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.


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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