Discord and disarray won't help Obama's legacy

Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama walks on the South Lawn after stepping off Marine One in the rain after returning to the White House in Washington from Newport News, Virginia, February 26, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Americans don't like congressmen in general. But most like their own individual congressman.

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  • Voters' predictions are especially suspect when they are asked their reaction to a policy such as the sequester.

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  • In the long run, discord and disarray don't help an incumbent president accomplish anything.

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Barack Obama is said to believe that he can win the political fight over the sequester. That's certainly the conventional wisdom.

And there is some evidence to support it. When you ask voters who will be to blame if the sequester occurs, Obama or "congressional Republicans," they're much more likely to say they'll blame the latter.

Obama also comes out on top when you ask whether they will blame "Obama and congressional Democrats" or "congressional Republicans."

There's reason to wonder, however, whether the reaction after something happens will be the same as what people predict before it does.

Voters are not always good predictors of their future attitudes. That's why pollsters ask people which candidate they would vote for "if the election were held today." They don't ask them to predict whom they'll vote for.

Also, groups of politicians are almost always more unpopular than individuals. When pollsters ask whether you would like to see all congressional incumbents defeated for re-election, large majorities sometimes say yes.

But in every congressional election starting with 1934, a large majority of congressional incumbents have been re-elected. That was true even in the recent high-turnover years of 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Americans don't like congressmen in general. But most like their own individual congressman.

Voters' predictions are especially suspect when they are asked their reaction to a policy -- the sequester -- which they don't understand and whose effects no one is sure of.

Obama is out on the hustings with his teleprompter warning of the horrific effects of the sequester's cut in domestic services. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been warning that there may be three-hour lines at airport passenger-screening points.

This is the old Washington Monument routine. As Washington Monthly editor Charlie Peters explained in the 1970s, the standard procedure for an agency faced with a funding cutback is to cut the services most visible to the public.

In Washington tourism season, that meant closing the Washington Monument. Congressmen from all 435 districts are likely to get angry calls from constituents immediately.

The Washington Monument is now closed for repair of earthquake damage. But Napolitano's threat is an obvious example of the phenomenon Peters described.

One way to counter this, as some Republicans have figured out, is to call for elimination of travel for conventions and meetings. Voters suspect, probably rightly, that most of these are a waste of time and money.

The larger point is that it's very hard to predict public reaction to things that haven't happened. And that applies to the next budget issue down the road, the expiration of the continuing resolution on March 27.

Translated into English, the government will not have money to function then unless Congress takes some action to fund it.

House Republicans are aware of this and have reportedly been preparing a continuing resolution funding the government until September at sequester levels and also giving the Defense Department leeway to apportion the cuts according to priorities rather than across the board.

They might consider giving the same leeway to Homeland Security. (Disclosure of personal interest: I'm a frequent flyer.)

Obama says that would be unacceptable without revenue increases. But Senate Democrats have been quoted anonymously as saying they would pretty much have to go along.

That would leave Obama in an uncomfortable position. A veto would defund the government. Does he want to do that when the Democratic-majority Senate as well as the Republican-controlled House have given him a viable alternative?

For Senate Democrats to take that course would be a recognition that this president is irrelevant to fixing our fiscal problems. They would be working around him, as they did during the debt ceiling battle in summer 2011.

Second-term presidents usually try to advance some major policy initiative rather than engage in campaign-style conflicts with the congressional opposition.

Ronald Reagan pushed successfully for tax reform and emerged with job approval high enough to withstand the Iran-Contra scandal.

Bill Clinton fashioned a balanced budget package with Speaker Newt Gingrich. Clinton's job approval actually rose after the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal broke.

George W. Bush tried for Social Security reform. That effort foundered in the face of Democratic opposition and Republican reluctance, and his job approval suffered.

Obama balks at addressing entitlement reform and tries to score points against Republicans. But in the long run, discord and disarray don't help an incumbent president accomplish anything.

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