Saturday, September 17, 2011

Presidential attention

Kevin Drum (via Bernstein) takes apart Bruce Bartlett's claim that Obama should have stayed single-mindedly focused on the economy even after the stimulus passed. Drum's main objection is that the argument doesn't make much sense:
What does it mean to "single-mindedly" keep his attention on the economy? I just don't understand how that translates into concrete action. I think Obama got briefed plenty to understand the trajectory of the economy (you really don't need eight hours a day to figure that out) and I have a hard time thinking that it's a good use of presidential time to insert himself into the details of the appropriation process. I also doubt that Obama really had much influence over Ben Bernanke.
Yeah, I'm with Drum here. One virtue of having a large administrative branch is that the "president," broadly speaking, can focus on many things at once. Just because the president is making a speech on health care doesn't mean that his economic advisors aren't focused full time on monitoring the economy and reporting to him regularly about its health and recommending policies. Furthermore, the president giving speeches constantly on the economy doesn't make the economy any healthier.

In a similar vein, I want to highlight an otherwise excellent NPR piece on the road to 9/11. This report details both the education of Mohammed Atta and the frustrations experienced by White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke in the months and years preceding the attack. The piece suggests that the White House possibly could have killed Bin Laden in 1999, but it was "distracted" by the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment proceedings.

I seriously doubt that the NSC and the CIA spent their briefings with the president discussing Monica Lewinsky in 1999. Clinton may well have been reluctant to order cruise missile attacks on Bin Laden based on spotty intelligence, but only because this was before 9/11 -- few Americans had any idea who Bin Laden was or what kind of threat he posed, and any inadvertent deaths resulting from bad intelligence or collateral damage would have rightly created political problems for Clinton. (The American public, and American policymakers, are substantially less risk averse today about such matters.)

In other words, the problem wasn't presidential "attention."

Update: Matt Glassman follows up on this topic by suggesting that Obama talking about health care would have been like Lincoln going around the country talking about the Homestead Act. Both were longstanding priorities of the parties, of course, but it seems distracting and possibly foolish to spend time talking about them when the nation was clearly focused on the economy/the Civil War. As Glassman says, "It does matter, when the economy is this bad, that people don’t think he’s focusing his energy on other things."

I suppose it's bad for Obama if voters think he's unconcerned about the economy, but really, when did he stop talking about the economy? You could find evidence of him discussing jobs and economic security, even in the context of health reform, throughout his presidency. If Americans think he's not concerned about the economy, this likely has more to do with the actual behavior of the economy than with any analysis of presidential time management. If the economy were humming along, people would largely be content with Obama's attention to it, regardless of how much he actually discussed it.

And while I don't consider myself an expert on Lincoln's presidency, my impression is that voters evaluated Lincoln based on the substance of the war rather than any perception of his attention span. That is, his reelection looked to be in doubt in 1863 largely because the war wasn't going well, but he won in large part because Sherman took Atlanta in the summer of 1864, tipping the war in the Union's favor. Lincoln's rhetoric, impressive though it was, probably did little to sway voters at the time it was uttered.

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