A cure for second-term doldrums?

TNR's Obama "recovery guide" is a break from the media tedium

During second terms, the Washington press corps gets bored. There’s usually not much going on! As a result, reporters hype scandals and speculate about the next election. They exaggerate the president’s influence and then condemn him for failing to live up to their magical-realist visions of executive power. As we’ve seen in the months since President Obama’s re-election, these tedious exercises may fill time and column inches, but they do little to enlighten or engage.

The New Republic’s “Second Term Recovery Guide” is an impressive break from the tedium. The left-of-center magazine’s contributors recognize the institutional and political constraints Obama faces and propose novel approaches to overcoming those obstacles.

Consider, for instance, Noam Scheiber’s lead essay, which foreswears Green Lantern-style appeals to presidential superpowers in favor of a tougher bargaining strategy on budget issues:

Fortunately, the Oval Office arms its occupants with a variety of tools for besting political opponents, even if one of them isn’t the Tolkien-esque magic ring you would imagine from the Sunday morning chatter. Obama has plenty of opportunities to salvage his second term and build on his legacy. He just has to commit to playing the hard-ass.

As Scheiber correctly recognizes, Republicans are unlikely to be talked out of their opposition to the president’s proposals, especially at this point in Obama’s term. That’s why he proposes allowing a government shutdown if Republicans don’t agree to eliminate some of the budget cuts imposed by the sequester, abolishing the filibuster on presidential nominees if the GOP doesn’t approve more of his choices, and using impending climate regulations as leverage to cut a deal on a carbon tax. In each case, these strategies would change the status quo, making opposition more costly and strengthening GOP incentives to compromise.

Likewise, TNR’s Alec MacGillis, Jonathan Cohn, and Nate Cohn explicitly recognize the need for Obama to develop legislative proposals that can attract Republican support in Congress and propose strategies to help him do so: revenue-neutral tax reform (MacGillis); port infrastructure spending (J. Cohn), and targeting of potential allies among swing-state Republican senators (N. Cohn).

Will these approaches succeed? Probably not, but the authors are appropriately realistic and the solutions they recommend are far more creative and reality-based than the fiction-inspired fantasies that infect so much coverage of the White House.

Unfortunately, the old pathologies continue in the establishment press, which has continued to push the narrative that President Obama’s political difficulties are the result of his failure to effectively use the bully pulpit. The most recent example came in a “win the morning”-style news analysis June 24 by Politico’s John F. Harris, Jake Sherman, and Elizabeth Titus which claimed Obama is “in the doldrums” and “in a dead zone” in part due to his failure to influence public opinion. “Obama is standing in a presidential pulpit that recently has proved to be the opposite of bully,” they write. “So far in 2013, he has tried to harness public opinion to bring Congress to heel on both the budget sequestration and gun control debates. In both cases, Republicans—and in key instances, moderate Democrats—shrugged it off with apparent impunity.”

The same fallacy underpinned Chris Cillizza’s June 24 analysis on his Washington Post blog The Fix, which was titled, “Is the presidential bully pulpit dead?” In it, Cillizza points to the “inability of even the President of the United States to push his preferred message on a given day/week/month,” which he claims reflects “a fundamental new reality of politics: fundamental new reality of politics: The bully pulpit just ain’t what it used to be.” Implicit in this argument is a romantic view of a recent past in which presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton commanded the news agenda and shaped public opinion.

The reality, however, is that struggles with message control and policy salesmanship have
afflicted every modern president. Despite an endless stream of media claims to the contrary, the best political science research shows that presidents can rarely change public opinion on controversial policy issues. Even Reagan—the so-called Great Communicator himself—recognized this reality, conceding in his memoirs that his televised speeches supporting aid to the Contra rebels had little effect on the public. Indeed, Reagan’s pollster advised him after his re-election victory not to make televised speeches because they increase opposition to his proposals.

In short, White House coverage is stuck in the doldrums at least as much as its current occupant. Hey TNR—any chance of a second-term recovery guide for journalists?

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,