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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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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