Political Animal


February 26, 2012 1:19 PM Getting the Politics In Politics Right

By Matthew Zeitlin

Alec MacGillis has a long piece in the Washington Post defending the politicization of public policy; or at least the idea that it’s appropriate to consider the electoral and political consequences of policy decisions. And while I think he’s right, one point that’s often lost when we talk about this stuff is figuring out which policy questions actually matter the most politically.

No one doubts that a more robust economic recovery would have helped Obama and the Democrats substantially in 2010 and would help them in 2012. And yet, from accounts of policymaking in the Obama administration, we learn that the decision to start talking about the long-term deficit was not entirely made by the economists in the administration. Although Peter Orszag, the now-departed OMB chair, was a true-blue deficit hawk, it was the political team that, in early 2010, wanted to pivot towards austerity. Ryan Lizza’s January New Yorker piece describes their thinking:

After a year of intense policymaking and legislating, Obama’s political advisers were attempting to reassert authority over the economic team. The recommendations were heavy on public relations and attempted to reposition Obama to appear less hostile to the concerns of the anti-government right. “Democratic Presidents rarely address small businesses in their message,” they advised Obama, “but you could use the opportunity to discuss what small businesses mean for the freedom to be your own boss, to pursue your own ideas and for our spirit of innovation.”

Axelrod and other Obama political advisers saw anti-Keynesian rhetoric as a political
necessity. They believed it was better to channel the anti-government winds than to fight them.

Obama’s State of the Union speech, his aides said, “was an opportune moment to pivot to themes of restraining government spending.” They advised him to consider “freezing or cutting the discretionary budget,” instituting a senior-level government pay freeze, and cancelling some federal programs. They even noted that his government-reform efforts were “the most dramatic since Reagan’s conservative downsizing.”

So here we have political advisers who are concerned with the political consequences of what the president decides to emphasize and propose. What they got wrong, it seems, it not so much that it’s important to consider the political consequences of an administration’s policy actions, but misunderstanding what drives the president’s political standing. As we’re seeing now, and as we already know, whether or not the macroeconomy and the labor market are perceived as improving has a huge bearing on a president and incumbent popularity and ability to win elections. Not only is effective recovery and stabilization policy clearly the “right” thing to do, it’s also the thing to do even if you’re only concerned with maintaining your standing in the polls and winning reelection.

The best way for the administration to have gotten the politics right, it seems, would have been to listen to their economists. Or at least Christina Romer.


  • martin on February 26, 2012 1:56 PM:

    The best way for the administration to have gotten the politics right, it seems, would have been to listen to their economists.

    The best thing would have been to fire the political advisors whose policy was to make the economy worse.

    itorvar Greeks says mister captcha

  • Anonymous on February 26, 2012 1:59 PM:

    Dear Mr. Zeitlin: For about 30 years, the Democratic Party has used "smart politics" as a synonym for "adopting Republican policies." It has nothing to do with actual politics.

  • Hedda Peraz on February 26, 2012 2:07 PM:

    Choices, choices.
    Decisions, decisions.
    I want to do what is best for the future of the nation, but I also want to get re-elected. What to do? What to do. . .

  • Pal2008 on February 26, 2012 3:30 PM:

    You just hit on my biggest gripe with Obama's first tour of duty. With the economy in the crapper, he decides to freeze federal programs, employment, pay and waste a year fiddling about with deficit reduction. I like Obama but this just makes me crazy.

  • nemisten on February 26, 2012 3:34 PM:

    Hence why many of us have been so furious with Obama's failure to fight for a bigger stimulus package, ending the Bush tax cuts earlier, single-payer health care, etc. -- all things which would have both further improved the economy AND lowered the deficit.

    Now his team finally gets it. Un-f*g-believable.

  • janinsanfran on February 26, 2012 4:00 PM:

    Apparently the political team was not nearly as good at their job as we thought they were after 2008. That's been the oddest thing about Obama's presidency: after dancing nimbly through numerous minefields for several years, they seemed to lose all their acumen the minute their guy got into the White House. So I guess they were not all they were cracked up to be; just lucky.

  • DRF on February 26, 2012 4:11 PM:

    All of this is Monday-morning quarterbacking. You may be right that, in this case, good policy would also have been good politics, but that is by no means always the case. For example, a higher gas tax would undoubtedly be good policy but terrible politics.

    It's also worth mentioning that, contrary to what nemisten suggests, policy and politics aren't so easy to reconcile. The decision not to go for a larger stimulus was based on the "political" determination that the Administration couldn't get a larger stimulus passed, not that it would have hurt Obama's re-election chances. I've seen no evidence to suggest that this determination was wrong. In addition, the decision not to let the Bush tax cuts expire wasn't simply "political"; the administration recognized that it wouldn't be able to get Congress to pass a partial repeal of the tax cuts, and at the same time made the decision that having the "middle class" tax cuts expire would dampen the recovery.

    A good deal of what might be viewed as decisions based on political considerations are more about what was viewed as doable.

  • N.Wells on February 26, 2012 4:25 PM:

    Or as James Carville said, "It's the economy, stupid."

  • Anonymous on February 26, 2012 5:01 PM:

    Looking at it this way, the worst of it for me is the lack of awareness that it doesn't matter what Obama does... they'll still go after him, still hate him, still work night and day to undermine him and either impeach him or vote him out of office. So the supposed brilliant team makes decision after decision that goes against sound policy, angers the Democratic base and DOESN'T do a thing to increase his standing with conservatives.

  • robert waldmann on February 26, 2012 5:08 PM:

    Advocating more stimulus does not cause higher employment and presidential popularity. More stimulus would have caused them, but Congress would not have enacted more stimulus. The question is not whether good policy would be good politics, but whether bad policy opposed by the president would have been better politics than bad policy supported by the president. Your analysis simply ignores the power, indeed the existence, of Congress. Axelrod argued against proposals which the public considered terrible recognising the fact that Congress wouldn't t give Obama a chance to demonstrate that those policies actually would have worked ( they would have).

  • david1234 on February 26, 2012 9:32 PM:

    Forget about good policy and its effects, it was simply terrible politics.

    I do not see how Obama's advisers could have ever thought framing the 2010 election as the party of Roosevelt vs. the party Hoover of was worse than offering a choice between Hoover light and Hoover. A message that voters should kick out the Republicans who are blocking steps make the economy better is much better than we've done all that we can do.

  • square1 on February 26, 2012 10:37 PM:

    "It's the economy, stupid!"

    Whatever else you want to say about Bill Clinton and James Carville, they sure got that one right.

    It is hard to have much respect for people like David Axelrod since they fail to grasp a very, very, very simple fact: It is always better to have a good economy than good p.r.

    If I have a choice between an unemployment rate of 5% and an unemployment rate of 8-10%, I will take the former every single time. Smart politics means that you do whatever it takes to actually improve the economy, even if Republicans and Wall Street sociopaths call you mean names. Because at the end of the day, if the voters have jobs and money in their pockets, they are not going to give a shit about attack ads calling you a socialist for passing a large stimulus bill.

  • square1 on February 26, 2012 10:52 PM:

    The other point that I would make is that during the post-election period in November and December of 2008, the Obama team enjoyed a notably close relationship with the Bush White House. I submit that this occurred because President Obama pre-emptively agreed to certain compromises on the economy, although we will likely never know exactly what deal was cut.

    As a historical reference point, a similar deal was expressly rejected by FDR. In 1932, the time between the election and inauguration was longer than it is today; FDR was not inaugrated until March of 1933. Hoover offered to permit FDR to begin to implement some of his policies. However the tradeoff was that FDR would have had to agree to scale back his agenda.

    Although FDR understood that the country was suffering and needed immediate action, FDR correctly recognized that it was not worth sacrificing the long-term economic health of the country in order to "do something" a few months earlier.

    Obama has basically said that FDR made the wrong choice.

  • Patango on February 27, 2012 1:10 AM:

    My impression was that they were trying to get the moderate GOP vote , but he ended up looking like a weak leader who rolled over to easy , for policies even the moderate GOP new had not worked in the past , and would not work in the future...

    A lose lose scenario , and that's just how it played out , but it was a calculated guess , overly calculated though , after watching the GOP destroy america with their policies , watching a dem president then try and embrace those same policies was, and is, pretty sickening for many people , they seem to have gotten the clue , for now ....