Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Big Picture with The Strike: Selling the Plan

The following is an exchange of ideas between The Strike and The Big Picture on the politics of the Economic Stimulus:

The Strike: Today, Rasmussen (the pollster Nate Silver said he'd take with him to a desert island) polled various elements of the economic stimulus. In a nutshell, the Obama plan has lost some popularity, only being favored 42-39, and the Republican alternative (more tax cuts, less spending) has actually gained in popularity. In fact, there are now more people who believe the government will do too much rather than too little. The biggest change in opinion from last week seems to be from political independents. There are a few important things to remember. Opinions on the package are quite nebulous, a lot of it depends on how you ask the question. People generally want something to get done, and generally like Obama, but may be wary about the government spending $800 billion after last fall's financial bailout.

The Big Picture: Yeah, that is troubling. Part of the reason is what Media Matters noted, which is that there is a gigantic gap between Republicans and Democrats on the news networks arguing over the bill. Partly the media's fault, but I think that Democrats in Congress and liberals in general aren't as enthusiastic about the stimulus package as Congressional Republicans and conservatives in general are passionately opposed to it. And that's a problem. It hasn't been sold very effectively or very wholeheartedly. There are a ton of arguments Democrats could be using, both about its necessity to people's lives and (in) mocking its opponents, that are barely being used. Let's see if Obama amps up his promotion of it in the next couple weeks.

I think he thought he could do it without throwing his full weight behind it. I can see reasons for both sides on this. On the one hand, Obama as the popular President with the mandate to fix the economy needs to be wholeheartedly selling his program. It will be a big part of how his Presidency is judged, so he might as well take full ownership of it and mold it the way he wants. On the other hand, Obama justifiably does not want to put everything he has behind something that is inherently a tough sell, even now - big expansion in government to help the needy most of all. A key number in that poll was that a big majority of Americans still think tax cuts are more effective than government spending. That has to be changed. I think Obama's rhetoric can change some of that, but I think it will have to be proven first, and then Obama can sell it based on reality. So a ton depends on it working, or people perceiving government spending having a positive effect. That will be a huge step in the ideological realignment of the country.

The Strike: I agree. I don't think you can expect the public, even with your personal popularity, to automatically line up behind a giant, largely abstract recovery project even when they are personally struggling. Part of it is that there is so much distrust of the federal government after the Bush administration's failures, including the bailout. Obama first needs to rally his own troops on the hill to look beyond their own narrow interests and fight for the bill. There are reasonable criticisms leveled by liberals like Rep. Peter DeFazio, that the bill doesn't have enough transportation funding, or enough of this or that, but Congressmen need to look at the forest and not the trees. People are hurting and really need relief, and we need to come up with a strong, cohesive solution. My hope is that once the bill is finalized, Democrats in Congress will become more passionate advocates and will convince their constituents of the importance of action.

Then, we need perhaps the most rhetorically gifted President ever, to go out and talk, as you have said, to people about what this bill would mean to their lives. Make it personal. People need to feel in their gut why they NEED this recovery package. You need to explain why people are struggling now, and why this bill is a viable solution. It's not enough to cite bad jobs numbers, you need to articulate the root causes of the problem: inequality of opportunity, a culture of selfishness and irresponsibility on Wall Street, and the failure of Washington to look out for the Middle Class. Then, explain why this plan attacks those problems. Be bold, ask constituents to call their Congressman, ask them to have high hopes, and to help make this change happens. He still has time, but he hasn't been doing any of that so far.

The Big Picture:
It's hard to know what to think. There is an enormous amount of churn in the political system right now, a ton of fluidity, where different groups are operating in different realities and different points in "political time". You know what it feels like? A split-squad baseball game in spring training. Normally politics has the two teams competing on the same field with the same rules and they are both trying to win in the short-term. Democrats and Republicans each want a particular set of policies enacted, and one side wins. But now we have different parts of each party on different fields. Some Democrats want to pass a pure, bold progressive bill and ignore bipartisanship, while others want to deliver for people a politically popular bill that may have more tax cuts than they'd otherwise like. Some Republicans, in the Limbaugh mode, want to stop anything from passing to maintain their idelogical purity and connect with the base, while others want the bill to have a Republican inprint on it. These factions are not always competing against each other, and, like a split-squad game in March, it's not clear if they're trying their hardest to win now, or to develop for the much longer season in the future. Much much harder to keep track of who's up and who's down. Still, it's a much more exciting and potentially radical time than we've seen in decades.

1 comment:

  1. The fissures within the political system on both sides of the isle underscore one of the key difficulties the new administration is going to have to navigate, but a great opportunity. As beautiful as Obama's campaign was organized (and in the end that does have to be attributed to his leadership from the top) he still has to prove that he can be the cohesive figure from the top that keeps the majority together. Obviously, the larger democratic majority makes navigating within the party a much more difficult task, and it is still yet to be determined how much political capital Obama has to use on items such as the stimulus to keep the majority together. If he has to go to the grassroots base and call for progressives to apply pressure on every issue on his platform, that resource may dry up quickly if things do not move in a positive direction.

    However, if he does mobilize people effectively on a couple of key issues early in the presidency, the grassroots base that created his historic fundraising and organizing operation could become the driving force behind the political agenda. People in Washington know he did not get elected in a very typical fashion, but it is still undetermined how those forces transfer to driving policy. When he does demonstrate he can use the networks he established effectively, particularly on something as important and large as this stimulus package, then we are witnessing a truly radical alteration in the political landscape.