It’s been interesting over the last few weeks, to try and suss out the turbulent political waves and to begin to see some clarity emerging. I’ll suggest (shockingly) that what we’re seeing reinforces a belief that I’ve had for quite some time – meaning it’s good for me to put it out there to be challenged.
Looking at why Obama seems to be having such a popularity collapse suggests that models of the polity that were bipolar – i.e. D’s and R’s – probably don’t represent reality as models that are tripolar – D’s, R’s, and I’s. And while the I’s may be largely ideologically rooted in one side or the other, their “brand attachment” is weak, meaning that they can be flipped easily or else that they aren’t necessarily going to come out and vote unless they are engaged.
Both GWB and Obama managed to engage a large group of these I’s; in each case for a variety of historical reasons, but also, I’ll suggest because they presented as postpartisan – as essentially independent-friendly candidates.
No Republican is going to seriously chase Henry Waxman’s support, and no Democrat is going to seriously chase Newt Gingrich’s. The folks clustered at the ends of the spectrum are essentially locked in via brand attachment. But there’s a ever-increasing cloud of people in the middle – call it for grins the Althouse – Danziger – Kaus – Reynolds axis, who are tippable. And not just tippable once and then stable (in the manner of Southern Democrats facing a McGovern candidacy), but tippable election to election, issue to issue (almost week to week).
Eric Alterman suggests today that Obama won because he appealed to us:
Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, asks, on The Huffington Post, “Will somebody please explain to me why Barack Obama is still on his bipartisan kick…What do these guys think they are getting by continuing to kiss up to the Republicans?”
I think the answer to Mr. Kuttner’s conundrum can be found in an article, ironically enough, by one Mark Schmitt, who happens to be executive editor of, you guessed it, The American Prospect. Way back in December 2007, when supporters of both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were pummeling Obama on what they deemed was the wishy-washiness of his bipartisan appeal in the face of so nasty an opponent, Schmitt published an influential (among liberals) argument, “The ‘Theory of Change’ Primary“. In it, Schmitt argued that liberals were “too literal in believing that ‘hope’ and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk.”
Obama invited me to dinner shortly after he became a senator, and I got exactly the same impression. This man is, like FDR, a genuine liberal, but also a serious politician. He is not interested in moral victories or noble defeats. He wants to win. What he’s figured out, however, is that – particularly after two full decades of Bush/Clinton/Bush wars – the American people feel more comfortable with a politician who appears to reach out to the other side, who gives them a chance to play ball. This works both as an electoral strategy and a governing strategy. He gave in a little on the stimulus, but just enough to keep the ball rolling. He could always come back for more, later if necessary.
The change is real:
The slippage among college-educated whites also helps explain Obama’s troubles with independent voters, another more troublesome trend for him. All of the most recent national surveys have placed his approval rating among independents below 50 percent, although his positive ratings with them still generally exceed his negative marks.
The NBC/Wall Street Journal national survey also released this week offers some insight into that decline. It found that just 31 percent of independents now approve of Obama’s handling of health care, while 54 percent disapprove, according to crosstabs from the poll provided by Public Opinion Strategies, one of the pollsters. Asked their view of Obama’s health care plan, just 28 percent of independents said they consider it a good idea, while 43 percent described it as a bad idea, and the rest said they didn’t know.
So the core difference between me and a typical Netroots blogger is that they passionately, deeply, believe that as soon as ‘truly pure’ candidate steps forward, a vast ‘hidden majority’ will appear. (Note that conservative purists and Paulistas believe the same thing). I think that’s a delusion, and that what we have is a multpolar electorate with three major poles; liberals, conservatives, and moderates (who may be moderate because their views can’t be encapsulated in either camp – like mine [pro-gun, pro-environmental regulation etc.] or because their views genuinely stand between the poles of ideology). If they are right, Obama should turn hard left and wait for the support to explode. If I’m right, when he does that, his support will collapse.
I’ll suggest that recent events offer more evidence that my model is right than theirs.
There’s another important issue. Althouse thinks that:
Basically, Obama has a big problem. He got lots of people to trust him, chiefly by doing exactly what Krugman now complains about: speaking in vague generalities. It only works from a distance.
I’ll suggest a corollary: That he took the positions that would have worked (albeit with a lot of sweat, labor, and compromise) and tried to use them as a fig leaf for more traditional power politics. It doesn’t work.
In my work life I caution clients about using community and the explicit promise of empowerment, dialog, and engagement as a fig leaf for traditional marketing. It really, truly, deeply pisses people off. If that’s really what Obama is doing, it’s going to end badly for him and for all of us.
The reality is that the game is still in early innings, and Obama is going to be President for more than three more years. He’s got time to course correct, and to do two critical things:
Understand that the base isn’t big enough to win, and that what’s needed is to both placate the base and reach out to the swing voters. That can be both via substance and process (and we’re not getting much of either just now).
Really get it that promising transparency and engagement and delivering machine politics is an absolute route to early retirement. Be transparent, and be engaged. Obama is smart and eloquent enough to be able to hold his own with audiences that haven’t been packed; his handlers need to trust him a whole lot more. And trust the American people to engage with honesty when treated with respect.
…fixed typo in Mickey Kaus’ name…