Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Outputs vs outcomes

Daniel Drezner is right to point out that polling on the public's approval of President Obama's foreign policy is now the new Obamacare. In other words, people like the individual policies but don't give the President credit for them. Drezner's way of explaining this is to differentiate between outputs (which the public approves) and outcomes (which they don't).
So what’s going on? It’s not rocket science, it’s the difference between policy outputs and policy outcomes. A policy output is, say, the decision to send military advisers into Iraq, or the decision to rule out the use of combat troops there. A policy outcome is what actually happens on the ground — in the case of Iraq, a worsening sectarian war. The thing about American foreign policy is that even the best foreign policy outputs do not necessarily translate into the best outcome, because the United States, for all its superpower-yness, is not actually an omnipotent deity.
Of course that explanation doesn't address the very comparison Drezner is making to Obamacare because the outcomes are even better than expected. So perhaps we need a better way of understanding this dilemma.

I'd suggest that the reasons are more complex than we usually like to entertain. Its instructive to note polling that suggests approval of the Affordable Care Act is much higher than Obamacare. That indicates an ignorance on the part of the public that is fed by misinformation and distortion.

But I'd like to point out that - due to the media's fixation on hysteria that feeds link bait - the American public is regularly fed information on crises. For example, we heard a lot about the failure of healthcare.gov but not so much about the success of the exchanges once those technical problems were fixed.

Similarly with foreign policy, the media dutifully reported all the twists and turns about the civil war in Syria a few months ago and was quick to dismiss President Obama's intentions and actions. It all came across as a big failure in foreign policy. And then yesterday international weapons inspectors announced that Syria has handed over the last of its declared chemical weapons stockpile for removal and destruction. Does anyone think that the public noticed this as a big success for President Obama's stated goal?

So in the end, we are fed a regular diet of hysteria. But very rarely does the media actually report on outcomes. By the time they come around our attention span has waned and no one cares anymore. If you're looking to explain the inconsistencies in public opinion, I'd suggest that as a more comprehensive explanation than the one offered up by Drezner.

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