Saturday, March 7, 2009

Rush to the Head

Barack Obama got elected by promoting the fact that he was not George W. Bush. Now he is governing by promoting the fact that he is not Rush Limbaugh.

Like all good lines, that is an over-simplification. But there is an element of truth in it as well. The president's detractors say he is running a perpetual campaign. A kinder way to put it might be that he is employing tried and true public relations techniques. Indeed, President Bush's presidency might have been more popular, and maybe even more successful, if he had paid more attention to PR. One of the annoying things about Bush for his supporters was his apparent disinterest in selling his policies and positions. It wasn't that he wasn't an effective campaigner because he was. Or at least he could be, when he needed to be. The proof is that he managed a (not uncontested) Electoral College victory over an opponent who should have been a shoo-in, given the general public contentment under the administration of which Al Gore was a key part. Further proof is his even more decisive victory over John Kerry four years later. But between campaigns, Bush seemed to have little interest in explaining and persuading the public of the merits of his policies. It was as if he didn't bother because it meant subjecting himself to more interaction with the media, something he did not care for.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was a master of public relations. My main memory of the Clinton years is that every week there was some big announcement or ceremony, touting some new victory for the people, whether it was signing a bill into law or issuing an executive order. The funny thing is that I cannot for the life of me really remember what 95 percent of those victories were. When reflecting on the Clinton administration, I like to joke that his major domestic accomplishment was throwing a bunch of people off welfare. And this is technically true. The reform of the welfare system was a true bi-partisan victory that had much to do with the great economy the country enjoyed during the late 1990s. In foreign affairs, perhaps Clinton's most concrete personal accomplishment was his personal intervention in the Northern Ireland peace process. To this day, the man is regarded as some sort saint or idol on this island.

But when fleshing out the list of Clinton's accomplishments, we find that a lot of them come with asterisks denoting a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful effort (health care reform, Middle East peace, the Kyoto treaty) or symbolic (apologizing for slavery) or well-intentioned but misguided (don't ask, don't tell). When I have talked to friends who are ardent Clinton supporters, I sometimes ask them what they consider his major accomplishments. Usually, they mention the economy, for which he does indeed deserve credit, although he also benefited from a fair bit of luck (catching the upswing of the tech boom) and cooperation from a Republican Congress back in the days when Republicans in power actually did more than give lip service to balanced budgets.

But more often than not, when I ask that question, my friends don't list specific Clinton accomplishments. They speak of a good feeling they got from his presidency, of how good it made them feel to have someone in the White House who they felt shared their values. It is no accident that Clinton was always a popular president. Personal popularity always seemed to be very important to him. He rarely, if ever, undertook an action that would cost him a lot of his popularity. The amazing thing is that people on the left have always seemed to love him, even when he was implementing policies that were essentially Republican. He warned of looming dangers from international terrorism and from Iraq. But he never did anything aggressive or painful to try to deal with them. And, in fairness, there would have been little political will for that at the time. In contrast, his successor, in the wake of September 11, did take aggressive and painful actions that were entirely consistent with Clinton policies and assessments (bad intelligence and all) and, in the long run, took a devastating hit on his own popularity. If people thought his actions were a departure from Clinton era policies, it might be because Clinton himself was a frequent critic of them.

It will take time to judge the effectiveness of Barack Obama's policies. The first weeks of a new administration are inevitably taken up with hiring people, announcing initiatives, making policy statements and the like. All of this activity, especially given the extremely ambitious nature of Obama's plans, gives the impression of much being done. But, in the end, it will be the continuing battles fought in Congress and the real-world results of administration policy that will determine success or failure. But, like a lot of politicians, Obama and his people know that it doesn't hurt to set up a bogeyman as a false alternative to his policies. When voters are weighing the pros and cons of a political fight, all the better if they compare Obama not to Republican politicians but to a private citizen who happens to have a radio program.

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