Friedman Weighs In On the “Passionless” President – But Is He Right?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.  New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is once again lambasting President Obama for being too passive and failing to rally the public behind his legislative initiatives. In his latest column Friedman writes: “President Obama has the right convictions on all these issues, but he has not shown the courage of his convictions…If you listen to Obama, he eloquently describes our energy, climate and fiscal predicaments: how we have to end our addiction to oil and cut spending and raise revenues in an intelligent way that also invests in the future and doesn’t just slash and burn. But then the president won’t lead. When pressed on energy, he will say that he just doesn’t have the Republican votes for a serious clean energy policy. But the president has never gotten in the G.O.P.’s face on this issue. He has not put his own energy plan on the table and then gone out to the country and tried to sell it.”

Friedman continues: “On fiscal policy, the president has put forth a decent opening budget bid and has opted for the same inside game of letting Congress take the lead in forging a compromise with the G.O.P. that would bring spending under control and raise revenues. That inside game worked for the president in producing health care reform and the stimulus, but in those cases he had a Democratic majority to push through decent legislation. I fear this time he will not have the votes for the kind of serious, sensible, Simpson-Bowles-like budget cuts and tax increases we need — without his leading and enlisting the public in a much more aggressive way. …It is what a lot of Obama supporters find frustrating about him: They voted for Obama to change the polls not read the polls.”

Friedman’s complaint regarding Obama’s “passive” leadership approach is not original – I noted in my previous posts that it has become a recurring leitmotif among pundits, particularly those, like Friedman, who write generally from the Left. However, the idea that presidents can “sell” their policy to Congress by leveraging public opinion is one that has little-to-no empirical support among political scientists. It’s not for lack of trying: a number of scholars have sought to establish a link between a president’s public standing and their effectiveness in getting legislation through Congress.  More than three decades ago Sam Kernell, in his book Going Public, made the most cogent theoretical case for the idea that presidents can rally public opinion on behalf of their legislative program. Alas, Kernell rested much of his argument on Ronald Reagan’s presidency – particularly Reagan’s success in getting Congress, including a Democratically-controlled House, to pass his 1981 package of tax and spending cuts.  Upon closer inspection, however, it turns out that Reagan’s success in getting that legislation passed depended as much if not more on old-fashioned horse-trading with key members of Congress, rather than any speechmaking by the President.

With hindsight, it appears that Kernell was much more effective at documenting changes in presidents’ communication strategies than he was in showing that those changes had any impact on their legislative success.  Subsequent research has found that presidents’ efforts to “go public” on behalf of their legislative program are only marginally successful and then under only the most stringent conditions.  Indeed, most political scientists view the idea that presidents can go on national television to rally support for their legislation very much outdated (something Kernell acknowledges in the latest edition of his classic text).  In an era in which the media has increasingly fragmented into smaller and more opinionated news outlets (think of the change in your lifetime from the three major evening news broadcasts to the dozens of cable news programs), presidents are more likely to bypass national news media outlets altogether, and instead adopt a strategy of “going local” by targeting local newspapers and television stations.  However, the initial studies of this change in tactics suggest it too has proved to be of distinctly limited effectiveness.  As a case in point, one need only recall George W. Bush’s ultimately fruitless effort to barnstorm through 60 cities on behalf of social security reform in 2005. In his memoirs, Bush recalls laying out his “going local” strategy with Republican congressional leaders. The response?  “If you lead, we’ll be behind you…but we’ll be way behind you.”  And so they were.  Despite giving speeches, convening town halls, and even holding an event “with my favorite Social Security beneficiary, Mother” Bush’s legislation went nowhere in a Republican-controlled Congress.

Upon consideration, it is easy to see why, and to identify the weaknesses in Friedman’s reasoning more generally. First, the “going public/local” thesis presumes that presidents can affect their popular approval as measured, for example, by Gallup polls. But as Obama is discovering, this is not the case. Many pundits were convinced that his presidency had reached a turning point when the lame-duck 111th Congress passed several pieces of legislation shortly after the 2010 midterms.  In faact, as this chart shows, after a brief bump up in approval, his ratings have dropped down again closer to what they were prior to the midterms.   As I noted in an earlier post, they aren’t likely to go much higher than this, barring a significant uptick in the economy, until the 2012 presidential campaign is well underway, and voters began evaluating him in comparison to a single Republican opponent. At that point I expect to see his approval  ratings begin to climb.


(Interestingly, approval numbers for Congress have also begun to recede – I’ll deal with that in a separate post.)

Second, Friedman assumes those approval ratings are fungible, that is, that they can be converted into a currency of exchange acceptable to members of Congress. From this perspective, a popular presidency has surplus cash in the bank with which to “buy” congressional support. But members of Congress don’t really care what the president’s national poll numbers are – they are only interested in what their smaller geographic-based constituency in their state or House district thinks about the president’s stance on any particular issue.  And in most cases most of the time, most of the constituents aren’t paying attention, or have no strong opinion. And when constituents are paying attention, they are as likely to take their cues from their Representative or Senator as they are to listen to the President.  Keep in mind that members of Congress can “go public” as effectively with their constituents as can the president.  It is small wonder, then, that political scientist Jeff Cohen finds that president’s efforts to “go local” – that is, to target local media outlets as a way of ramping up support – have only modest effects in terms of improving media coverage of the president, never mind raising his poll numbers.

I understand that Friedman is not a political scientist; he is an opinion columnist whose job is to stake out a position to get people talking.  But it is important, given his rather large readership, that someone call him out when his opinion appears to contradict what political scientists think they know. I’m sure if passing energy and budget legislation were as simple as touring the country giving speeches and “getting in Republicans’ face” President Obama would already be doing that.  As it stands, however, there’s no reason why he should pay any attention to what Friedman writes on this score.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *