Friends & Colleagues,
For years, I have been fascinated by the relationship between the public and legislative bodies, both the U.S. Congress and those at the state level. What has particularly amazed me is how often very intelligent people feel compelled to ask elected officials for permission to advance their agenda as opposed to first making their case to their own constituents — who not coincidentally make up all or part of the constituency of the very elected officials whose permission is sought. In effect, they bypass the public and instead rely on intermediaries.
These past few weeks, culminating with the dramatic events of this weekend, we have seen the President essentially begging House Republicans to do the right thing, from his perspective, and based on what polls tell us, what most Americans also think is the right thing to do.
Similarly, it always amazed me during last year’s health care debate that a President with a then-60 percent approval rating decided to leave it to a Congress with a 28 percent approval rating to sell the plan to the public — the same plan now labeled “Obamacare.”
That approach is actually the origin of what we are seeing now, as the tidal wave that hit House Democrats in 2010 was a direct result of the failure to sell the initiatives of the Democrats during Obama’s first two years in the Oval Office.
Recently, you read my thoughts about disintermediation and my feeling that we are seeing the democratization of everything.
What fascinates me about President Obama’s approach is that he spent weeks negotiating with elected officials on Capitol Hill asking, basically, for permission from the House Republicans to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and taking heat from members of his own party, even as every “okay, NOW this’ll fix ’em” proposal the White House came up with failed.
The American public is increasingly confused and I say: no wonder. As democratization and disintermediation continue, who’s really surprised that no economist, no Treasury Secretary, no Warren Buffet — can sell an economic message in these times? The President has to do it.
As for the intractability of the House Republicans and their newly arrived tea party caucus, my first temptation, like many, is to ask, “Who are these people?”
But that’s too easy, and in all but a few cases, not fair. The House Republicans, and especially the most conservative members serving their first terms, believe they were given this mandate directly from the voters in the last election, and that no intermediary — not the Speaker, not the inside-the-beltway talking heads, and not a busload of economists — will change their minds.
As I write this, we appear to have reached a compromise in the debt extension crisis — a compromise the public has both wanted and expected to happen in advance of Tuesday’s deadline. But I also think that after weeks of dueling press conferences, talk show spin, and numerous attempts to cajole, scare, and almost plead, none of it has worked for the President and his allies as far as the substance of their original proposals.
Going back to my initial point about my surprise at those who approach the legislative process by asking permission, I wonder if we have not just seen that unfold in Washington.
I am an unapologetic Obama supporter. I also have respect for the House Republicans’ right to an opinion. I admire on one level their guts and strength of conviction and believe they think they are right. I also believe they think they are the only ones in the debate who have a true and recent mandate from the public. I don’t agree with that, but I’m afraid our team has done a poor job of making our case in any direct way to the public outside the beltway.
If you believe my theory of disintermediation, then you cannot sell the public on a strategy of talking heads on interview shows or editorials in the New York Times. And I absolutely feel you cannot forge a compromise by calling your adversaries “fanatics” and “extremists.”
So I ask, how does a President who soared to heights few have in history, who captured his party’s nomination by going over the heads of the political ruling class, who built his ascent on a foundation of being a great communicator, move forward?
The President took this debate to the American public — not as aggressively or as early as I would have hoped, but he did nonetheless. I had hoped that he would crisscross the country. Throw away the maps for the 2012 election. Tell the story of how we really got here and the way forward. The only thing that I thought would really forge a compromise was for both the House Republicans and the Democrats to see evidence that the President has a mandate with the real public that transcends the 2010 congressional election.
The only effective way to recover from damage done to the political standing of all involved, especially the President, will be to take his case aggressively to American people. It’s time to get his staff off of television, tell the economists to go back to their day jobs, and for the President to speak directly to the public from sea to shining sea — utilizing disintermediation as a strategy, not unlike what he did in the 2008 election.
As the most recent polling data show, the President started with an advantage over the House Republicans.
In the recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, just 38% of voters approve of the job President Obama is doing in handling the federal budget deficit — but as low as that might sound, that’s an 11-point advantage over the Republicans in Congress, who attract only a 27% approval rating. An even more recent Gallup Poll last week found that President Obama had a 41% approval rating compared to Speaker Boehner’s 31% and Harry Reid’s 23%.
President Obama can take even more encouragement from the associations that voters made in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, which are better than even his advantage over the Republican Congress on handling the federal budget deficit.
Voters think President Obama is doing more than Republicans in Congress to protect the economic interests of “you and your family” by 47% to 37%. Voters also see President Obama doing more to protect the interests of (publicly revered) small businesses (48%-39%) and of middle class-Americans (53%-35%). A recent Pew poll also found a 51% majority of people think the Democrat Party is “more concerned with the needs of people like me,” compared to 30% who think that of the Republican party.
Meanwhile, voters give a decisive edge to Republicans — although one that might slice more against than for in the current context — when it comes to protecting the economic interests of Wall Street financial institutions (59%-26%) and large business corporations (67%-24%).
Concerns about the federal budget deficit appear also to be damaging consumer attitudes about the economy — at a time when the economy can least afford it. According to Gallup’s ongoing polling (July 22-24, 2011), 51% think the economy is “poor” and 73% think the economy is getting worse. That’s an increase of 11 points since early July. It’s no surprise then that the public itself was almost willing there to be a compromise with 68% in a recent Pew poll saying lawmakers should be willing to compromise and 56% believing that Congress would reach a deal before the August 2 deadline.
All the more reason for the President to start taking his case to the country and spend less time trying to bargain with Republicans who are waving what they see as their mandate.
A lively debate at this point would still be healthy for the country. But it will only work if the public thinks it is hearing a message directly, in its own towns, states, and neighborhoods. It’s called democratization.