. This is also going to be a factor in any reconciliation process. Reconciliation bills that increase the budget deficit by even a small amount cannot get through.

What about time frames?

The Senate Finance Committee has blown deadline after deadline, and with more than 500 amendments on its table - it looks as though it is going to blow yet another one. Democrats are talking about a 6-week window for getting a bill through the process, and Mickey Kaus has a reasonable explanation for why:

"Orszag Sees Health Law in Six Weeks" (Bloomberg): OMB Director Peter Orszag didn't really predict a health care law in six weeks--he said "The goal would be, yes, over the next six weeks or so, maybe sooner,." We know all about "goals." But the 6-week frame is not an accident, because something happens in 6 weeks: elections. If Democrats lose big gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, that could produce a new wave of jitters among already skittish Congressional swing Democrats.

More delays will push the bills past these off-off-year elections, and Kaus is right. Bad results in those elections could make nervous Democrats all the more nervous.

Like Kaus, I am suspicious of these time estimates. The fact that Democratic leaders have still not made clear whether they are planning to use reconciliation or the normal legislative process suggests that (a) they still do not know who will support what and/or (b) they still do not know what will actually be in the bill. How then can they give us precise estimates?

What about seniors?

Last week I questioned how the public will react to these proposals, and what that will mean to the legislative process. Gallup has produced some data that helps us specify this question: what does it mean that senior citizens are opposed to this bill? As I have written before, seniors are a significant force in midterm elections. What happens if senior opposition stiffens?

Do we really know anything?

One of the problems with writing about Congressional policymaking as it happens is that a lot of the real meaty stuff happens behind closed doors, and leaders who give "progress reports" do not have an incentive to offer accurate assessments. Instead, they are better off giving overly bullish reports, i.e. spin. So, here is the trouble I find myself in. I suspect that most of the members who speak to the press are trying to spin me. I also do not trust the journalists producing the news stories that serve as my primary data set. I do not think they can differentiate the spin from the reality - and in fairness to them, I do not see how they could. So, like Descartes, I am in quite the epistemological quandary here. But unlike old René, I do not have an insightful axiom like "I think therefore I am" to build knowledge upon.

In other words, the conditions of uncertainty are severe, to say the least. That's why I still have nothing but questions. And as for my prediction for a comprehensive bill passing...how about this: I'll put it at 50% with a standard deviation of 25%, for a practical range of 25% to 75%.

That's what you might call a punt!

-Jay Cost

Polling on Health Care Reform

Over at Pollster, Charles Franklin performs some fascinating analysis on public opinion on health care. He puts together a series of trend lines based upon different "smoothing" techniques, which cut down on statistical noise to varying degrees. Despite all these different methods, he still finds the same basic trendline:


This shows that the country is now about evenly divided on the various health care proposals working their way through Congress. Support for the bill dipped during the summer, but has risen to pull about even with opposition.

This is not a great result for proponents of the current reforms bills. The trick is that it has to pass through the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. It's an inferential fallacy to assume that because a bare majority of respondents support the proposals (supposing they do), a bare majority of members of Congress would, too.

To appreciate this, consider the following histogram. It outlines the distribution of Obama's share of the 2008 vote by congressional district.

Obama Vote by Congressional District.jpg

Obviously, congressional districts are far from uniform! The modal category here is actually soft support for McCain, where Obama won between 40% and 50% of the vote. Yet the political battle over health care will inevitably be fought in those districts that softly supported Obama. According to Franklin's analysis, health care reform is polling slightly under Obama's vote share in 2008. So, those districts where Obama won narrowly, not decisively, are probably where the main political battle will occur. It's reasonable to assume that if the nation is now evenly divided on the reform measures, those districts taken all together are divided, too. Many of them should be divided internally as well.

This highlights a core problem the Democrats have in the Congress. They win a lot of districts by blowout margins. This makes them safe for the party, but it means that their voters are packed into relatively few districts, suggesting that to pass large-scale policy reforms such as the one being debated now, the Democrats have to find support in districts where Republicans do well, even in bad years for the GOP like 2008.

This problem becomes all the more salient when we consider the practical playing field - namely, that the bills working their way through the Congress are unlikely to get any Republican support. If the Democrats plan to pass it all by themselves, there is going to be quite a bit of pressure on many members.

Obama Vote by Congressional District Democratic Districts Only.jpg

As we can see, there are a lot of Democrats in McCain-voting districts. So, if it is the case that the McCain voting districts are opposed to the health care bills, the Democrats are going to need at least a few representatives to vote against their constituents to get the bill through the House. That is a huge request to make, especially considering how salient this issue is. It's never a good idea to vote against your district on an issue that your constituents are paying close attention to.

Up to this point in the analysis, we've assumed that support/opposition to the bills mirrors the 2008 vote. It likely does not follow the 2008 vote perfectly, and there are probably at least a few notable deviations. The problem is, we just do not know how support breaks down by district. We lack reliable polling on this front. Importantly, many members probably lack such knowledge as well. Polls are expensive to contract and polling by congressional district is problematic. So, many members likely do not have a systematic read on their districts, the kind of knowledge that can be acquired via scientific surveying. They could, of course, rely on methodologically questionable analyses that "find" that certain reform measures are overwhelmingly popular, but I would not suggest that.

Instead, they have to rely on other metrics - like telephone calls, emails, attendance at town halls, and so on. This is why - even if the August town halls did not move public opinion against the bills - they were probably still quite consequential, as they gave members a sense of how their districts were feeling about the reform measures. Because turnout in congressional midterms is always less than presidential elections, even if those town hall outbursts represented a minority position in a district, it still cannot be taken lightly. After all, in a midterm election a member can be tossed from office by an opposition bloc that, during a presidential year, would constitute a minority.

While Senators have better access to polling, and therefore they probably have a more systematic perspective on their districts, the health care bills still face many of the same challenges in the Senate. This is the distribution of Obama's vote by state.

Obama Vote By State.jpg

Again, we can conclude here that the main locus of debate will be in states that went for Obama softly. And when we look at states with Democratic Senators - we see basically the same thing as we did when we looked at the House.

Obama State Dems.jpg

Again, for a bill to become law, Democrats are going to need some members from McCain states to support it, unless they can pull in some Republicans. This again suggests that an even split in support for health care is more of a hindrance than a help in getting a bill through.

-Jay Cost

Realignment: The Theory Will Never Go Away

As I have written on this page many, many times - realignment is not a good theory for understanding the ebb and flow of American politics. Yet popular political commentators (rarely academics, who really only use it these days to describe the movements of discrete geographical or demographic blocs of voters) continue to trot it out after every election.

Brent Budowsky today declares that the most recent realignment is dead. How a realignment can die, I'm not exactly sure. But anyway, he writes:

Realignment is dead. President Barack Obama and Democrats blew it.

Dealignment has arrived. Republicans blew it, and are now so repellent that Americans increasingly reject both political parties.

Here's my question, if we can go from being "realigned" to "dealigned" in just a few short months, when were we ever aligned in the first place? Doesn't alignment imply some permanence to it? This is the OED's definition of "align:"

To bring into line with a particular tradition, policy, group, or power.

That implies some stability, does it not? If something is being brought into line with "tradition, policy, group, or power" it is as if it once did not fit but now it does. How then could it be brought out of line so quickly, unless it was never in line to begin with (or, my theory, there is not really a line for it to fall into!).

And let us remember that dealignment was a term used in the 1970s. The theory was that the two parties had failed to deal with issues like race, crime, and Vietnam - and that voters were thus beginning to eschew party labels, the parties were falling into decay, and we were in a dealigning phase. The startup time for this dealignment was actually around the last rightward realignment that Budowsky identifies, i.e. 1968. One person's realignment is another's dealignment, I guess.

My take: this piece is just another example of the kind of Ptolemaic epicycles one must add to the realignment theory to get it to work. It's not that there never was a realignment, it is that it "died" because the Democrats "blew it" in just eight short months. Children conceived before the realignment began have not yet been born before it's over - but it was still a realignment. Er? That's a tipoff to the problem. Again, my take is that realignment is an overly structural concept that is based on outdated theories; as a grand catchall to describe the dynamics of the American political process, it is not terribly helpful.

But of course I don't think we ever will get rid of realignment, as the title suggests. Science eventually was swept up in the Copernican Revolution, but political commentators will always be Ptolemaist when it comes to realignment. It is such an appealing idea. In its popular form it offers a simple, easy-to-grasp picture of the grand sweep of American political history. If you don't stare too hard at the messy details that don't fit the narrative, it is elegant and even beautiful. Plus, if your party happened to win the most recent election, you're all the more inclined to talk about realignment, as it suggests you are extremely likely to win the next couple!

-Jay Cost

Five Questions on Health Care

The Democrats in Congress have reconvened to continue work on health care. Their ultimate success or failure will hinge on how several questions are answered. Here are five that I'll be asking.

1. How will the legislative math work? I have yet to see a proposal that unites the various factions of the Democratic Party in the Congress, so the question becomes how can party leaders get the 218 votes in the House then 60 in the Senate? The fact that there is still no clear signal on reconciliation, the principal benefit of which would be to reduce the burden from 60 to 51, is an indication that the leadership itself does not quite know how the votes will line up.

As of now, the conventional wisdom among the punditocracy is that the public option will be dropped as a way to pick up party moderates, under the assumption that the progressive caucus will go along for the ride. But will they? It is highly unlikely that all of them will. Most of them would presumably be willing to grant at least some small concessions to add votes - but how far are they willing to go? That depends upon individual legislators themselves, which means that - until you get to 218 in the House and 60/51 in the Senate - every concession the leadership makes had better add more moderates than it loses progressives. This is when legislative calculus begins to look like actual calculus!

There are indications that a compromise will be a hard pill for many progressives to swallow. This is Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, on the compromise coming out of the Senate Finance Committee:

I think the product that has come out from [Max Baucus's] committee and himself, I really believe that it has no legitimacy in this debate. It's an insider product. It's there to protect the industry. It is not there to try to look for that middle ground. He is key in holding up deliberations, has been key in trying to work on a consensus, but everything you see in his legislation had to be approved by the industry before it became part of the plan...I consider Senator Baucus's proposal to be essentially an insider trader move to protect an industry and really doesn't have validity at all, both political validity or content validity.[Emphasis Mine]

This is not the first time I have seen a progressive House member blast Baucus. John Conyers took a shot at him a few months ago, and Baucus does not appear to be terribly popular on the progressive sites.

The progressive caucus is going to do a head count this week to find out how many members agree with Grijalva on the following point:

And, you know, this political line in the sand that we have drawn is not a gimmick. We feel very strongly about it. We believe that it's not only good public policy that we're advocating, it's good political policy, because our base really needs to see its party and its leadership come through with a commitment that was made in this era of change. And this is one of them. Health reform is the biggie. And I think the progressives, while there will be an effort to label us, I think we're going to work hard these next two weeks to build not only the internal support that we need for the public plan, but, more importantly, the external support to also put pressure on our colleagues. [Emphasis Mine]

The House leadership can afford to lose about 40 of their members before a bill fails in the lower chamber, assuming no Republican votes (which at this point seems reasonable). Recently, 57 members of the House Progressive Caucus indicated that they would not vote for a bill that lacks "a robust public option". The big question is: how many of those members are making a credible threat? That the White House is sending the President out to campaign strongly for the public option just this weekend is a sign that the answer to this question is not as obvious as it might seem.

2. What's the common ground on the public option? Like the last query, I do not think the answer to this question is as obvious as it first appears. We might initially think it is something like Baucus's Senate Finance plan, but I would refer again to the progressive reaction to the Baucus plan. Grijalva goes out of his way there to suggest that the Baucus plan is not common ground.

In general I am not sure how progressives are going to view any kind of compromise bill that attracts the moderates. Their attitude seems to be one of deep suspicion of the for-profit health industry. Take away the public option, but retain employer and/or individual mandates, and that looks like a big boon to the insurance companies. They might consider that an outright defeat. In that case, the normal calculations of compromise - you get half a loaf versus a whole loaf, but you're still better off - would not apply. Progressives might think they have not gotten even half a loaf at all!

This points to one big problem with doing comprehensive reforms like this. Different factions have different diagnoses for what ails the system - and when a comprehensive bill is introduced, it inevitably favors one view over another. If the progressives' view is on the losing end, they might think the bill does not do much of anything. And remember: the President wants to be the "last" to tackle this issue - meaning that the stakes are very high. So, if the progressives think the bill will further solidify the insurance industry's hold over health care, they might bolt.

3. Can the party come together around a cost estimate? Obama's speech last week helped to unite the party, but it was a campaign style speech that did not even try to resolve the issues that have actually divided it (and forced the President to make the speech in the first place!). The public option is such an issue, but it is just one part of a broader divide among the various factions in the caucus.

Another issue is the price tag, and relateldy how it is funded. Can the leadership put together a bill that accomplishes policy goals to the progressives' satisfaction without exploding the deficit, which will drive away moderates? The first attempts at this - the House tri-committee bill and the Senate HELP committee bill - were unsuccessful. Again, progressives seem not to like the Senate Finance Committee outline, either. So, the search for a Goldilocks-style compromise - neither too hot nor too cold, but just right - continues.

4. How much work is left to be done? Last week, the President repeated the oft-quoted notion that there is agreement on 80% of an overhaul. That may be so, but it does not really answer the question. Historically speaking, the Democrats can always agree on the initial 80%; it's that final 20% that tends to trip them up!

Intra-party disagreements almost always happen behind closed doors; their public pronouncements tend to be little more than spin, so I don't even have a sense on this one. Here are things I am wondering. What items do they need to find agreement on? Do they at least have basic ideas about how to get to an agreement? How much from the original bills can be salvaged? Have they made positive progress on that 20%, or have they spent the last few months merely learning what will not work? Above all, can they get it done "in time?"

"In time" is in scare quotes because it's a purely political concept, which means the leadership might redefine it as it sees fit. Indeed, the timeline has already been altered once - there were no votes taken in July, as was initially demanded. The new deadline is Thanksgiving. There might be too much work left to do to meet that deadline, which in turn would suggest it might have to be pushed back again. Can it be? That would put the vote for passage in the second session of the 111th Congress, during the midterm election year. That could be dicey, which means the answer to this question is a politically consequential one.

5. How will the public react, and how will legislators react to that reaction? Clearly, the public response to the House tri-committee bill and the Senate HELP committee bill was less than positive. The town hall protests reflected the strong opposition of the right, and the President's sagging poll numbers indicated that the broad middle had its doubts, too. How will the public react to the new proposal, once it is actually produced? That's uncertain, to say the least. Few people expected the reaction we saw this summer, so who knows what will come next. Additionally, will moderate legislators want an opportunity to take the new bill back to their districts to gauge public reaction? Will the leadership give them an opportunity?

Relatedly, how will the right respond? It has essentially been shut out of this process - that agreement on 80% is agreement among Democrats to the exclusion of Republicans - but conservatives have nevertheless found ways back into the public debate. This weekend's "tea party" protest in Washington indicates at the least that the right is worked up enough to take to the streets - something that historically is a hallmark of leftwing activism. So, it will be interesting to see how the right attempts to inject its views into the process, and what result that will produce.

Final point on this. When gauging the legislative reaction, it's important not to commit a fallacy of division. For instance, if support for the bill is split 50-50 in a national poll - then you can probably expect that more Louisianans oppose it than favor it. This will affect the political calculations of Senator Landrieu and Representative Melancon, inclining them against the bill. Generally, the strong Democratic presence in red state Senate seats means that 50-50 might actually mean something less when it comes time to tally up the votes in the upper chamber.

-Jay Cost

Obama Votes "Present"

In my judgment President Obama's address last night was little more than a campaign speech with the Congress as the set piece. Evaluated from that perspective, it was a success. But from the perspective of finding a policy solution - i.e. actual governance - it contributed nothing to health care reform.

The President had to give yesterday's speech for a simple, straightforward reason: his party is divided on a few key issues, above all the public option. This is what forced the delay through August, at which point the opposition was able to seize the microphone from government leaders and drive their poll numbers down.

To ameliorate this dilemma, the President chose to give last night's speech. In it, he:

(1) Focused on items that unite the Democrats.
(2) Blasted Republicans while praising bipartisanship.
(3) Indulged in rhetorical flights of fancy that have become his stock in trade.

Each of these items contributed some aspect to the ostensible goal of rallying the Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents. It probably did that, at least to an extent.

However, it failed to address the reason for their doldrums. Democrats need rallying because of internal divisions over actual policy disagreements. President Obama did not deal with those divisions. When you strip away the setting, the soaring rhetoric, the poetic cadences, and all the rest, you're left with the criticism that both Hillary Clinton and John McCain leveled at him through all of last year: he voted present.

The following is the bottom line on health care, as best I can tell. The progressives are deeply skeptical of the insurance companies, the drug companies, and all for-profit entities that provide health care. They believe that any reforms lacking a "robust" public option will enable them to continue to place profitability over care. Many progressives consider the public option to be a compromise from the single-payer system that they prefer.

This idea is a non-starter to those who are deeply skeptical of increased government activity. There are a lot of these people in the Blue Dog districts, which tend to be in the South, the Border States along the Ohio River, and the Great Plains. So, anything approaching a "robust public option" is simply too much for them. Their representatives are rightly concerned that a yea vote on a public option will cost them their jobs.

Meanwhile, Republicans have already been forced to walk away from the table because of all sorts of other items. As a rhetorical point, it is all well and good for Democrats to blast Republicans for not cooperating in the process, but that is tantamount to criticizing them for not being Democrats. Let's be serious: does anybody really think the bulk of the GOP - the party of William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan - will sign on to such a massive increase in governmental regulation of private activity? This is what makes most Republicans who they are. You can add goodies like tort reform trial programs, but that is like putting chocolate frosting on chopped liver as far as most Republicans are concerned.

So, where does that leave the Democrats? To get the requisite number of votes, the leaders have to cobble together a majority coalition in which some party moderates and liberals likely do not participate. This is an extremely tricky procedure. It's not as straightforward as saying something like, "Kathy Dahlkemper (D - Erie, PA) is the median voter. So, let's write the bill for her." Doing that might lose the left flank, so the leaders have to watch them as well to make sure they are still on board. They have to do this individually in both chambers, then all at once after the conference bill is produced. Additionally, there might be no second chances here. If they invest their efforts in a bill that ultimately falls short - there might not be sufficient willpower among the rank-and-file to start again.

As I said, the key issue appears to be the public option. This is why triggers and co-ops are being discussed. Leaders are looking to water down the public option enough so that the requisite number of moderates can be brought on board, but not so much that the left flank leaves the coalition. If they cannot find some middle ground, they are not going to get a comprehensive reform package - seeing as how they have already lost almost all of the Republican Party.

With this in mind, here's the question: what did last night's speech contribute to finding a solution? I'd say that the answer is nothing. The President (once again) refused to get his hands dirty on this issue. He praised the public option to the hilt, rhetoric intended for the progressives, then he hinted that it could be ditched, rhetoric intended for the moderates. At some point in the policymaking process, a choice will have to be made. It was not made last night, which means that this was a governing opportunity lost.

President Obama clearly aspires to be a great president, like FDR and Lincoln. Last night he framed the health care debate by confidently placing himself at the end of a list of Presidents that begins with a leader so consequential his visage is on Mount Rushmore. Here's something he should know about the great ones, who have a few key features in common: they know their political parties like the backs of their hands, and they know how to guide them to policy success, much as a good business executive guides her employees to profitability. If this President does not learn how to manage the factions within his own party - he will not be remembered as a great President. "Rah-rah" speeches such as last night's are sure to be part of any good management strategy, but they are far from sufficient. The President is going to have to do more.

-Jay Cost

Obama To Give Historic Speech...Again

Another historic, monumental speech from the 44th President of the United States. He's averaging about one of these every three weeks now, isn't he?

To say that this President is overexposed is an understatement. He was overexposed six months ago when he let his kids appear on the cover of Jann Wenner's trashy supermarket celeb mag. I'm not sure what prefix to use, but "over-" does not sufficiently describe a President who is now doing 30-second spots for George Lopez's new late night show on TBS. Seriously.

What exactly is this speech supposed to do? Let's ditch the metaphors - "game changer," "ninth inning" - and use words that point to actual things: health care reform is in trouble because of differences among factions of the Democratic Party. The compromises that moderates like Ben Nelson require are apparently too much for liberals like Anthony Weiner to accept. How is a speech supposed to overcome this? It would either have to: (a) propose a third-way solution that both sides can agree to, or (b) convince one side or the other that it needs to adjust its stance.

Should we really expect a speech to do that, considering all the other things the President intends to do in it?

I'd say no. I think this will be little more than a change in tone - perhaps from cool/slightly mocking Obama to angry/forceful Obama. From the looks of it, the President is still planning to make all the same points he's been hammering for months. He'll ask for bipartisan cooperation while remaining cagey on the public option (a deal breaker for 99% of the Republican caucus). He will again insist the time for debate is over and the time for action is now. He'll make a not-terribly-compelling case about how this somehow relates to the current economic morass, even though the benefits do not kick in for years. He'll fearlessly stand up to Republican straw men, who never offer anything except disingenuous attacks.

Why is the White House doing this? I think there are two answers that kind of relate to each other.

First, it has begun to believe its own spin that the President is good at giving game changing speeches. But he isn't really. Nobody is. If the game could change because of a speech, the game would constantly be changing because lots of people can give a decent speech, especially when they have a TelePrompTer. President Obama is a compelling speaker to a relatively narrow segment of the country - namely, African Americans and white social liberals. He inspired them to support his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton - but other voters (including many in his own party) were harder to win over. His Philadelphia speech on race was no Cooper Union; it merely distracted attention from the main question of why he spent so many years in that church. His numbers still fell, and he struggled through the rest of the primaries, even losing South Dakota on the day he declared victory. He then gave big speeches in Europe and Denver, but it was only thanks to the financial panic of last September that he had a breakthrough.

Still, his speechifying seems to give some people a thrill up the leg - and the idea that he's not just a good speaker, but a game changing speaker, has become conventional wisdom. I think the White House believes that this is actually true.

Second, it does not know what else to do. It looks like Congress is at something less than square one. There is no passable compromise that has been proposed - nothing that can win enough votes in the center without losing the left flank. But now the "Gang of Six" has basically broken up, public approval has tanked, moderates are scared, and if there isn't bad blood on the Democratic side of the aisle there is at least a lot of finger pointing. If Humpty Dumpty breaks and you don't know how to put him back together - why not give a speech and boldly proclaim how important it is to put him back together?

As I wrote last week, I think he has to scale this proposal back. Rome was not built in a day, after all. I think he should propose some insurance reforms that can garner the level of support needed in the Senate - winning over Republicans like Grassley, Voinovich, Collins but losing DeMint, Coburn, and Inhofe. If he would just lower his sights a bit, stop grasping for that once-in-a-lifetime overhaul of 1/7th of the United States economy - he could win the kind of big bipartisan victory he had talked about during the campaign.

One thing this might do is end the internal battle in his own party. By demanding comprehensive reform, the President has raised the stakes, perhaps too high. The liberal intractability on the public option is completely understandable. If this is "the moment" for health care reform, then it is imperative that they get their key policy goals accomplished. If that doesn't happen now, they cannot expect that to happen anytime soon (if ever). But what they require is simply too much for moderate Democrats, especially those in McCain- and Bush-voting districts. If the President scaled back his ambitions, the final bill would not be as far to the left as the liberals like, but since it is not comprehensive they could at least plan to fight for the public option another day. Then, Obama could pick up enough moderates to pass it, and he could declare victory.

Incidentally, this is how most legislation gets passed in the Congress.

-Jay Cost

It's Time for Obama To Change Course

As we all know, President Obama's poll position has been sliding for some time. In the last two months, his net approval rating has gone from +25.5 to +11.1 in the RealClearPolitics average.

Contrary to the suggestions of some, the President should be worried about this. There are three reasons why.

First, the President's approval on key issues is lower than his overall job approval rating. This suggests that he might not yet have hit an approval floor.

Second, the President's formal powers are exceedingly narrow when it comes to pushing a domestic reform agenda. A quick perusal of Article II of the Constitution will confirm this. The powers that the Framers formally granted to the President are actually few and far between, at least as regards the home front. The growth of the bureaucratic state has expanded the President's power, as there are more governmental activities for him to manage. Also, Congress has ceded some legislative powers to executive agencies that report to the President.

However, none of this relates to advancing new reforms through the legislature. On this front, the President is not a prime minister. His power is largely informal. Richard Neustadt called it the power to persuade, to influence others to do what they would not otherwise do. A President whose job approval rating is low or quickly falling is less persuasive, and thus less powerful. So, while it is important not to obsess over every tiny ebb and flow of his job approval - it behooves the President to consider a course correction when there is a drop, which there clearly has been.

Third, if the President's job approval rating drops much more, the Republicans could score big gains in next year's House elections. This is quickly becoming conventional wisdom. But something else has gone less commented upon: there are different types of Republicans who are known to populate Congress.

There were the Republicans of the 109th Congress - largely inert, happy to keep things the way they were, pleased as punch just to be in power. They're the sort that Thomas Nast would have caricatured 125 years ago, and why Republican voters today still have so little faith in congressional Republicans.

These will probably not be the new Republicans on Capitol Hill in 2011 if there is a GOP surge. Instead, we're more likely to see Republicans who consider themselves "citizen legislators," the kind who take the 10th Amendment seriously, who plan to term limit themselves, who walk around the Capitol with a copy of the Constitution in their breast pocket, and so on. Enough of these true believing legislators could make life unpleasant for President Obama, who need only consider the experiences of Presidents Truman and Clinton if he has any doubts about this.

Such a Congress would force the White House to change course, which is why I would suggest that the President consider revising his strategy now. It is more convenient to change on your own terms rather than the terms set by your political opposition.

To that end, I have five suggestions for the President to consider. Three of them are general, two are specific.


(1) "The Cheese Stands Alone."

The Presidency is a lonely job. There is nobody else in the world with a position like the President's, and - even worse - everybody around him wants something from him. It might be electoral support. It might be policy support. It might be plain old access, i.e. his willingness to listen to what an advisor has to say. His advisors only have power, prestige and influence so long as he allows them to have it. He's the sun. They're moons, bright because of his reflected light.

This suggests that when changes must be made regarding the course that a Presidency is taking - the President alone must make the call. He has to recognize the problem himself, then he has to make the decisions about what to do. This simply cannot be left up to aides. Fundamental shakeups mean that their power might be degraded, which means he cannot count on them to give the best advice about course corrections.

(2) Get back to the ideas of his early campaign.

The idea of a President who changes the tone and searches for a broad consensus on public policy is a good one. It fits the character of the office itself.

Suppose you're a member of Congress from Wyoming. You might find it in your interests to run against the member from San Francisco. After all, your constituency and her constituency don't overlap, they have very little in common with each other (at least in the political realm), and they might not even like each other that much. In other words, the relative narrowness of your district might give you an incentive to be divisive.

The President does not have that kind of electoral incentive because everybody is in his constituency. He maximizes his chance of reelection by bringing more and more people together around his policy initiatives. It's worth noting that no president in the last hundred years has won election to a second term with a smaller share of the vote than what he received for the first. Many of them added substantially to their share of popular support.

Unlike the 535 members of Congress - the President has a clear electoral incentive to unify the country as much as possible. President Bush failed to do that, and he paid the consequences in his second term. As a candidate, Barack Obama sensed the importance of a President who brings people together. He should try to get back to that. That's not to say that unity should be his principal goal, but this President needs to value it more highly than he has so far in his brief tenure.

(3) Stop aggravating the opposition.

By definition, the opposition will always be opposed to the President. Plus, as a practical matter, there is almost always some opposition. Only George Washington and James Monroe enjoyed complete sweeps. However, it is not a good thing for a President to have his opposition hopping mad, which is currently the case.

Rasmussen's daily tracking poll has the President's current "strong disapprove" number 12 points higher than his "strong approve" number. This is not a good thing for President Obama. Let's think about those people willing to use an adjective like "strong" when describing their feelings about the President. They include those who go out there and make the case - for or against Mr. Obama - to others whose feelings are lukewarm. They are the proselytizers. At this very moment, they are out there talking to friends, family, neighbors, whoever will listen, about this President, trying to convince them that either he's great or he stinks.

Right now, the people who are arguing that he stinks are likely more numerous than those who still think he is great. This is not a good thing, considering that the middle of the country is squishy. The middle can see the same issue from multiple perspectives, which is why it swings back and forth. In the last twenty years, we have had three Democratic terms and three Republican terms because of the middle. A President needs the middle to stay with him, which means he does not want his opposition to be so aggravated that it is passionately working on convincing the middle to abandon the President.

Again, President Bush's experience serves as a cautionary tale. The left had tagged him as stubborn and unwilling to revisit his decisions once new facts prevented themselves. The public resisted this view at first - but eventually, the criticism took hold. His presidency suffered as a consequence.

(4) End Nancy Pelosi's tenure as de facto Prime Minister.

The White House's decision to permit Congress to do the bulk of the policymaking - while the President stays on the sidelines, enunciating broad principles - has basically allowed Nancy Pelosi to determine the character of the government's domestic agenda. She has had a very strong hand in the creation of the stimulus bill, the cap-and-trade bill, and now the health care bill.

This is a mistake that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. First of all, I have to question Nancy Pelosi's political instincts. She has to answer for the disaster that is the current House health bill. How could she have let the three House committees write it without proper consultation from the 40+ moderates on her own side whose support would be critical?

Second, put aside Pelosi's instincts and just consider her interests. The President needs to recognize that his interests and hers do not perfectly correspond. Take a simple, stylized example meant to illustrate this point. The Democratic caucus elects the Speaker of the House, so long as it controls a majority of seats. Let's suppose that there is a left-right battle for the Speakership, with 258 Democrat House members voting, and Pelosi is the liberal candidate whose strategy is to win the left-hand side of the caucus. Who are these members?

Vote View gives us some basic answers on this. Obama's average share of the vote in their districts was 69%. This indicates that these members come from places that are, on average, 16 points to the left of the country at large. Additionally, 43 of these members come from either New York or California!

Obviously, this is an over simple, stylized understanding of Pelosi's political position. It's merely intended to illustrate a point: her role in the government is maintained by a coalition that is more narrow than the President's electoral coalition. If President Obama continues to allow her to determine the course of domestic policy - he should expect that, by the end of his term, his coalition will be no larger than hers. That's not enough to win reelection.

(5) Keep an eye on Rahm Emanuel.

It's probably too early to fire somebody as important as the Chief of Staff, but I see Emanuel as a potential problem for Obama's presidency.

Personally, I was flabbergasted when I first heard the President was tapping "Rahmbo" to be his Chief of Staff. Of all the President's West Wing staffers, I'm hard pressed to think of anybody who is less representative of his professed desire to change the tone and find common ground. Emanuel has a reputation as a bare-knuckled partisan brawler, and the President made him his right-hand man...?! If Barack Obama gets back to the vision of his Presidency that he articulated during the campaign - it's hard to see how Emanuel fits in the scheme.

On top of this, somebody in the West Wing should answer for the lousy idea of outsourcing policy formation to Congress, and therefore to Nancy Pelosi. Something tells me that Emanuel - a former House leader - had a big hand in that strategy.

What's Sam Nunn up to these days?


I suspect that many of these suggestions will not sit well with Obama's liberal base, which might complicate any course corrections he takes. Still, I think changes like these are necessary. His base simply does not constitute a majority coalition in this country, which means the President has to hold the center. The left complained about Bush governing for his base over the last eight years. They were on to something, and look where he ended up at the conclusion of his term.

-Jay Cost