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Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Real Problem With Obama's Poll Numbers

by dday

My big takeaway today is supposed to be that Barack Obama is fading in selling his health care plan, as eroding poll numbers, both on health care and his job approval rating, threaten legislation in the coming year. As references to "Obamacare" rise, some blame the President for a poor sales job with health care legislation. I fault the President, but for different reasons.

Right now Obama is simply a captive to Congressional process. That process is messy, it's easy to view it as negative, and people are in general reacting to the ups and downs that wound the possibility of passing a bill. The President has no bill to go out and hawk because the Congress is deep into negotiations, so he's selling nothing, a difficult task for anyone. You could say that Obama should have just stepped in and laid down the law, but not only has that proven to fail in the 1993-94 Clinton health care plan, but I don't necessarily want executive dictates to trump Congressional process. I think there's a lot of unnecessary bottlenecks in Congressional process, like the undemocratic filibuster and the seniority system for Committee chairs (particularly in the Senate) and the anti-majoritarian nature of the Senate itself. But in general, we don't elect emperors, and checks and balances are by and large healthy, and I'm OK with Congress performing their task of coming up with legislation and the President performing his task of executing it. Obviously he has some input, but I don't want an executive dominating the process. The paradox of this is that, since people generally believe that a President can just walk in and magically implement his policies, his personal approval is getting dragged down by the slog of health care bills in Congress.

The other wall that Obama is running into has been described for years as the Two Santa Claus theory. For 30 years and more, the American people have been sold on the idea that they can have unlimited services and endlessly low taxes. Somehow the lower taxes generate enough revenue to cover all the services they desire. This was part of a Republican ideological project begun by Reagan aides to basically force Democrats into wearing the black hats, and it has turned into doctrine from then on.

By 1974, Jude Wanniski had had enough. The Democrats got to play Santa Claus when they passed out Social Security and Unemployment checks – both programs of the New Deal – as well as when their "big government" projects like roads, bridges, and highways were built giving a healthy union paycheck to construction workers. They kept raising taxes on businesses and rich people to pay for things, which didn't seem to have much effect at all on working people (wages were steadily going up, in fact), and that made them seem like a party of Robin Hoods, taking from the rich to fund programs for the poor and the working class. Americans loved it. And every time Republicans railed against these programs, they lost elections [...]

Wanniski decided to turn the classical world of economics – which had operated on this simple demand-driven equation for seven thousand years – on its head. In 1974 he invented a new phrase – "supply side economics" – and suggested that the reason economies grew wasn't because people had money and wanted to buy things with it but, instead, because things were available for sale, thus tantalizing people to part with their money. The more things there were, the faster the economy would grow.

At the same time, Arthur Laffer was taking that equation a step further. Not only was supply-side a rational concept, Laffer suggested, but as taxes went down, revenue to the government would go up!

Neither concept made any sense – and time has proven both to be colossal idiocies – but together they offered the Republican Party a way out of the wilderness [...]

Democrats, (Wanniski) said, had been able to be "Santa Clauses" by giving people things from the largesse of the federal government. Republicans could do that, too – spending could actually increase. Plus, Republicans could be double Santa Clauses by cutting people's taxes! For working people it would only be a small token – a few hundred dollars a year on average – but would be heavily marketed. And for the rich it would amount to hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts. The rich, in turn, would use that money to import or build more stuff to market, thus increasing supply and stimulating the economy. And that growth in the economy would mean that the people still paying taxes would pay more because they were earning more.

There was no way, Wanniski said, that the Democrats could ever win again. They'd have to be anti-Santas by raising taxes, or anti-Santas by cutting spending. Either one would lose them elections.

The most important numbers in these collections of polls this week are this. People generally still want health care reform and they believe the system is broken. But they also believe that Congress should cut the deficit without raising taxes or cutting spending. With the caveat that we're talking about aggregate data and cannot make specific conclusions about individual beliefs on the deficit, taxes, and spending, this is not the result of one poll but pretty much the standard poll result over many decades, particularly when Democrats are in power and the deficit-industrial complex ramps up their rhetoric. Simply put, Republican fantasy projections have given the country an out to refuse to accept the normal choices that must be made to deal with reality.

If you don't have the time or inclination to obsessively pay attention to issues, I don't see why you wouldn't decide that we should just pay down the deficit but get good services like comprehensive health care reform but do it without raising taxes. It's very untroubling and simple, and if I'm working two jobs or busy with other things in my life it sure sounds like a good deal to me.

I agree that the President needs to do better in selling his plans to the public. A speech in prime-time, not a press conference but an actual speech, complete with Ross Perot graphs if necessary, as Nate Silver advocates, sounds like a good idea. But his problem is more about American political ideology than the ins and outs of this bill. America elected a Democrat because they didn't like George Bush. But they didn't elect a liberal ideology, even if they may agree with it on many points, because a liberal ideology wasn't on offer. Nobody in the Democratic Party has pushed back against the Two Santa Claus theory, or offered up a competing theory of their own, in the thirty-plus years since it was invented. Obama spent the first few months, when he had a honeymoon and his approval ratings were high, assuring everyone that 95% of Americans will see a tax cut, that he was pragmatic and will only go with "what works," and so on. And so when you get to an issue like health care, which does have moral overtones, which does speak to the fundamental rights of a society to ensure care for their sick and bleeding, there's no ideological foundation to fall back upon, no belief that America is worth paying for and those who use the commons to a disproportionate degree need to give a little bit to maintain the societal fabric. So we have an overhaul of health reform to expand coverage to everyone who needs it couched in the terms of cost curves and long term budget projections and constrained by the obsessive desire of deficit neutrality. This does not inspire activists and partisans to action. It does not force any thinking from those susceptible to attacks on "government-run health care" from the other side. And it does not break the underlying principles of the Two Santa Claus Theory. Nobody has fought the dominant wisdom, inside the Beltway and even in the country, and stated plainly that conservatives have lied to the country about economic issues for 30-plus years. The epic collapse of the economy under the Bush Administration provided an opportunity that nobody took.

Unless and until we start challenging conservative ideology and not conservative candidates, we will always have trouble making major changes because the public has swallowed a notion of government that makes no logical or coherent sense.