Barack Obama is reportedly going out on the road to stump for his preferences in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. It’s not apt to change anything in Washington right now — but it might be a good choice anyway.
Why won’t it work? Presidents have tried for decades to persuade voters to pressure Congress on specific policy issues. It rarely, if ever, does any good. The problem is mainly one of constituencies. Yes, Obama was solidly elected by the American people, winning about 51 percent of the vote. But members of Congress don’t need to worry about that — they mostly worry about their own districts. And most Republicans won far more than 51 percent of the vote.
Eric Cantor, for example, was just reelected with a 17-percentage-point advantage. Why would he listen to Democrats mobilized by Obama? Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp just won with a 32-point margin; Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers won by a whopping 56 points. Send those Republicans all the e-mails and harass them with all the phone calls you can — they still aren’t going to listen to people who disagree with the views they just rode to reelection.
It’s possible that some Democrats on the fence might be nudged towards the president’s position by their constituents. But ultimately, Obama needs House Republicans in order to get a deal, and Republican members of the House strongly tend to have (unsurprisingly) Republican constituents.
So should Obama just stay home, negotiating behind closed doors? Probably not. On issues where his views are already well known from the recent campaign, it’s unlikely that going public will polarize public opinion any more than it already is, so there’s not much to lose. Going public might help his negotiating position in another way: If Republicans do suspect his insistence on ending the Bush-era tax rates for the wealthy is a bluff, repeating it publicly will make that position somewhat more believable.
But the real reason it’s probably a good idea for the president to take to the road isn’t the lame-duck session; it’s 2014.
The best strategy for Democrats to do well is to keep the president popular, and for that, peace and prosperity is the best plan, so whatever Obama can do to achieve those goals would, of course, be wise.
Beyond that, however, keeping Obama’s volunteers engaged and raising the importance of Congress might be helpful for the party, at least on the margins. And taking the fight over the fiscal cliff public should help do that. Republicans might not listen to Democratic activists telling them to surrender to the president, but activists engaged in this fight now are probably more likely to stay engaged and vote in 2014 – and to bring others with them.
For Democrats, in terms of electoral politics, nothing is as important as finding ways to get irregular voters to show up for midterm elections. There’s no way of knowing whether Obama’s tour will work, but it’s worth trying anything that might do the job.