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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

In Weighing Obama’s Strategic Performance, Context Is Everything

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on August 20, 2010.
There’s quite a boom market right now for theories about what Barack Obama’s done wrong, and/or what he could or should have done right but didn’t. The most impressive of those, as noted here the other day, was by John Judis, who makes the case that a “populist” approach could have positioned Obama and the Democratic Party much better for the midterms and for 2012.
Matt Bai of The New York Times also penned an influential piece arguing that Obama’s focus on legislative accomplishments has fatally interfered with his ability to project big national political messages.
Now comes Ezra Klein with a succinct rejoinder to anyone trying to essay some single-bullet theory explanation of Obama’s political standing, or where it might be if he had adopted a different strategy.
Ezra begins by tartly noting that we’ll never know what might have happened in some parallel universe where Obama did what Judis or Bai think he should have done. But using objective measurements against the only recent presidents who took office in similar circumstances–Carter, Reagan and Clinton–Obama’s approval ratings look reasonably good:

Obama’s current approval rating of 44 percent beats Clinton, Carter and Reagan. All of them were between 39 percent and 41 percent at this point in their presidencies. And all of them were former governors who accomplished less legislatively than Obama has at this point in his presidency. That seems like a problem for Bai’s thesis. At least two of them are remembered as great communicators with a deft populist touch. That seems like a problem for Judis’s thesis.

Indeed. But Ezra goes on to make a point about the midterm results we are anticipating that’s become something of an obsession for me: the Democratic “losses” in the House everyone’s talking about are from the base of a strong Democratic majority. With the sole exception of 1934, the first midterm after the beginning of the Great Depression, and 2002, the first election after 9/11, every new president since Theodore Roosevelt has seen his party lose House seats in the first ensuing midterm.
But “gains” and “losses” are always relative. All 435 Members of the House are up for re-election. If Democrats lose 37 seats, they will have won the midterms, albeit by a reduced margin from 2006 and 2008.
All in all, while theories of what Obama woulda shoulda coulda done are interesting and sometimes informative, context is still essential in understanding the extent to which his actual conduct in office has or hasn’t damaged his political status. As Ezra concludes:

There’s plenty to criticize in Obama’s policies and plenty to lament in his politics. But when it comes to grand theories explaining how his strategic decisions led him to this horrible — but historically, slightly-better-than-average — political position, I’m skeptical. There are enormously powerful structural forces in American politics that seem to drag down first-term presidents. There is the simple mathematical reality that large majorities are always likely to lose a lot of seats. There is a terrible and ongoing economic slump — weekly jobless claims hit 500,000 today — that is causing Americans immense pain and suffering. Any explanations for the current political mood that don’t put those front and center is, at the least, not doing enough to challenge the counterfactual.

Selah.

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