Friday, August 3, 2012

How should we evaluate an incumbent president?

History has proven that incumbency is a powerful advantage in American politics. For decades now pundits have pointed out that voters typically don't want to "fire" an incumbent without good reason. And as we know, most often the economy has been the critical factor.

But the downside is that an incumbent has to run - at least in part - on their record in office while their opponent is free to make outrageous claims of what s/he would do. We just witnessed that this week when Mitt Romney promised he'd add 12 million jobs in a first term. The only way to evaluate that is to  inform yourself about his policies and determine whether or not you think they have any chance of succeeding. And of course, he makes that impossible by not filling in the details of his plans.

But with the Republicans latest strategy of total obstruction, we need to ask ourselves if - in the case of an incumbent - we're likely to make good decisions if we evaluate them (in this case President Obama) as if they alone are responsible for the results. For example,  should we also be asking what might have happened to the economy if Congress had actually passed President Obama's American Jobs Act?

Some would suggest that it is still the President's job to work with Congress to get something done. But when the Senate Minority Leader has the 40+ votes necessary to stop any legislation from passing and says this...
We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals. Because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan.
...that's simply not possible.

I suspect that most voters have a hard time conceiving of the idea that Republicans would oppose any efforts to improve the economy (even one's they ideologically support) simply to gain the political advantage of blaming the incumbent President for the failure. And yet that's exactly what's happening.

That should change the calculation for how we evaluate an incumbent. Political pundits tell us that its not realistic to expect American voters to be that sophisticated in their analysis of political options. Perhaps they're right. But if so, we're doomed to chasing after political challengers who promise the world and deliver nothing.

The analogy that springs to my mind is that American voters - abetted by a shouting-match oriented media - resemble two year-olds demanding what they want when they want it. The "adult in the room" needs to send them to their room for a time-out and then follow that up with a serious conversation about actions, consequences and responsibility.

In other words, its time for us to grow up when it comes to politics.


  1. Republicans have put politics ahead of country.

  2. Republicans have put politics ahead of country.

  3. The corollary is how we should evaluate an opposition party. An opposition party can certainly influence legislation, and this is all the more true with the filibuster and control of the House. The GOP could certainly have gained, in policy, more than they gave to Democrats had they actually engaged. We would have had vastly more conservative responses to actual problems than otherwise. Instead, the likely outcome, too long delayed, will be that solutions will be more to the left than otherwise. More wait, more left. This will take a while, though.

    The GOP used the short term media cycle over decades to its great advantage, but it now holds them hostage. It's like booze to an alcoholic. It works, until it doesn't work.

    1. Good point about the corollary.

      It was in the back of my mind while I was writing, but I never figured out how to articulate it. So thanks.