Letters: Messaging Matters

Guy Molyneux ["Can Obama Make the Pivot?" June 2011]argues that President Barack Obama must address the deficit and do so by contrasting more sharply Democratic and Republican priorities. In Molyneux's telling, the public wants to cut the deficit and, moreover, believes that doing so would help the economy. This seems to afford the president no option but to pursue deficit reduction.

I am not quite persuaded. Recent presidential elections suggest that voters do not prioritize fiscal discipline over economic growth. In an analysis that I presented on the blog The Monkey Cage, I found that the percent of votes won by incumbent presidents or their party's nominee depends little on how much the national debt increased or decreased on their watch. Much more important was how much the economy had grown. This matters for Obama's re-election chances because, as some economists have argued, cuts to government spending may actually hurt economic growth.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that cuts wouldn't hinder growth. If that's true, it makes sense, as Molyneux argues, for the president to address deficit reduction.

As political scientist Lynn Vavreck argues in her book The Message Matters, incumbent presidents and their challengers face a choice: whether to focus on the economy and, if not, what other issue to emphasize. Incumbent presidents should talk about the economy when it's growing strongly; when it's not, they should find another campaign message. The challenger should talk about the economy when it's growing weakly or not at all and talk about something else when the economy is strong. At this point, the economy is growing, albeit weakly.

If the economy begins to grow more, then this should be Obama's focus in 2012. In this case, Obama's current attention to the deficit now makes it more difficult for the Republicans to emphasize the deficit as an alternative issue. As Vavreck explains, a candidate who seeks to emphasize an issue other than the economy can do so successfully if two conditions hold: the candidate's view is closer to that of the majority of voters than is the opponent's view and the opponent is committed to this relatively unpopular position. By supporting deficit reduction now, Obama makes it more difficult for Republicans to claim that he disagrees with voters' stated desire to reduce the deficit, and any budget agreements that do reduce the deficit would help Obama even more. Moreover, as Molyneux suggests, if Obama emphasizes his opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts to popular programs, then his position will be closer to that of most voters than what prominent Republicans like Paul Ryan espouse. This only makes it harder for Republicans to use the deficit as a cudgel.

If the economy is only growing weakly, then Republicans should seize on this point, and Obama should emphasize another issue. Obama could do so by emphasizing the less popular aspects of the Republican agenda and thereby try to make the election about the two parties' broader philosophies of government. To be sure, this will be an uphill battle: Presidents facing weak economies are historically vulnerable, and a good campaign strategy cannot easily overcome economic reality. But Molyneux suggests a plausible way to fight this battle: by arguing that the Republicans' plan would cut taxes for the wealthy and reduce spending on popular government programs.

As the 2012 campaign gets underway, I'm not as worried as some that Obama will be a milquetoast candidate, more concerned about burnishing his bipartisan credentials than attacking Republicans. Here is an underappreciated fact: In the fall of 2008, more than half of Obama's campaign advertisements contained attacks on John McCain. If the economy fails to improve, a similar or even greater pugnaciousness may not guarantee Obama's re-election. But, win or lose, Obama will fight, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear him repeat much of what Molyneux believes he should say.

Associate Professor of Political Science,
George Washington University

In their usual display of one-sided bipartisanship, Democrats are railing against the evils of budget deficits that didn't seem to bother anyone when they were being driven up by Republicans but that somehow have become a sign of profligacy when used to pay for unemployment benefits or Medicaid. Guy Molyneux argues the conventional wisdom: that Democrats had no choice but to sing backup as Boehner sang the Big Budget Blues because the American people wanted it at the top of the playlist.

His analysis has much to recommend it, most important his suggestion that President Barack Obama needs to draw a clear contrast between the party that stands with the rich and the rest of us. But Molyneux's argument that the president is wise to get into a duel with the Republicans over who can do a better job of fulfilling the Republican credo--one that's never followed but always professed--of cutting the budget for its own sake is problematic in three respects.

The first is that "budget cutting" always entails cutting benefits to one group over another. Rather than engage the Republicans on who can better cut "entitlements," the president should change the target to welfare for hedge-fund managers, who pay 15 percent taxes on their income; to Wall Street speculators who contribute nothing to the economy but instability; or to subsidies to industries like Big Oil that don't need them. He might call for "cuts" to the tax breaks of corporations that outsource American jobs or offer executive compensation packages that are, by historical standards, grossly disproportionate to the compensation of their workers.

The reality is that one side wants to cut Medicare to seniors and aid to students who ought to have a shot at the American dreamwhile the other wants to cut taxes for millionaires. That's a pretty clear distinction, and it redefines cutting "entitlements" on both sides of the deficit equation.

The second problem with Molyneux's argument is empirical. You can write polling questions that will lead you to conclude that working- and middle-class Americans are concerned about an abstraction like the deficit. But why do that rather than persuade the easily frightened Democratic political class or the public that they have more to fear from the Republican economics that created our enormous deficits?

Third, Molyneux treats the "constraints" on the president as if those constraints are independent of his actions. The reality is that Obama has tied his own hands. He did it first by turning the stimulus package into an inert half-dose of Viagra to court imaginary bipartisan suitors, which had the predicted effect of half-stimulating the economy and thus convincing the American people that Ronald Reagan was right, that government really can't do anything to help them--even in the worst of times. He did it by refusing to tell the American people the story of how the Republicans crashed the economy while doubling the national debt because that would be "finger pointing" and "looking backwards" not forward. And he did it more recently by listening to pollsters whispering in his ear that to win the "center," he has to join with the GOP to create a narrative Democrats know to be false: that our economic crisis was precipitated by liberal overspending and that the solution to a jobless recovery is to throw people out of work by cutting public-sector jobs while the economy is still sputtering.

It's hard to make the positions of the two sides dissonant when you're singing the other side's tune. Democrats need to brand themselves as the party of working people and small business and to brand Republicans as the party of the rich and big business--not exactly a hard sell. They have to brand themselves as the party that cares first and foremost about putting Americans back to work, not solving the dilemmas of the bond markets.

But more important, they have to mean it. So far, they've done none of those things.

Professor of Psychology,
Emory University

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