Monthly Archives: September 2011

Live Blogging the President’s Speech

We are watching on NBC’s local affiliate.  As always, feel free to join in.

Interesting backdrop to the speech – apparently there is a “national security threat” that has attracted the president’s attention.  Cynics, of course, will find this more than coincidental, but given the proximity to 9-11 this can’t be a surprise and I think shouldn’t be underestimated. When one is in the election season, everything is viewed through a political lens.

7:07  The president enters, looking like he has aged 10 years during the last two years.   It’s hard to see how the speech can fulfill the hype surrounding it.  Chuck Todd has already stated that it is a make or break moment for the president.  It isn’t, of course, but why let the truth intrude?

The key point, for me, is whether Obama views this speech as an opportunity to present something Republicans can accept in terms of jobs-related policy proposals, or will instead serve as the opening salvo in the election season in which he tries to laid down a marker designed to portray Republicans as obstructionist.

7:10.  And he’s off.  And he begins with the obligatory effort to portray this speech as being above politics.  In truth,  of course, it is all about politics – but that’s how it’s supposed to be.

He looks particularly animated in this speech.  He knows what it is a stake.  And here’s the effort to portray his jobs bill as nonpartisan and deficit neutral.

Boehner doesn’t seem pleased with the payroll tax reduction.

Second times Obama has said Congress “should pass” this bill “right away”.   “Pass this jobs bill”.  And yet again….he’s got the rhythm of a preacher going here.

A, the China card.  But it’s not really rousing the troops yet, much as some Democrats in the audience are trying to jump to the cause.

So, part 1 is a payroll tax cut.  Part 2 is infrastructure spending on roads and schools.  Boehner still seems less than enthused. But he is tanned.

Again, the refrain.   Boehner is amused.  Obama is passionate.  This is much drama-Obama.   Reid politely applauds.

There’s an interesting tone to this speech – his enthusiasm almost seems out of place in a speech about the economy.  It’s almost over the top – or is this just me?

Quick quiz: Paul Ryan is a) looking at his blackberry b) doodling  c) doing a cross word puzzle.

Well, give the President credit: he’s going all out here.  This is fire and brimstone.

Here’s how he will pay for it.  Ah, Congress will devise a way!  What are the chances? So far he’s big on the big picture – fair share, fix entitlements, etc., but of course the devil is in the details.  If it was that easy we would have done it  long ago.   But I do think there’ s room for tax reform based on closing loopholes and lowering the corporate tax rate.  This is a plan that can get bipartisan support,  and which the supercommittee likely will pursue.

There’s is an element of class warfare in this speech that he will deny is classwarfare – oops, he just did!

This is a speech big on symbols, and on broad themes, but it is mostly exhorting everyone to pull together for the common good.  Noble sentiments, but how practical?

Ah, here’s the “cut the red tape” angle.   A perennial, if misguided favorite.

Mortgage help gets Democratic support.

patent reform – stop the presses!

Good lord – did you see Hillary’s expression?  Do you think she was telling herself, “I should be up there”?

He’s threatening to lose his audience by going to deep into the policy weeds here.  I know his intent, but FDR is the model here: less is more.

I see a Truman moment coming here where he lays down the gauntlet.

Has there been a president in the last century who didn’t promise to eliminate rules and regulations.

OK, this is red meat for the partisans.  This is the election portion of the speech.  In true Obama fashion, he’s tried to give a speech that is both nonpartisan policy proposals and partisan preaching.

It might be me, but he seems over the top here.  These exhortations are simply falling flat in the audience.  This is an odd speech in many respects.  I’m not quite sure what he’s trying to do here – he’s gone far beyond a jobs speech.  My fear is the public is tuning in to see how they are going to get jobs, and instead they are getting an earful about American exceptionalism.

I hate to say it, but the speech that comes to mind is Carter’s “malaise” speech, where he turned a jobs speech into a screed about American values.

Joe is up, John, alas, is still sitting.

Ah, here’s the Trumanesque threat – again, red meat for the partisans.  Write your Congressman!

Big crescendo!

Keep in mind that it’s late afternoon on the West Coast and in the Rocky Mountains – how many are watching this?

I thought this audience reaction within the chamber was relatively muted, given the emotion Obama was putting into this.

Pundits, of course, tend to overstate the impact of these types of speeches.  My guess is the longterm impact of this will depend on what comes out of it, in terms of legislation. But absent some type of legislative action, I can’t see this doing much to change the fundamental dynamics governing Washington politics today, but this is not necessarily a criticism of the speech so much as recognition of the limited power of these speeches more generally.  I think it will be more effective if it is understood to be the opening salvo in the President’s reelection campaign.  He now has a program he can tout on the campaign stump – even if most of it never makes it into law.  And that may be, in the end, the most significant part of the speech.

To summarize, the president’s plan has at least four parts: extension of a payroll tax cut, spending on infrastructure, extension of unemployment insurance, and a tax cut to small businesses that hire employees.  The cost?  A reported $447 billion. Note that most of the cost comes through a variety of tax reductions, rather than new spending.  Left unsaid is how to pay for this, given the promise that it won’t add to the deficit.  He has promised to unveil the revenue side of his plan later.  Also conspicuous in its absence was any mention of how many jobs this plan, if implemented, will create.  Evidently the Obama administration has learned their lesson regarding projecting job creation or unemployment levels.







The Real Winners And Losers In Last Night’s Debate

With the latest Gallup polling showing Obama’s support at its lowest among whites, Hispanics and blacks, last night’s Republican debate  took on added significance, particularly since it was the first to include purported front-runner Rick Perry.  Because the media has anointed itself as kingmaker, it is useful to see how the leading pundits scored last night’s debate, and compare that to how the candidates’ actually did (in my humble opinion).  Significant differences often indicate where the winnowing is likely to take place.  Keep in mind that these debates typically tell us more about media preferences than about how likely voters actually feel about the candidates.  But this is important, since media preferences shape coverage, particularly in determining candidate viability, and that is a major factor in winnowing the candidate pool during this period.

Of course, the major news focus was on the Romney-Perry clash.  Because scoring a debate is a highly subjective process, pundits tended to pick the winner of this clash to be the one who was closest to the media outlets’ general ideological leaning; conservatives (see here and here ) thought Perry came out ahead, while liberal/moderates outlets (see here) gave the nod to Mitt.  This says less about how these two actually did than it does about the preferences of these particular media outlets.  In truth, neither did much to damage their candidacy, which in the end is probably a slight victory for Perry, since he is now the de facto frontrunner, and this is his first time on the national stage.

To be sure there will be the usual tsk-tsk’ing among the chattering class about Perry’s description of Social Security as a “ponzi” scheme.  When he first made this claim, analysts chided him for this supposed gaffe.  To his credit, Perry ignored them and came right back with the same claim last night.  When Republican-leaning voters hear Perry’s claim, they know immediately what he is saying – that the program is underfunded.  Let others debate the finer points of what a ponzi scheme really is – as a short-hand reference to the sorry state of Social Security funding, the phrase works.

The biggest loser in last night’s debate?  If the media is to be believed, it was Michele Bachmann.  Never mind that her performance was almost identical, in terms of talking points, presentation, poise, and any other criteria you can think of, to her two earlier and highly praised debate performances in New Hampshire and Iowa.  With Perry’s entrance into the race, the media has decided she must be winnowed, and they are well on their way to doing that.  She has been hammered in the last week for her “stall” in the polls and the shakeup in her campaign team and despite another strong performance last night, the media reacted with a dismissive wave.

But Bachmann’s reviews were positively sterling compared to poor Newt Gingrich’s.  If debates were scored on the basis of a candidate’s substantive knowledge about important issues and proposed solutions, Newt Gingrich would be leading the polls.  It is easy to forget, with all the anti-Newt media caricatures floating around, just how much leadership experience on the national stage this guy has, how knowledgeable he is, and how he generally runs circles around his media interlocutors. Alas, if you read today’s news accounts, you wouldn’t know Gingrich even participated in last night’s debate.  The media has written him off, which says more about them than it does about his qualifications for the presidency.

Jon Huntsman, meanwhile, has been relegated to “best friend” status.  The pundits all included a paragraph that praised his likeability, his informed opinions and his moderate stances on the issues, and then proceeded to reiterate that he has no chance of winning.  In the end, Jon won’t get the girl, but he gets to pal around with the leading man.

Nor did much happen last night to brighten the electoral fortunes of Rick Santorum, Herman Cain or Ron Paul.   All acquitted themselves well – Paul in particular was his usual lucid self in justifying his libertarian stance on a number of issues – but there are simply too many candidates on the dais for the media to cover and they have already decided, by dint of scant news coverage, that these three must go.

There you have it.  These same Republicans – at least most of them – will square off again next week in Tampa, Florida, another key battleground state.  By then, of course, the President will have announced his latest jobs plan, which will undoubtedly provide fresh fodder for the debaters.  But what will the President say – and will it make any difference?  I’ll try to address that topic in my next post.


What To Look For In Tonight’s Republican Debate

Two significant political events will take place during the next two days. The first is tonight’s debate at the Reagan Library featuring eight Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination.  The debate begins at 8 p.m. eastern time. The second is President Obama’s nationally-televised “jobs” speech, scheduled to air tomorrow at 7 p.m.

Let me focus here on the debate, and turn to the President’s speech in a separate post. Labor Day signifies that we are about halfway through the invisible primary – the roughly 10-month period in which the field of candidates that will compete in the series of caucuses and primaries is established. As always, there are two stories to follow: what the media says is happening in the nominating process, and what is actually happening.  With that in mind, let’s look at the composite polling date here.

The polling trends prompt at least four observations. First, despite being declared by several major news outlets as the “winner” of the first two major Republican debates – largely because he refused to engage in much give and take and thus appeared “presidential” – Mitt Romney’s polling support hasn’t inched upward at all.  Indeed, it dropped in the aftermath of Rick Perry’s entrance into the race.  This has to be somewhat troubling to Romney, particularly since he entered the race with relatively high name recognition due to his failed 2008 bid.  It suggests relatively soft support among potential voters.  Even more problematic, he does much worse in polling of registered voters, as opposed to surveys of all adults, suggesting his candidacy is actually weaker than the composite polling indicates.

In contrast, Rick Perry has shot to the top of the national polls, with a bullet, since formally entering the race. He leads Romney by 6-8% among all adults, but his lead doubles in surveys among registered voters.  Right now, in fact, if surveys are to be believed the race for the Republican nomination isn’t even close. This despite the obligatory media efforts to both a) take down the front-runner and b) to establish an unflattering candidate caricature.  In Perry’s case, the stereotype is that he is “dumb”.  This puts him in line behind a succession of stupid Republicans, dating back to Gerald Ford (really more clumsy than dumb), Ronald Reagan (described by Clark Clifford as an “amiable dunce”) and George W. Bush (“Shrub”), all of whom succeeded in becoming president despite their lack of intelligence. (Don’t get me started on Ike!) Perry has to hope he can somehow live up to his predecessors’ profound stupidness.  Tonight is as good a night as any to demonstrate that he lacks what it takes to be characterized as “smart.”  The key issue is whether Romney reacts to his lukewarm polling and decides to directly engage Perry, or insists on trying to sail above the fray. Much has been made of Perry’s “weak” debating skills, but those qualities are largely overrated in these types of events. What matters instead it if the candidate stays on message – and happens to pick the right message given the electoral fundamentals.  For Perry, that means focusing on jobs, jobs, jobs and – yes – jobs.  Avoid controversial statements, and instead reassure voters that you have a presidential temperament.

The second observation is Palin’s staying power in national polls.  Although her polling arc mimics Romney’s, she has managed to remain in the top tier of candidates despite running a somewhat unorthodox campaign to date.  Part of her polling success, of course, reflects name recognition based on her previous vice presidential run.   And she has the highest negatives of any of the Republican candidates.  Nonetheless, although she will not be participating in tonight’s debate, her presence will be felt.  And she will certainly be watching as well.

The third fact is the media-contrived story-line that Bachmann’s candidacy is weakening.  The recent reshuffling of Bachmann’s campaign staff has been interpreted by the media, not surprisingly, as an indication that her candidacy is struggling.  Never mind that it might make her stronger. In fact, next to Perry, she has come the farthest of any Republican in putting together an electoral coalition, she retains strong support within the Tea Party, and she currently has the most cash on hand of any Republican, except for Romney, among those who have filed FEC fundraising reports. (Paul has raised and spent more. Neither Perry nor Palin have filed as yet.).  And yet, because the media has difficulty handling more than three top-tier candidates, they have decided to pit Bachmann and Paul against each other for that coveted third spot (assuming Palin doesn’t announce). Let’s see if the two candidates take the bait tonight.

Finally, midway through the winnowing process, the bottom tier candidates – Cain, Gingrich, Santorum and Huntsman – are in full-blown survival mode. The danger here is that if the media decides they are not viable, it doesn’t matter how well they do in the debate. Gingrich, in my view, clearly was the strongest debater at Ames, but the media are simply not interested in his candidacy, and so his strong debate performance largely went unrewarded.  If these four don’t attract media buzz, they can’t raise money because donors largely follow the Mayor Daley adage of “don’t back no losers.”  Of this group, Huntsman seems to me to be closest to falling into the “Pawlenty of danger” zone. His effort to brand himself as the maverick “sensible” Republican hasn’t worked, I think, because it ignores a basic fact: the people he is appealing to don’t vote in Republican primaries.  Moreover, his strengths – particularly his diplomatic expertise – are not what voters are looking for during this electoral cycle. Santorum, trying to find a place in the field, seemed determined to dislodge Paul during the last debate. Let’s see if he tries to reprise that tactic, or looks to pick on someone else – such as Bachmann.

A final point – most potential voters will not pay attention to tonight’s debate, with more of them watching America’s Got Talent instead.  The debate matters much more to the issue activists, donors and media who collectively establish candidate viability during the invisible primary.  So when you evaluate the candidates’ statements, and judge winners and losers, do so in terms of these audiences, and not the general public.

If I can, I’ll try to come on later tonight with the post-mortem.

Palin Frames the 2012 Election For Republicans

The reason that political science forecast models are reasonably effective at predicting the popular vote months in advance of the actual election is that they are based on the fundamentals that largely determine how people vote.  As long-time readers will recall, these fundamentals typical include some combination of economic and foreign affairs indicators.  These are short-hand measures – say, quarterly growth in disposable income and war casualties – that capture the state of the world, as viewed by Joe and Jane Six Pack.  This does not mean, however, that candidates and campaigns are meaningless.  Instead, our assumption is that both sides in an election will effectively focus on those aspects of the fundamentals that benefit their own candidate, and/or disadvantage the opposition. In other words, for the forecast models to work, each of the two major candidates must choose the best campaign frame, given the fundamentals.

Not surprisingly, given her previous experience on the national stage, Sarah Palin – in yet another “non-campaign” campaign stop in Iowa – articulated what I think will be the most effective Republican frame in 2012:  ending “corporate crony capitalism” (unofficial speech transcript here).  The phrase did not originate with her, but it was the takeaway line from her 45-minute address before mostly Tea Party activists yesterday.  And it undoubtedly will work its way into the campaign frame of whoever wins the Republican nomination.  (Here’s the speech. In addition to the crony line [go to the 12:20 mark] her best line is:  “You got off the couch, you came down from the deer stands, you came out of the duck blind, you got off your John Deere”  to win an election victory of historic proportions in 2010 [this at the 9 minute mark].  That’s America – either watching t.v. or shooting things! )


The reason why this campaign frame is so effective is that it is non-partisan; as Palin made clear yesterday, it can be used to bludgeon both Republicans and Democrats.  By lumping in corporations with career politicians as “entrenched interests”, this frame will attract independent voters who are disillusioned with the partisan polarization in Washington.  Moreover, as a catchphrase it can be applied to a host of government policies, dating back to the original TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) passed by the Democratically-controlled Congress and signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush, through the auto bailout legislation, the $800 billion jobs stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act, to name the most prominent.  Think about the shorthand criticism each of these bills has received.  TARP was viewed as a “bank bailout” that, in the end, did little to resuscitate the moribund housing market or to help those who can’t meet mortgage payments.  Rather than create jobs and lower unemployment, the stimulus bill funneled money to state and local governments and their political allies.  Health “reform” as yet has done nothing to hold down skyrocketing medical costs, but it does force people to buy insurance, thus serving as a government-mandate that primarily benefits the health insurance industry.  Never mind that the situation is more complicated than these shorthand descriptions suggest – there’s no room for nuance in a presidential campaign.  Campaign frames work when they encapsulate broadly held voter sentiment, and right now a sizeable chunk of the electorate views these programs through jaundiced eyes.

Palin’s phrase is effective as a critique not just of policies, but of the legislative handmaidens as well. Consider who was instrumental in devising these policies and getting them through Congress. Why, the Wall Street bankers and financiers – Henry Paulson and Tim Geithner – and their academic cronies – Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers – who got us in this mess in the first place!  Again, this is an unfair characterization of these individuals, but all’s fair on the campaign trail.  It’s the traditional populist message that resonates with Americans’ historic distrust of  ‘bigness” -big government and big corporations.

Note that these criticisms are precisely what fueled the Tea Party movement that proved so instrumental in returning control of the House to Republicans in 2010.  But they also resonant with progressives who feel Obama and Democrats have been too willing to cut deals with Republicans to benefit corporate interests – see, for example, their reaction to the debt deal and the extension of the Bush tax cuts.  That’s why this campaign theme is going to prove so effective for whichever Republican emerges with the nomination.  And it’s a frame that Obama will need to counter if he is going to win a second term in the White House.

For her part, Palin continues running for president.  Her Iowa speech was her most detailed to date, and in it she provided more than a glimpse of the “mavericky” campaign she will likely run.  Her policy proposals include the elimination of “corporate welfare” in the form of tax loopholes and subsidies combined with an end to the corporate income tax – a clear effort to play both ends of the ideological spectrum against each other.  It is unclear whether this latest effort will help begin to overcome the sizable negatives that are associated with her public profile, but national polls continue to place her among the top three Republican candidates, behind Perry and Romney.  She goes to New Hampshire tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the President will provide the first glimpse of his likely campaign frame in a nationally-televised addressed this Thursday.  I’ll turn to that topic in my next post.