Obama’s Opportunity Cost

The US public has long felt guilty about historical racism, and so they felt great about electing a black president, and giving him some space to do what he wants. That and Bush-hatred seemed to give progressives a rare opportunity to achieve many things they’ve always wanted.

This opportunity now seems substantially squandered.  Obama has spent much of his political capital on changes far from professed progressive priorities.  He spent lots on fiscal stimulus and nationalizing the auto industry, and seems to have too little left for big medical and financial reform.  Tyler and I have long said Obama can’t do near as much as supporters seemed to think, and we’ve been puzzled to hear this prospect dismissed out of hand .

For Obama and his new-to-power advisers, this failure may come from overconfidence, but his old-hand-operative advisers should have known better.  So either their stern warnings were ignored, or they betrayed him by not making stern warnings.  Since much of Obama’s political capital was spent by longtime congressional Democrats choosing the detailed pork of stimulus and related bills, they might be blamed.  If they said “Support us to pick this pork now, and we’ll help you get health care reform later,” they were basically taking him to the cleaners.

For progressives, the lost opportunity here is not just bills not passed, or the public checking off “elect a minority president” from their to-do-list.  Another cost is a more conservative public opinion. Psychology experiments explain:

People were more willing to express potentially prejudiced attitudes when their past behavior had given them a bit of credentials as a nonpredjudiced person. … After Obama supporters expressed support for Obama in the experiment, they were more willing to say that a police job at a force characterized by racial tension was better suited for Whites than for Blacks. … Obama’s election was associated with (a) greater perceptions that anyone, regardless of life circumstances, can achieve success in the U.S. through hard work, (b) decreased perception that the U.S. has a long way to go to achieve racial equality, (c) less support for policies that address racial inequality such as affirmative action, desegregation programs that promote diversity in public schools, business efforts to promote diversity in the workplace, and equal access to healthcare for minorities.

As predicted, US public opinion has suddenly become more conservative since expecting to elect Obama.  For example:

Public attitudes on a pair of contentious national issues – gun control and abortion – have moved in a more conservative direction over the past year. … Nearly as many people believe it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns (45%) than to control gun ownership (49%). As recently as a year ago, 58% said it was more important to control gun ownership while 37% said it was more important to protect the right to own guns.

Also:

In 1995, when Gallup started asking the question, the split was 56-33 in favor of abortion rights. Now the lines have crossed, and 51% call themselves pro-life while only 42% say they are pro-choice.

On global warming:

Forty-four percent (44%) of U.S. voters now say long-term planetary trends are the cause of global warming, compared to 41% who blame it on human activity. … In April of last year, 47% of Americans blamed human activity versus 34% who viewed long-term planetary trends as the culprit.

Added: This post inspired by a lunch with Tyler and Larry.   To inspire public confidence, Obama probably needed to do something fast about the financial crisis, but it didn’t have to be a gargantuan stimulus spending bill.  And the car companies could have been allowed to go bankrupt.

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  • Eleutherian

    While it is truly unfortunate the term “liberal” is likely lost forever, I honestly believe we can take back the term “progressive.” However, the first step is to stop using the term ourselves to describe what are actually “reactionary” policies.

    • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

      Who are “we” here, what meaning do you think “progressive” should have, and what reactionary policies do you have in mind?

    • janet

      A rose by any other name is still a rose. Liberals now call themselves progressive, like polishing a turd if you ask me.

  • http://quomodocumque.wordpress.com JSE

    Nearly as many people believe it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns (45%) than to control gun ownership (49%). As recently as a year ago, 58% said it was more important to control gun ownership while 37% said it was more important to protect the right to own guns.

    Not clear to me any bias is needed to explain this. Presumably, most people think it’s important to protect the right of some Americans to own some guns sometimes, and to control ownership of some guns by some Americans sometimes. If you think the government is likely to do a good job with the former but not the latter, you naturally think the latter demands more attention and is more important, and vice versa. In other words, “which is more important” is implicitly a question of the form “which is more important under present circumstances,” and your answer can change even while your political views remain the same.

    Against this view, the Pew poll indicates high numbers for “more important to control gun ownership” for the polls taken during the Clinton administration, though there’s a weird 11-point swing between March 2000 and April 2000.

  • Michael Bishop

    Could you give us a sense of what you think political capital is composed of? e.g. What are the mechanisms through which the stimulus reduces the ability to tackle healthcare? You clearly mean something more than mere budget constraints.

    • http://transhumangoodness.blogspot.com/ Roko

      I think he means backhanders, bribes, favours, etc.

  • Josh

    Why does every discussion of Obama have to begin with a discussion of white guilt as an explanation for why Obama was elected? Isn’t it possible that some people just felt Obama would govern well?

    I see no reason to doubt that health care reform is still possible or that public desire for more sensible financial regulation is still strong after the bailouts. You seem to be the one dismissing the possibility of health care and regulatory reform out of hand. The question is, why? The only evidence you’ve presented consists of a psychologist talking about racism and two polls about abortion and gun control. Say what?

    • josh

      Are you serious?

      • Gary

        lol

  • http://lesswrong.com/user/SoullessAutomaton a soulless automaton

    There’s a contract on InTrade currently at a roughly 40% chance of a government-run health insurance plan to be in place by the end of the year. Robin, are you more than 60% confident that Obama won’t have the political capital to make it happen?

  • http://selfhelpforbastards.com Matt Apple

    @JSE Against this view, the Pew poll indicates high numbers for “more important to control gun ownership” for the polls taken during the Clinton administration, though there’s a weird 11-point swing between March 2000 and April 2000.

    That time period represents the run up to the “Million Mom March” (May 14, 2000)

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Michael, as I said the public feels it should give Obama some of what he wants. The more he gets, the more the public feels their debt is paid.

    Soulless, Medicare and Medicare are government run insurance plans, so if they are re-approved, that seems to satisfy the bet.

    • http://lesswrong.com/user/SoullessAutomaton a soulless automaton

      If that were the case it would be trading a lot higher than it is.

      From the contract-specific rules: “This contract covers only the creation of a government run health insurance plan that is an alternative to private health insurance. It does not cover existing health insurance programs such as Medicare or Medicaid, or any changes made to these programs or the cover they provide.”

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Ah, I hadn’t found those specific rules. My main point is that Obama will probably achieve substantially less than he could have – I’m not saying that nothing will happen. Apparently there is a 40% chance of some new govt program.

  • http://esr.ibiblio.org/ Eric S. Raymond

    Robin, why do you interpret these changes as a “conservative” swing? On all but one of the issues you mention (abortion being the exception) interpreting them as a libertarian swing would be at least as defensible.

    I think you’re also in some danger of misattributing long-term trends. As a firearms-rights advocate, I’ve been watching that issue for many years now, and the steady erosion of popular support for gun-control laws predates the Obama phenomenon by at least fifteen years – you can find evidence for this in the steady spread of state-level “shall-issue” legislation effectively denying local authorities the power to withold concealed-carry licenses without specific cause. The event that seems to have triggered the recent more precipitous slide in support for anti-gun laws wasn’t Obama’s election but the exposure of the Bellesisles fraud in 2000; that damaged the credibility of gun-control advocates in ways which they have not yet recovered, and led fairly directly to the Heller ruling.

  • lxm

    Could it just be that Obama and his advisers felt that the financial crisis had to be dealt with first for the sake of the future of the country? And that they put the future of the country ahead of other progressive goals?

    I know it’s unlikely that a politician would put the country first ahead of his/her own partisan agenda. After all pigs don’t fly, right. But maybe, just maybe that’s what’s happening here.

    I read your post as little more than subtle Obama bashing.

    • Michael Bishop

      > little more than subtle Obama bashing.

      Try rereading it then. There is sophisticated content here.

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  • Oliver

    Obama has to turn the economy or he’s finished politically. This isn’t optional and nothing (except maybe war) is more important.
    Also remember that without the economic crisis he wouldn’t be president.

    That is not supposed to say that his primary motivation can’t be patriotism. But even from a tactical viewpoint he must deal with the emergency first and pay the price that needs to be payed.
    If he screws this up, the Democratic Party will be finished.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    The mythology to empiricism ratio in this post seems high to me.
    I see nothing wrong with “subtle Obama bashing”, but I’d rather great empiricism and analysis do the leg work, rather than social mythological fluff.

  • bee

    Obama and his team is being consumed by power and its consequences. To believe that Obama was ever ready to lead the greatest nation history has ever witnessed without any experience was naive (being kind). The actions he has taken reflect those of a person not sure where he wants to go, one without a vision. He is merely caught in the moment. He and his advisors spew rhetoric appropriate for an editorial column. The thoughts and actions reflect not those required to govern 300M Americans in a complex world order.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I added to the post.

  • http://oftherealm.blogspot.com/ Lord

    Conservatives underestimating Obama with wishful thinking. Nothing I like better…

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  • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

    If Obama’s goal is genuine “change,” then his actions are inexplicable, as you rightly point out. He’s squandering all his chances. But if his goal is to pay off political contributors, then they make perfect sense — he’s hitting everything on the nose. Since I believe him to be a highly intelligent man, I can only infer that his goal is not social change so much as paying off his contributors.

  • Jim Babcock

    Obama has spent much of his political capital on changes far from professed progressive priorities. He spent lots on fiscal stimulus and nationalizing the auto industry, and seems to have too little left for big medical and financial reform.

    This seems backwards to me; the fiscal stimulus wasn’t spending political capital, it was *building* it, by giving congress permission to spend money on projects for their home districts. When it comes time to pass a health care bill, all those congressmen who used the stimulus money will owe him one.

    The media still takes every possible opportunity to write about Obama, even when there’s nothing newsworthy to say. The front page of cnn.com currently links to filler a story about Obama visiting a custard shop with his family. So I don’t think there’s much risk of the media losing interest or turning against him any time soon.

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      Do you really think Obama needs to build up political capital in congress, when he already has a majority in both houses behind him? What indication do you have that they won’t just do everything he asks for right now?

      Meanwhile, his policies have been so stereotypically and irresponsibly leftist that they are pushing the public’s political pendulum back to the right.

  • Dave

    Nah….Obama is still so deified, far and above any politician in my 46-years, that he can do no wrong via the general populace and mainstream press…