Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

It’s Better to Underpromise and Overdeliver than the Reverse

This is what James Pethokoukis argues Obama seems to have learned from the political mistakes of the Bush administration. While I appreciate Peter Lawler’s hesitation about commenting overmuch on a man who is not yet President and who has not yet taken any formal presidential actions beyond appointments, it’s not exactly tea-leaf reading to take note of some of the signals he’s providing. Based on these signals, Pethokoukis thinks Obama’s political strategy will be to continue to wax pessimistic about the economy’s immediate prospects, run a continuous commentary on the enormity and the difficulty of the task before him and, subtly (or not) work to "Hooverize" Bush in the process. It’s not a bad plan if you are Obama, but Pethokoukis does not think it will be as easy for Obama and his supporters to Hooverize Bush as it was for Roosevelt and his compatriots to Hooverize Hoover. Of course, this is not owing to any special lingering feelings of affection for Bush but has to do, rather, with what Pethokoukis sees as a kind of impatience in the American electorate that he sees no reason to believe will subside in the next four years.

Pethokoukis thinks that if the prognosticators are right and an economic turnaround is still a distant hope, Obama will have to "own" this bad economy regardless of the blame may or may not cling to Bush. A better lens through which to view what is likely to happen in 2012, Pethokoukis argues, is the elections of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton on the heels of recession and the rejection of the incumbent presidents presiding over the downturn. It’s also pretty clear that Pethokoukis thinks many of Obama’s proposals to "fix" the economy will actually work to prolong recovery and, thus, seal his fate.

My own view is that Pethokoukis is seeing only one of two possibilities here . . . and maybe this gets back to Peter Lawler’s hesitation about speculative commentary. I think he’s right to note the impatience of the electorate with a bad economy and it’s likely (though not yet certain) that many of the steps Obama takes will work substantially to make recovery less immediate. Depending on how bad it gets and on how convincing of the Democrat’s share in the blame for this the Republican party can be in the midterm elections, Obama may have a serious electoral problem in 2012. But it is still a stretch, right now, to imagine that continued frustration with the economy or the substantive truth of an Obama Adminstration’s role in that continuation will, by itself, readily translate into a change in our current political reality. Even with that frustration and a substantive critique of Democrats, a change in GOP fortunes is going to require a much more concentrated and serious effort at persuasion than Republicans have been either capable of giving or inclined to put forward in recent years. As I argued below in response to Jonah Goldberg’s column about the coming Democrat branding, neither side has effectively persuaded the vast majority of the American electorate of anything. So, it’s true: the electorate may grow weary of Obama. Having said that, is there any indication (or is there merely a hope) that they’ll be any less weary of Republicans?

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