Monday, January 23, 2012

Fighting a dumb war

Paul Krugman correctly reams Larry Summers for having given Obama exactly the wrong advice on the economy -- and having done so from the get-go, as revealed in Ryan Lizza's New Yorker article about the newly released White House memos.

The broader point about Obama, though, is one that Lizza characteristically raises and misses. As usual, he doesn’t deeply understand the meaning of his own facts – or even his own observations about those facts.

The thing he misses here is that there’s no such thing as “public opinion” in a holistic or monolithic sense. There are (a) widespread feelings (things are getting better or getting worse); and (b) strong feelings about particular topics (abortion is a woman’s right, it is murder). So, yes, there is general “distrust of government.” But there’s also at least equal distrust of business – and therefore a widespread desire for help against its predations. There’s an even more widespread desire for someone to lead, already. There are many widely held and mutually contradictory wishes and biases and feelings and beliefs.

The reason Obama flunked was his lack of any personal information about which of those actually mattered. He picked the wrong version of “the public’s beliefs” to follow. In fact, framing this whole thing in terms of “attitudes toward government” is, yet again, an example of accepting the right’s frames, rather than fighting your battles on your home field. Think "entitlement plans." Lizza, like most of the MSN, is stuck inside frames Obama himself promulgated, which speak more to the Precious's psychic needs than to the needs of the country -- or even the prospects for political success.

Objectively (vs. psychologically) speaking, Obama didn’t have to wind up hog-tied and flunko. He could have framed this whole thing as getting the American social compact back to health and getting Americans back to work – something Hillary would have understood and done in a heartbeat. FDR surely did. Despite Lizza's ruminations on the limits of presidential influence -- and despite actual presidents' own humility on the subject -- is there any credible argument that the public was already pressing for the New Deal before Roosevelt got into office? Can there be any doubt that FDR shaped a new frame, a new model of government itself? Or that he did so in a political environment every bit as polarized as this one?

Lizza does report some salutary observations and ideas -- e.g., that the polarization we've seen is asymmetrical. But then he doesn't follow through on their implications. Given that asymmetry, shouldn't any actual attempt to wind up in a space of actual policy efficacy have pushed harder against the GOP than the Dems?

The truth is that Obama lost these battles before they began, because he chose to fight (or, rather, to wave the white flag within) the wrong battles.
To paraphrase someone, he shouldn't have been against all wars -- just dumb ones.

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