Thursday, November 4, 2010

More Voter Ambivalence

Obama held a press conference yesterday in which he "took responsibility" for the Democratic defeat but did not admit that any of his policy decisions had been wrong. Dana Milbank, for one, seems to think that this is arrogant; in his column today he says that "Barack Obama is a man of many talents, but contrition isn't one of them."

I find this annoying. From what I read, the voters have two basic complaints about our political leaders: they don't listen enough to the people, and they spend too much time reading polls instead of leading. Obama did what half the voters tell pollsters they want the President to do, that is, work hard to make the changes the country needs. He did not do what the other half wants the President to do, that is, "listen to the people" by doing exactly what the poll of the moment says the people favor. It is, after all, impossible to do both. Political scientists who try to figure out what American voters want find mainly a vast landscape of ignorance. People long for happy times but have only vague ideas of what those happy times would be like or how to get there. How can anyone run a country while trying to follow the ups and downs of our moods? Here is Milbank's summary of one part of the press conference:

The Associated Press's Ben Feller asked if he would concede that the midterms had been "a fundamental rejection of your agenda."

Obama declined. "What they were expressing great frustration about is the fact that we haven't made enough progress on the economy."

NBC's Savannah Guthrie noticed that "you don't seem to be reflecting or second-guessing any of the policy decisions."

"Over the last two years, we have made a series of very tough decisions, but decisions that were right," Obama volleyed.

"You still resist the notion that voters rejected the policy choices you made?"

"Voters are not satisfied with the outcomes," the president said.

But Obama is exactly right. The main issue with the voters was the state of the economy. According to the exit polls, nothing else had any important impact on the outcome. Some voters were unhappy with the health care plan, but those who want repeal were outnumbered by those who want it expanded or kept the same. Some voters were worried about the deficit, but they were outnumbered by those who want lower taxes or "more spending to create jobs." I believe that if the economy had been roaring back over the past few months and unemployment falling rapidly, the Democrats would have done just fine. I am willing to entertain arguments over whether different choices by the Democrats would have led to a better economic result, but to think that voters turned against the Democrats because of the size of the deficit or the details of the health care plan is to completely misread America.

If Obama had taken the opposite tack in his press conference and said maybe he was wrong, we would be reading lots of columns today about how he lacks the courage of his convictions and perhaps the steel needed to lead. You can't have everything, people, and sometimes that is a good thing.