Wonkblog: Articles

Do presidential speeches work? Or do they make things worse?

(Andrew Harrer - Bloomberg)
I’ve got an article in this week’s New Yorker arguing that presidential persuasion isn’t that effective when applied to the public, and, worse, is often counterproductive during times of divided government. An excerpt:

Reagan succeeded in passing major provisions of his agenda, such as the 1981 tax cuts, but, Edwards wrote, “surveys of public opinion have found that support for regulatory programs and spending on health care, welfare, urban problems, education, environmental protection and aid to minorities”—all programs that the President opposed—“increased rather than decreased during Reagan’s tenure.” Meanwhile, “support for increased defense expenditures was decidedly lower at the end of his administration than at the beginning.” In other words, people were less persuaded by Reagan when he left office than they were when he took office.
Nor was Reagan’s Presidency distinguished by an unusually strong personal connection with the electorate. A study by the Gallup organization, from 2004, found that, compared with all the Presidential job-approval ratings it had on record, Reagan’s was slightly below average, at fifty-three per cent. It was only after he left office that Americans came to see him as an unusually likable and effective leader.[...]

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In praise of congressional staff

(Sen. Michael Bennet)
As you have no doubt heard by now, the supercommittee failed. So did the Obama-Boehner negotiations that preceded it, and the Biden-Cantor negotiations that preceded that. Those efforts failed because the principals — and the political bases they represent — couldn’t come to an agreement. What chance they did have was almost entirely because of the staff scurrying in the background.

The idea that a handful of politicians, few of whom have any formal background in economics or budget analysis, were the ones doing the heavy policy lifting, is laughable. They’re in the room to make the final decisions. In some cases, they’re there to show that they and their party are taking the negotiations seriously. It’s common to hear stories of bored legislators tapping their feet through these sessions like schoolchildren waiting to be released for recess.

But behind the scenes were dozens of staff members putting in long nights and giving up weekends to try to find something, anything, that could lead to an agreement. The Congressional Budget Office was offering nonpartisan, detailed estimates on the costs of various proposals. The Congressional Research Service was sending out clear, detailed summaries of the provisions under consideration. Amid seemingly endless partisanship and polarization, the work of congressional support staff is, in most cases, an oasis of professionalism.

Which is perhaps why some of the Republican presidential candidates have begun attacking it.

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Column: Land of (missed) opportunity

After the failure of the 1973 Geneva Peace Conference, Israeli diplomat Abba Eban sighed that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” In recent years, the same could be said of Americans.

Two months ago, the U.S. marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Sadly, we commemorated a tragedy without celebrating much triumph. The post-9/11 moment was an unheralded instance of national — even global — unity. The Bush administration could have used it for almost anything. And, to be fair, it did. The nation burned trillions of dollars in two wars and a budget-busting round of tax cuts. The president told us to go shopping, and the Federal Reserve held interest rates at extraordinarily low levels. The result? Deficits and a credit bubble. That was missed opportunity No. 1.

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Why Obama is no FDR

The left and the right don’t agree on much these days, but they do agree on this: Barack Obama is no FDR.

For liberals, this is a disappointment. They had hoped for, as Time magazine put it after Obama’s victory, “a new new deal.” Instead, they find themselves mounting an unexpected rear-guard defense of Medicare and Keynesian economics.

For conservatives, it’s a relief. Two short years ago, they feared an FDR-like realignment. Today, they thrill to the idea of undoing much of the original New Deal, or at least the Great Society.

But for political scientists and historians of the Great Depression, the agonies and ecstasies of both sides are a continual annoyance — an example of how the past and the present are distorted by America’s fixation on the president and inattention to almost everything else in the political system.

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Could this time have been different?

Christina Romer had traveled to Chicago to perform an unpleasant task: she needed to scare her new boss. David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s top political adviser, had been very clear about that. He thought the president-elect needed to know exactly what he would be walking into when he took the oath of office in January. But it fell to Romer to deliver the bad news.

So Romer, a preternaturally cheerful economist whose expertise on the Great Depression made her an obvious choice to head the Council of Economic Advisers, gathered her tables and her charts and, on a snowy day in mid-December, sat down to explain to the next President of the United States of America exactly what sort of mess he was inheriting.

Axelrod had warned her against pulling her punches, and so she didn’t. It was not a pleasant presentation to sit through. Afterward, Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s friend from Chicago and Romer’s successor, remarked that “that must be the worst briefing any president-elect has ever had.”

But Romer wasn’t trying to be alarmist. Her numbers were based, at least in part, on everybody else’s numbers: There were models from forecasting firms such as Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s Analytics. There were preliminary data pouring in from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Federal Reserve. Romer’s predictions were more pessimistic than the consensus, but not by much.

By that point, the shape of the crisis was clear: The housing bubble had burst, and it was taking the banks that held the loans, and the households that did the borrowing, down with it. Romer estimated that the damage would be about $2 trillion over the next two years and recommended a $1.2 trillion stimulus plan. The political team balked at that price tag, but with the support of Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary who would soon lead the National Economic Council, she persuaded the administration to support an $800 billion plan.

The next challenge was to persuade Congress. There had never been a stimulus that big, and there hadn’t been many financial crises this severe. So how to estimate precisely what a dollar of infrastructure spending or small-business relief would do when let loose into the economy under these unusual conditions? Romer was asked to calculate how many jobs a stimulus might create. Jared Bernstein, a labor economist who would be working out of Vice President Biden’s office, was assigned to join the effort.

Romer and Bernstein gathered data from the Federal Reserve, from Mark Zandi at Moody’s, from anywhere they could think of. The incoming administration loved their report and wanted to release it publicly. Romer took it home over Christmas to double-check, rewrite and pick over. At 6 a.m. Jan. 10, just days before Obama would be sworn in as president, his transition team lifted the embargo on “The Job Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” It was a smash hit.

“It will be a joy to argue policy with an administration that provides comprehensible, honest reports,” enthused columnist Paul Krugman in the New York Times.

There was only one problem: It was wrong.

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