Obama’s second term is upending what we think we know about Washington

April 19, 2013

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s team became famous for submitting almost everything they did to rigorous A/B testing. Staff members would send different versions of a message to small groups of randomly selected supporters, determine which produced the best response and then disseminate the winning appeal to the audience at large. The campaign made choices on the basis of hard data — even when the results violated the theories of experienced political operatives.

This was something of a culture shock to the old-school consultants who think politics is more art than science (and fancy themselves modern-day Picassos). But the data won out. As Dan Siroker, director of analytics for the Obama campaign, told Wired, “Over time, people started to see the value in taking a step back and saying, ‘Well, here’s three things we should try. Let’s run an experiment and see what works.’”

It’s far easier to A/B test a campaign than a presidency. It turns out to be hard to get a representative subset of Congress members to act as a control group. Yet even if you can’t do a rigorous test of how best to govern, you can still experiment with different approaches. Right now, the Obama administration is running one of the most consequential tests in recent history. The early results will unnerve many who think they know how Washington works.

President Obama grieves over the massacre in Newton. (Larry Downing/Reuters)
President Obama grieves over the massacre in Newton. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Let's Try The Bully Pulpit

The core question of presidential politics is how to pass anything through a Congress paralyzed by the bitter disagreements between the two parties. Thus far in Obama's second term, that question has taken on three specific forms: gun-control legislation, immigration reform and a budget deal. Unusually, the White House has opted for a very different leadership approach in each case.

Perhaps the most common view of presidential power is that it’s all about the bully pulpit. If the president just delivers the right speeches, in the right places, to the right audiences, he can mobilize the American public to break the gridlock in Washington.

The gun bill is the purest test of this theory. Since the massacre in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the president has crisscrossed the nation trying to mobilize public opinion against intransigent members of Congress. The public is with him. More than 80 percent of Americans, for example, support expanded background checks for gun purchases.

“There is only one thing that can stand in the way of change that just about everybody agrees on, and that’s politics in Washington,” he said this month in Hartford, Conn. “You would think that with those numbers Congress would rush to make this happen.”

To bolster the president’s vigorous effort, first lady Michelle Obama hit the road, putting her wild popularity to use. “Right now,” she said in Chicago, “my husband is fighting as hard as he can, and engaging as many people as he can, to pass common-sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence. And these reforms deserve a vote in Congress.”

The White House even had the mother of a Sandy Hook victim deliver the president’s radio address last weekend. “We have to convince the Senate to come together and pass common-sense gun responsibility reforms that will make our communities safer and prevent more tragedies like the one we never thought would happen to us,” Francine Wheeler told the country.


(Olivier Douliery/ABACAUSA.com)

Beer Diplomacy

Obama’s approach to the budget, meanwhile, illustrates another model of presidential power. In his search for a “grand bargain” with Republicans to shrink the deficit, Obama is following the counsel (and kvetching) of those who think that the only obstacle to a bipartisan budget deal is the president’s tense personal relations with opposition legislators. You might call this the Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan formula: If Obama would just knock back a cocktail or two with Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, then, like the O’Neill and the Reagan in the 1980s, the amiable trio could arrive at a budget deal.

So Obama has built a budget aimed directly at backroom negotiations. He included policies such as chained CPI, a de facto reduction in Social Security benefits that is broadly unpopular but designed to appeal to Republican lawmakers. He previewed his budget over lunch with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. The night his budget was publicly released, Obama hosted a White House dinner for a dozen Senate Republicans. This week, he scheduled dinner with a similarly sized group of Senate Democrats. If the problem in Washington is that the president doesn’t spend enough time wooing fellow politicians, we should have a deal any day now.

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Backseat Leader

So the White House is running an outside game on gun control and an inside game on the budget. But there’s a third and more provocative theory of presidential power. Widely subscribed to by political scientists, this theory makes people in Washington very uncomfortable because it upends cherished assumptions about how politics in general — and the presidency in particular — functions.

Under this theory, and the data that supports it, the president isn’t a unifying figure, or even a particularly persuasive one, when government is divided. Decades of polls show little evidence that presidential speeches move voters. They can draw attention to issues, but they rarely change attitudes — and they occasionally backfire.

Worse, because the president is an intrinsically polarizing figure, anything he endorses becomes instantly less appealing to the minority party. In eras of divided government, that can make it impossible to pass legislation. If this theory of presidential power is correct, the best thing a president can do is often nothing — at least in public.

This is largely the approach the White House has taken to immigration reform. Early in the process, Obama gave some speeches and made his support clear. Since then, he has let the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” take the lead. As a result, if an immigration bill is passed, much credit will go to Sen. John McCain, who opposed Obama in 2008, Sen. Marco Rubio, who appears likely to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer. Insofar as Obama leads at all on the issue, he leads from behind. Yet immigration reform keeps grinding forward.


The Gang of Eight sells their immigration plan. (The Washington Post)

The winner is ...?

Indeed, of these three issues, immigration is in the best shape. The centerpiece of the gun-control bill, expanded background checks, has fallen apart in the Senate. It’s too early to say what the final outcome will be on a budget deal. Obama’s efforts have led to encouraging comments from Republicans who were happy to be invited to dinner and glad to see entitlement cuts in the president’s budget, but who are nowhere near proposing concessions of their own. Immigration, meanwhile, is moving forward, and insiders are more optimistic today than they were a month ago.

Of course, this isn’t a real A/B/C test. Immigration, gun control and the budget are different issues subject to different political dynamics. It’s certainly easier to lead from behind on something like immigration reform, where crucial Republicans have decided they have a strong incentive to step up.

But for those who confidently say that the president just needs to get out front, the different prospects of these three policy initiatives should give pause. Sometimes, the best thing a president can do to advance his agenda is to let someone else lead.

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Neil Irwin | April 19, 2013