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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Obama's Policies Versus Politics

John Harwood talks in a recent The New York Times column about the differences between President Obama’s current positioning re policy and his positioning re politics. Harwood had the opportunity to interview the president last week. Obama indicated to Harwood that he believed that the “core decisions” he has made were “the right ones.” But Obama went on to say, “What I have not done as well as I would have liked is to consistently communicate to the general public why we’re making some of the decisions.”

In this situation, I assume Obama is talking about, among other things, his administration’s decisions on stimulus plans and the healthcare bill. It is true that 100% of the people he represents did not and do not agree with these decisions.

I guess this is a lament that could be made by almost any elected official. Unless the official has a 100% job approval rating, he or she can always say they wish that more of their constituents agreed with their decisions. All leaders/representatives/officials would like those they serve to understand -- and agree with -- their rationale in making decisions.

In this situation, Obama appears to be chalking up the disagreement with his policy decisions as a failure to communicate or a failure to bring the public to the point where they understand the rationale behind the decisions. As Obama says, he’s convinced that he has made the right decisions. It’s just that a segment of the general public doesn’t agree.

If we equate “communicate” with “persuade,” then Obama's lament makes sense. One could always hold out the hope that through persuasive communication and arguments, one can ultimately convince those who disagree to change their minds.

This is interesting to me because of my interest in the relationship between elected representatives and the people they are elected to represent. What's the best way to look at the inevitable situation in which at least some of the people are at odds with the representative? Obama has presented himself here as a man who is not questioning his core decisions (because they are disagreed with by some of the people), but rather a man who is disappointed that he wasn't able to convince the people to agree with him.

The other way of looking at this is a bit more humbling. That is, to put more emphasis on what the people are trying to say through their disagreement. In this situation, Obama could have said something like this: “What I am attempting to understand is why the general public disagrees with some of the decisions I’ve made.” Rather than assuming a priori that the representative has the truth, the representative can take stock of why so many people he represents see the truth differently.

In the current situation, most polls show that a majority of Americans do not agree with or support the recently signed-into-law healthcare bill. Perhaps Obama -- in addition to pondering why he was not able to communicate the rationale for his convictions on the bill more fruitfully -- could ponder exactly what it is about the bill that a portion of the general public objects to. That might help inform decisions and communication strategies going forward.

I should point out that Obama actually, at this point, is not doing too badly by the traditional job approval rating standard. Harwood frames it in his piece that while President Obama is doing well in terms of various indicators such as legislation passed and “signs of economic recovery,” he is not doing so well “out of Washington.” Harwood cites his job approval ratings of “50 percent or lower” -- among other things -- as evidence of the latter.

I think having a rating of about 50% in this environment is not necessarily a big negative. Obama’s current 51% job approval rating in his latest Gallup Daily tracking three-day average is actually not bad by recent historical standards. Obama is significantly ahead of Ronald Reagan at this point in his administration (in late April 1982, Reagan had a 43% job approval rating), and Jimmy Carter (41% in late April, early May 1978), and Obama is at least slightly ahead of Bill Clinton (48% in mid to late April 1994). Although Obama’s job approval ratings have dipped to as low as 45%, they seem to consistently rebound instead of floating lower as might well have been the case.

Of course, approval ratings notwithstanding, Obama’s party faces real challenges in the forthcoming midterm elections -- which may be what's on his mind.


NWTerriD said...
May 3, 2010 at 6:15 PM  

Your analysis misses the point. Obama is not saying he hasn't communicated well enough because he hasn't persuaded people to agree with him. He is saying he hasn't communicated well enough because there are a lot of people who believe objectively, provably false things about the legislation.

For example, many people believe that the IRS will show up at your door to put you in jail if you don't buy health insurance or pay the penalty. The law, however, specifically says that this will not happen. This isn't a matter of whether Obama can "persuade" people that jailing non-purchasers is a good idea; it's a matter of counteracting factual misinformation that is widely believed because opponents of the legislation used fear-based lies instead of honest policy arguments.

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