Obama, the Stimulus Bill and Viewer Mail

Because I’m on deadline on another article, and because each post typically takes a couple of hours of research, I want to save some time and instead use today’s post to respond to the several good questions that have come in via the blog site and by email during the last few days.   In no particular order:

In response to my reminder that Obama ran behind most Senate Democrats and Republicans in the 2008 elections, Jack Goodman wonders whether that is still relevant since Obama’s approval ratings are very high right now. I’ve touched on the topic of presidential approval ratings before, but a couple of points bear repeating: First, national approval ratings, although much hyped by the press as a barometer of presidential performance, actually are driven by factors that have almost nothing to do with the president’s performance.  I’ll elaborate on this in a more complete post, but as evidence, note that Obama is still experiencing the presidential honeymoon, the period in which approval ratings are artificially inflated.  All presidents go through this.  More importantly, however, the point of my post is to remind you that Senators don’t much care what Obama’s national approval ratings are – they care what the voters in their state think about him.  And in most of the 34 states that voted for a Senator in 2008, the Senate candidate was more popular than Obama. That’s why Republican Senators in particular feel little hesitation in voting against the stimulus bill.  The key point here is that national approval ratings are not a very good indicator of presidential strength in Congress, media reports to the contrary notwithstanding.  And we know that Obama’s rating will go down over time – not up.

Both Conor and Jack caution that it is very early in Obama’s term, and that there is still room for Obama to exercise bipartisanship on other issues.   Their points are a useful reminder that some significant pieces of legislation – think Clinton’s support of NAFTA, or Bush’s No Child Left Behind and prescription drug reform – have passed Congress with bipartisan support.   So we shouldn’t preclude any possibility of bipartisan action on other legislation that does not map onto the fault line separating Republicans and Democrats as neatly as the stimulus bill did.   Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that given the magnitude of the stimulus bill, and the fact that it was the first major piece of legislation to pass Congress, Obama missed a golden opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise to be an agent of change.  Of course, the political scientist in me has always been skeptical, given the composition of Congress, that Obama would be any more successful than Bush or Clinton at toning down the politics of polarization.  As a citizen, however, I am disappointed that he has started out as a “divider, not a uniter” (keeping in mind that we can’t blame the divisions in Congress solely on him.)

Regarding Senators staying in office longer than Obama – I’m not suggesting that Obama will be a one-term president.  But even if he serves out two terms, most Senators will outlast him in office, given that the average Senator serves about two terms, or 12 years, in office.

As for Frank Rich!  If I thought it would serve any useful purpose, someday I’d like to devote a post in which I take quotes from a particular columnist and use them to argue against that same columnist’s argument in another column.  In the case of the stimulus bill, it is deliciously ironic to hear columnists on the Left like Rich throwing a hissy fit over Republican opposition to the stimulus bill.  “It’s all about politics,”  they fume. “Republicans are willing to see the nation’s economy get wrecked just so Obama will be voted out of office.”  The problem, of course, is that many of these same columnists on the Left were urging the Democrats in Congress to block the bank bailout bill pushed by Bush (and later Obama) because it was a handout to the Wall St. fat cats!  If I paid any attention to pundits like Rich, I might be mildly offended by the blatant hypocrisy in accusing Republicans of rank partisan demagoguery when they oppose government efforts to help the economy while defending Democrats’ opposition to government efforts to bail out the economy as principled.  One could defend both positions on the merits of the argument, of course.  But I’m hardpressed to see how pundits on the Left like Rich are so certain about the sordid motives behind the Republican opposition.  It’s just a reminder of a point I’ve made often in previous posts regarding the Pundit’s Creed: “My motives are pure, my opponents are venal opportunists.”  It’s columns like Rich’s that help contribute to the polarized attmosphere that Obama is finding so difficult to change.  Of course as most of you know by reading my previous posts,  the punditocracy’s primary purpose for me is to serve as a foil so I can present political science research.  Otherwise I  wouldn’t read any of them – Left or Right. And neither should you if you actually want to understand politics.   They mostly make stuff up and call it an argument.  It’s useful only for the entertainment value – not as a source of insight into presidential politics.  For that, you come here!

I hope I answered most of your questions. Keep ’em coming!


  1. I couldn’t help but include an addendum to my post re: the Frank Rich editorial. I hope you realize just how ridiculous it is to give his argument any credence from a scientific perspective. Like all pundits, he’s letting opinion masquerade as fact. Consider the following scenario: in 1993, not a single Republican supported Clinton’s first major piece of economic legislation, which included massive tax hikes designed to reduce the deficit and stimulate the bond market. At the time, Republicans were ridiculed for their opposition by columnists like Rich, and Clinton was lauded for standing firm. Two years later, the Republicans were in charge of Congress, in part because the public blamed Democrats for the perceived mistakes of the previous two years, including the tax hike. (Whether it was a mistake is separate issue – I think it probably was not.) In retrospect, members of Clinton’s own senior White House staff admit it was a crucial mistake not to craft a more bipartisan package. My point is this: no one knows how the economy will play out during the next two years. Nor do they know whether the stimulus bill will “work” or not. Without knowing the consequences, Rich is free to crow about how Obama stood firm against Republican opposition – just like Clinton did in 1993. Talk is cheap, and it’s what Rich is paid for. Just don’t confuse it with sound analysis. One could argue with equal validity – since there’s no evidence to contrary – that Obama just made the biggest mistake of his young presidency by failing to bring Republicans on board to cushion the political fallout if the economy continues to go south. One of the lessons I want my students to take away from this blog is to be able to separate pure opinion from generalizations based on some semblance of science. To be sure, the “science” I cite isn’t always as solid as we’d like. But it’s almost always more reliable than reading Frank Rich.

  2. Matt —

    I have two problems with your argument. First, after your splendid analysis of the continuum of Senators from liberal to conservative — which shows the extent to which the partisan divide has intensified in the last 20 years and the ideological differences (most acute in economic issues) that made untenable Judd Gregg’s nomination to be Commerce Secretary — it seems unreasonable to fault Obama for not succeeding in bridging the gulf. The most that can be said it that he shouldn’t have promised to try, but I think it important that he did try and that he should continue to try, even if he fails. If the opposition (whichever party it may be) is treated with respect and included in policy discussions from the get-go (which I understand did not happen in the House this time), that is more important than an actual bipartisan vote.

    My second problem is that you write as though the change that Obama promised was strictly one of ending virulent partisanship, whereas I believe that the change promised was primarily substantive — a more liberal, bubble up approach to stimulating the economy; more liberal, help-the-less-fortunate policies in health care, education, and the like; and a more internationalist and less militaristic approach to the world. Also a more environmentally friendly and energy-conserving set of policies. I believe those were the main reasons for his winning margin, and those are the arenas of potential change where he should be judged successful or not.

    Bob Johnson

  3. – You stated in one of your blogs that the reason not a single Republican in Congress has supported the stimulus bill can be fashionably oversimplified to purposely attempt to obstruct his legislation (for the sake of disagreeing on a united Republican front in some sense?). Objecting solely to object in order and blame the Democrats for a poor economy doesn’t make sense to me considering I feel the Republicans are always more market oriented (at least when it comes to protecting the integrity of the free market).

    – How is it that Obama is continuing to make public addresses and portraying “everyone” that he has spoken with agrees with his stimulus plan? I don’t think i can count as high as how many economists have come out in the last couple of weeks bashing his plan using fundamental economic reasoning.

    – When was the last time, if ever, has the government intervened in economic fiscal policies (ex. The New Deal, etc.) where it hasn’t only served as a short term fix and resulted in serious long term problems? I’m asking you this because I think the answer is never.

    – Why is it that an inordinate number of Democrats Obama has tried to get on board with him have had to refuse because of tax evasion? What message does that send, if any? And, if there same problem exists on the Republican side, why is it that Republican candidates are at least savvy enough to avoid picking that many in a row?

  4. “In the case of the stimulus bill, it is deliciously ironic to hear columnists on the Left like Rich throwing a hissy fit over Republican opposition to the stimulus bill. “It’s all about politics,” they fume. “Republicans are willing to see the nation’s economy get wrecked just so Obama will be voted out of office.” The problem, of course, is that many of these same columnists on the Left were urging the Democrats in Congress to block the bank bailout bill pushed by Bush (and later Obama) because it was a handout to the Wall St. fat cats! If I paid any attention to pundits like Rich, I might be mildly offended by the blatant hypocrisy…”

    I’m not sure I understand this argument. Since I don’t know the Frank Rich article in question, I can only assume that he and other columnists on the Left were arguing against the bank bailout on the grounds that “handouts to Wall St. fat cats” wouldn’t actually help the economy. Whereas with regard to Republican opposition to the current stimilus, his fuming was more about a perceived opposition for opposition’s sake, or in other words a non-principled opposition based purely on electoral concerns rather than concerns for the nation’s economy. Now, the validity of either of these arguments can of course be questioned, but I don’t find them contradictory. You probably wouldn’t have to search hard to find examples of hypocrisy on the part of pundits like Frank Rich, but this doesn’t seem like such an example to me.

  5. Both Bob and “Student” raise some great issues and, with “student’s” indulgence, I’d like to answer “student’s” query in a separate post because it deals with something I’ve written extensively about: Roosevelt and the New Deal. So please bear with me, and I’ll get to “student’s” questions.

    Bob chastises me, quite correctly I think, for writing as if Obama’s promised “change” centered only on bipartisanship. Moreover, he suggests, again quite properly, that given my earlier posts documenting the widening partisan gulf in Congress between Republicans and Democrats, it is unfair to criticize Obama for not somehow bridging that gulf by fashioning a stimulus bill that attracted more Republican votes. Let me make two points in response. First, it is true that Obama promised substantive policy change, for example, in the areas of foreign policy, health care, and the environment. But if you look at his three major nationwide addresses, the first in June, when he unofficially accepted the Democratic nomination to be president, the second in late August when he made his convention acceptance speech, and the third this past January 20th in his inaugural address, you will see that the emphasis on change centered as much or more on changing the tone of Washington debate by bridging the partisan divide separating Republicans and Democrats than it did on bringing substantive policy change. (unfortunately the software doesn’t let me put condensed hyperlinks to the speeches in comments, but I’ll append the full links below.) That promise was certainly part of the reason he won election. Now, it may be he was insincere in making those promises (I tend to think not) or unusually naive (more likely). But I don’t think we can go fully in the other direction to suggest by change he meant ONLY policy change. I think he wanted bipartisanship too. As you point out, the data I provided on the ideological placement of legislators suggests that the roots of partisanship run deep. But the evidence that I can see is that during his first major legislative test, Obama was unwilling or unable to do what is necessary to achieve any semblance of the bipartisanship he advocated in those three speeches. Was it wholly his fault? No – the congressional leadership of both Republicans and Democrats must share some of the blame. But here’s my crowning point: “we” – by which I mean everyone else – have just spent eight years bashing Bush for being a divisive, polarizing leader. In that period, meanwhile, I’ve cautioned my students that this is at best a facile analysis of the Bush years – that the cause of this polarization transcends Bush’s actions as president. Obama’s failure to be any less divisive than Bush – and admittedly this is only the first piece of legislation – bears my analysis out, at least in preliminary fashion. The lesson is clear: yes, presidents can be bipartisan, rather than polarizing. But there is a huge price to pay for making the effort and in the end, in order to achieve their policy goals, most presidents decide the price for achieving bipartisanship is simply too high. It’s not impossible to do – but it is very very costly. Obama is discovering what Bush and Clinton discovered. In that respect, nothing has changed at all – nor should any sober-minded analyst have thought otherwise. I cannot tell you how many people sincerely believe that with Obama’s election we have entered a new anti-Bush era where everyone works together in sweetness and light. Wrong, wrong wrong! It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how Congress works and why the political polarization of the previous 8 years existed – it had very little to do with Bush. By lowering expectations for Obama, I hope to cushion the inevitable disillusionment with his presidency a bit. The sooner we realize that to achieve his policy objectives Obama will be every bit as divisive as Bush, the better, in my view. The fault lies not in Obama any more than it did in Bush. They are both rational people trying to achieve policy goals in a system that makes it hard to do so in a bipartisan fashion.

    Here are the links to Obama’s three major addresses – you can judge how much of each address promise an end to partisan bickering:




  6. Chris,

    You are exactly correct. As I suggested in my post, in principle there’s no reason why Rich isn’t right – the Democrats oppose the bailout bill because they believe it wouldn’t work, but supported the stimulus bill because they believe it will work. On the other hand, there’s no reason not to believe Republicans are opposing the stimulus bill because they believe it is larded with pork and is not well designed to stimulate the economy or produce jobs either. Yet Rich dismisses this explanation without providing any evidence. Why? My guess is because of his ideological leanings, rather than any evidence. My point is this type of inference without evidence is perfectly fine for pundits. But as a political scientist who takes teaching seriously, I can’t simply take Rich’s word for it, and I don’t want my students to either. Moreover, I would go a step further to argue that all the evidence political scientists have gathered to date suggest that Rich is in fact wrong in inferring different motives to Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Both respond to the same mixture of incentives based on political beliefs and electorally-based incentives. Neither is more pure at heart than the other.

  7. “Obama’s failure to be any less divisive than Bush” (in getting the stimulus bill) is the way you start one of your sentences in response to my last post. I don’t buy it! The vote may have been party line, but the route to getting there was stylistically and in process terms quite different. And I say, “via la difference”.

    Bob Johnson

  8. Matt, Here is my thinking on the stimulus bill and bipartisanship.

    Pick a number, any number, but $1 trillion is nice and round. Come up with a formula based on population, unemployment, foreclosures, etc. Send it all pro rata to the states.

    Sure, there would be a lot of bickering in Congress over the formula, but what congressman would vote against it. Money for the home state. Federalism. Pork. Home rule.

    Since the money came from the states, return it to them, just like a tax cut except the recipient would be the public, not a private corporation or an individual.

    I dont think Congress would like this much. Especially the committee chairman who like to try to manage these funds. But would Pelosi or Lindsay Graham really vote against it? All that money for California and South Carolina. Even Ted Stevens, if he were still in the Senate, would go along, although his state would probably “short changed.”


  9. I think that we should keep in mind the the wall street bailout occurred for many reasons. The first reason is that never in our country’s history have we ever faced such a tragic economic plunge via the market. Goldman Sachs was at $240 a share two years ago and is now at the mid $80 range. Bearsterns-gone. Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan- ha. General Motors- emaciated… etc etc.

    Our country has never witnessed, nor has ever imagined, the banking system as being this exposed and vulnerable. It was previously inconceivable for a financial institution like Bear to implode. If you work on wall street or at an investment bank you are scared right now, probably waking up at ungodly hours in a cold sweat.

    The point is nobody had ever seen anything like this before or even knew how bad the situation even truly was besides the companies who know what is on their books. Something had to be done in order to at least make an attempt to protect the jobs that would be lost and investments that would be recalled. There was and is zero liquidity.

    I don’t know if Bush and others actually thought it would work, but what I do know is that it was dangerously close to election and the Republican party had to do something to save face. Politics, unfortunately, isn’t always about doing whats right, but what will get votes.

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