Obama’s unconvincing theory of change

"The most important lesson I've learned is you can't change Washington from the inside," President Obama said in Univision forum today. "You can only change it from the outside. That's how I got elected. That's how the big accomplishments like health care got done."

That's a rather revisionist take on how health reform got done. The health-care process, which I reported on extensively, was a firmly "inside game" strategy. There were backroom deals with most every major interest group and every swing legislator. There was the "cornhusker kickback" and the "Louisiana purchase." There was a multi-month period during which the entire process ground to a halt so Senate Finance chair Max Baucus could negotiate with five of his colleagues in a room that no members of the press or public were allowed into.

By the time the law passed, many more Americans viewed it unfavorably than viewed it favorably — exactly the opposite of what you'd expect if health care had passed through an "outside game" strategy in which, as Obama put it, "the American people ... put pressure on Congress to move these things forward."

And yet, health care passed. The inside game worked. And if Obama is reelected and thus the law survives until its 2014 implementation date, some 30 million people will get health insurance. It will be the single most transformative piece of social policy passed since the Great Society.

Between those two paragraphs lies the great tension of Obama's reelection campaign: He fulfilled more of his 2008 agenda than anyone could possibly have expected. He really did make change. But it didn't feel like the change he had made America believe in. It felt like politics as usual. At times, it felt like politics had gotten even worse than usual.

Earlier in the campaign, the White House tried to unite these facts in one explanation. Change, they said, may not have been pretty. It may not have been inspiring. But it happened. Here's how the president sold his record at a November fundraiser:

We knew it wasn’t going to come easy, and we knew it wasn’t going to come quickly.  But three years later, because of what you did in 2008, we have already started to see what change looks like.

Think about it.  Change is the first bill I signed into law — a law that says you get an equal day's work — somebody who puts in an equal day's work should get equal day's pay — (applause) — because our daughters should be treated just like our sons and have the same opportunities.  That's change.

Change is the decision we made to rescue the auto company from collapse, even when some politicians were saying we should let Detroit go bankrupt.  Change is more than 1 million jobs that we saved, and the local businesses that are picking up again — (applause) — and the fuel-efficient cars that are now rolling off the assembly lines with that word, Made In America, stamped on them.  (Applause.)

Change is the decision we made to stop waiting for Congress to do something about our addiction to oil and finally raise fuel-efficiency standards for the first time in 30 years.  (Applause.)  And because of that, by the next decade, we'll be driving cars that get 55 miles a gallon — at least.  That's what change is.

Change is the fight we won to stop handing out $60 billion worth of tax subsidies to banks and put that $60 billion into student loans.  And today, millions of students are getting more help going to college at a time when they need it most.  That's because of your work in 2008.  (Applause.)

Change is health-care reform that we passed after a century of trying.  (Applause.)  Reform that will finally ensure that in the United States of America, nobody is going to go bankrupt because they get sick.  And you've got a million young people who are already with health insurance today, on their parent's plan because of the laws that we passed.  (Applause.)  Change is the millions of Americans who can no longer be denied or dropped from their health insurance at a time when they need the care the most.  That's what change is.

Change is the fact that for the first time in history, you don't have to hide who you love in order to serve the country that you love — ending "don't ask, don't tell."  (Applause.)  Change is keeping one of the first promises I made in 2008:  By the end of December, the war in Iraq will be officially over, our troops are coming home.  (Applause.)  They will be rejoining their families for the holidays.  (Applause.)

And it hasn’t made us weaker; it's made us stronger.  We've refocused our efforts on the terrorists who actually carried out 9/11.  And thanks to our brave men and women in uniform, al Qaeda is weaker than it has ever been and Osama bin Laden will never walk this Earth again.  (Applause.)  That's because of what you did in 2008.

A lot of this wasn’t easy.  Some of it was risky.  It came in the face of tough opposition and powerful lobbyists and special interests who spent millions of dollars to keep things the way they were.  It's no secret that the steps we took haven’t always been politically popular with the crowd in Washington.  But all this progress was made because of you.  Because you stood up and made your voices heard.  Because you knocked on doors, and you made phone calls and sent out emails.  And you kept up the fight for change long after the election was over.

Judging from Obama's more recent rhetoric, that wasn't quite working. Amid 8 percent unemployment and health reform that more or less hadn't even begun, voters just weren't feeling the change, and no string of applause lines was going to change that. So at the center of his convention speech was a different riff on change, one that spoke more to the power of the people than the accomplishments of the president:

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us.  It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me.  It was about you.  My fellow citizens – you were the change.

If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible … well, change will not happen.  If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health-care choices that women should make for themselves.

Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen.  Only you have the power to move us forward.

Obama's comments at Univision were a cousin of this theory of how to talk about change. But while this theory of change might play better, it's the precise theory of change that the last few years have shattered.

Whatever you want to say about the inside game, it worked. Legislation passed. But after the midterm elections, it stopped working. And so the White House moved towards an outside game strategy, where "the American people ... put pressure on Congress to move these things forward." Perhaps the most public example was Obama's July 2011 speech, in which he said:

I’m asking you all to make your voice heard.  If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know.  If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.

So many Americans responded that Congress's Web site crashed. But Obama didn't get his "balanced approach," which meant a deal including taxes. There was no deficit-reduction deal. And even the trigger meant to force both parties to make a deal later excluded taxes.

In September of that same year, Obama gave a major national address unveiling the American Jobs Act. He followed it up by barnstorming through Colorado, North Carolina, Michigan, Virginia and Ohio. The legislation, which continued to poll well, was nevertheless killed by House Republicans.

The best example of this approach working is the expiration of the payroll tax cut at the end of 2011. The White House hammered Republicans, and Republicans, under immense pressure, eventually agreed to extend the tax cut for another year. But if the best example of the bully pulpit working is that Republicans didn't permit a tax cut to expire, well, I'd say that's a limited success.

The difficult fact that the Obama presidency has highlighted, but that past presidents have also learned, is that the president probably can't change Washington, at least not on his own. There's no button in the White House marked "change Washington." And the bully pulpit simply isn't sufficient. The people who vote for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and Eric Cantor do not tend to find Obama's speeches persuasive. Quite the opposite, actually. There's good evidence that the more the president does to try to win the public over, the more the opposition hardens against the president's policies.

Obama can't admit that, of course. No candidate for president can. "Vote for me, I have a realistic view of institutional dysfunction and decline and will do my best to work within the horrible system you've constructed for me" simply isn't a winning slogan. But while it's true that the public could change Washington if they began to speak with a clear and determined voice, that's not likely to happen in a closely and bitterly divided polity. And so Washington isn't going to change. But, as Obama's first term proved, that doesn't mean that a lot of change can't come out of Washington.

Related: My New Yorker article on the weakness of the bully pulpit.

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