Start yammering Mr President

Start yammering Mr President

by digby

Jonathan Bernstein wants the president to start jaw-boning the public on climate change:
Media Matters has noticed something important: Climate was almost completely absent on the national broadcast network news last year. Only twelve stories, combined, on the CBS, ABC, and NBC news shows, were devoted to the topic — which certainly has a legitimate claim as the single most important policy problem facing the United States right now.

There’s nothing at all wrong with the response that Media Matters is urging, which is for people to write the networks and demand more coverage. However, the real way to get the networks talking climate is to get the political parties and their politicians to talk about it — and especially the president. The evidence is pretty strong that presidents can’t change voters’ minds very well, but they can definitely change what voters think about. That’s because if the president talks about something, the press will cover it.

And politicians, the president included, will talk about things which their parties — including party activists — tell them are high priorities. So the way to get results here is to press politicians to talk about climate change. In particular, activists could make clear to candidates seeking Democratic nominations in 2014 (when candidates are particularly responsive to party pressure) that detailed, vocal positions on climate are a top priority.
I had thought the bully pulpit is not only useless, but often counter-productive, so this is a surprise to me. Ezra Klein explained it to us all in this New Yorker piece from 2012, wherein he outlined all the political science numbers-crunching that proves public opinion is fairly irrelevant to public policy and presidential rhetoric even more so. Indeed, the thesis says that while the president coming out publicly for a particular policy may be able to harden his own troops' resolve from time to time, he also hardens the opposition against him, so government basically can only be effective through the use of backroom deals and inside the beltway politicking:
Edwards’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion isn’t effective with the public. Lee’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion might actually have an anti-persuasive effect on the opposing party in Congress. And, because our system of government usually requires at least some members of the opposition to work with the President if anything is to get done, that suggests that the President’s attempts at persuasion might have the perverse effect of making it harder for him to govern.
There is no reason to believe that F.D.R.’s storytelling faltered for a single midterm election, or that Reagan lost his persuasive ability in 1982, then managed to regain it two years later. Rather, the causality appears to work the other way around: Presidents win victories because ordinary Americans feel that their lives are going well, and we call those Presidents great communicators, because their public persona is the part of them we know.

After three years in Washington, David Axelrod, who served as the chief strategist for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, agrees. “Some folks in politics believe this is all just a rhetorical game, but when you’re governing it’s not,” he says. “People are viewing their lives through the lens of their own experience, not waiting for you to describe to them what they’re seeing or feeling.” Paul Begala, who helped set the message in the Clinton White House, puts it more piquantly: “The Titanic had an iceberg problem. It did not have a communications problem. Right now, the President has a jobs problem. If Obama had four-per-cent unemployment, he would be on Mt. Rushmore already and people would look at Nancy Pelosi like Lady Gaga.”

The question, Begala says, is: What is the alternative to Presidential persuasion? “If you don’t try it at all, it guarantees you won’t persuade anybody,” he says. “And, to put it simply, your people in Congress and in the country will hate you if you don’t.” That’s the real dilemma for the modern White House. Aggressive, public leadership is typically ineffective and, during periods of divided government, can actually make matters worse. But passivity is even more dangerous. In that case, you’re not getting anything done and you look like you’re not even trying.
If that's true then the president talking a lot about climate change would persuade no one and merely appease some people who think he needs to "look like he's trying." I am not persuaded by this argument. I think Bernstein is right that while the president may not be able to change minds, he can certainly put issues on the agenda. Why do I believe this? Because of this recent poll:
The poll showed that 45 percent of Democratic voters think “balancing … the federal budget would significantly increase economic growth and create millions of American jobs.” A sky-high 61 percent of independents and 76 percent of Republicans agree.

I think it's fair to say that many of those people have been persuaded of this by the president, who has been relentlessly pushing for his balanced approach to deficit reduction for at least two years, often in the same breath that he talks about improving the economy After all, they weren't always quite so concerned:

Yes, Republicans quite suddenly became strong deficit hawks when the presidency changed hands.  Go figure. But look at the Democrats.  Instead of being the other side of that coin and becoming less concerned when the Democrat came into power, they became more concerned. I'm just guessing, and maybe it's because Democrats just really, really care about deficits on the merits, but I think the White House's choice to rhetorically support the idea that deficit reduction is a top priority played heavily into that result. (That applies to terrorism policy too, for that matter...)

As I wrote the other day, at this point the only thing dividing the two parties on this issue is whether the deficit must be dealt with by cutting programs alone or with a "balanced approach" of cutting programs and "asking the rich to pay a little bit more." Virtually nobody argues that we needn't do deficit reduction at the moment at all. Normal people who don't pay close attention can be forgiven for thinking that deficit reduction must be very important --- and that it will create jobs and improve the economy. They simply can't imagine that virtually everyone in the government would insist on doing something that wouldn't accomplish those things at a time like this.

So, considering how well the obsession wit the deficit has worked to make it a top priority issue,  I totally agree that the president should talk a lot about climate change.  I do think it makes a difference and I think the very act of doing it repeatedly puts it on the agenda and gives it an urgency.  Will he change climate change deniers minds?  Doubtful.  In fact, I agree that it may very well harden their opposition to any policies designed to prevent it, although it's hard to see how they could be more hardened than they already are.  But it could help persuade Democrats and Independents that this is something to which they need to pay attention and that's a necessary first step. So start yammering Mr President!