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Monday, January 19, 2015

Rising in Popularity, Obama Can Sustain Momentum With SOTU and Bold Action

On the eve of his penultimate State of the Union address, President Obama is enjoying a 50 percent approval rating in the new ABC News/Washington Post public opinion poll. This rise in popularity, a nine-point jump, is a stunning turnaround for Obama, whose Democratic Party lost control of the Senate and lost more than a dozen House seats last November.

However, since that time, the President has benefited from stronger than expected economic news, including: two consecutive positive jobs reports, five percent GDP growth, evidence of
potential wage increases, a 14-year high in job openings, and low gas prices.

Further, Obama has seen his approval rating among Hispanic voters increase by a large margin, undeniably as a consequence of his risky but ultimately politically advantageous move to shield five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Beyond these facts, Obama's series of (mostly popular) post-midterms executive actions on a variety of fronts, ranging from net neutrality to the China climate deal to restoring relations with Cuba, has likely aided the President.

In summer 2014, when the House GOP voted to sue President Obama for executive actions, Obama rightfully remarked that Americans did not expect him to "sit around and twiddle his thumbs" but to instead act, on his own authority when necessary and legal, to achieve policy changes if Congress was unwilling to act. His political assessment has proven correct. Indeed, public opinion polls found that a majority of Americans disapproved of the GOP lawsuit, approved of a president taking executive actions when Congress is unproductive, and didn't abandon Democrats in 2014 because Obama took too many executive actions.

Therefore, as we enter into 2015, President Obama finds himself in a far stronger position politically in Washington than he was just two months ago. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter remains that Republicans, hostile to most of Obama's recent major policy proposals, control both houses of Congress now. If the congressional GOP's behavior is any indication, it is unlikely that their actions will be helpful to Obama in terms of his desire to remain relevant in Washington. In a 1995 press conference, President Clinton famously complained that the president is still a "relevant" player in D.C.

Unless Obama can continue to sustain the momentum he is riding, which means continuing to take action where he can, he may find himself echoing Clinton's concern. In fact, the congressional Republicans, by continually acting in ways that made gridlock inevitable, helped instill in the public a displeasure with D.C.  in 2014 -- something that the public routinely blames on DC's leading political actor: the President. There is no reason to think they do not have a similar incentive in 2016, when they are seeking to reclaim the presidency.

Nevertheless, the dynamics in this round might be different, as the GOP tries to show its chops as a productive governing party. It is within this context that President Obama might be able to exploit opportunities for legislative progress that would keep his popularity going.

For example, Obama could call the GOP's bluff on their purported desire to address stagnant wages. Not only have the Republicans claimed that income stagnation is a concern of theirs but they also have always been in support of tax cuts to address this problem. Obama just recently announced a proposal that addresses income stagnation which would be relieved by tax relief for the working class.

Another scenario in which Obama could find an opening for progress is if he seeks out a compromise in which the Republicans would win the repeal of either the employer mandate or medical device tax, neither of which are central to the Affordable Care Act's policy aims, in exchange for an Obama policy victory on a bipartisan issue like infrastructure.

However, if such compromise is elusive, President Obama, if he is to sustain his current momentum, should instead continue to be bold in executive authority. The public is on his side on core policy issues and his instincts, mostly, are the right ones, progressive ones, that is. He ought to be aggressive on expanding overtime pay, he should continue his hard-nosed but constructive engagement with Iran on peacefully resolving the nuclear issue, and he should ban the federal government from contracting with companies that do not provide paid leave to their employees.

These steps are not just politically popular but they are also solidly good public policy. If he continues on that path, while seeking the aforementioned compromises, he could keep up his popularity, especially if the economy further grows. The State of the Union address would be a good place to start though for seizing public attention on some of these issues.

It's true that the ratings for the SOTU have declined in recent years and that presidential addresses often polarize issues. Having said that, Obama has the chance to at least mobilize Democratic voters and millenials, groups who have embraced the president in the aftermath of some of his public pronouncements as of late, with his address. Interestingly, at the time of Obama's last SOTU address, when the President was in the low 40s, David Brooks said on PBS that it "felt like the second half of a second term," rather than the first half. Today, it feels quite the opposite as Obama's popularity is on the rise, an increase which can be at least sustained with an imaginative, stirring, and bold address, much like Clinton's 1999 SOTU or Obama's February 2009 address to Congress.

By delivering an enthusiastic, progressive, and strong address, Obama at least has the opportunity not to blunt his momentum and to, in fact, keep his newly strengthened standing with voters who have recently come back to the fold for him. After that though, it'll be back to work for Washington -- and though it is Congress that has been unproductive lately, that edict should apply to the reinvigorated President Obama too. After all, Americans do not expect him to "sit around and twiddle his thumbs."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What if the U.S. Had National Referenda?

(PHOTO ON LEFT: My grandmother and I in May 2011, both voting for the first time, at the Trucksville United Methodist Church.)

Recently, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for a national referendum in his country on several of his key policy proposals. In the Iranian governmental system, a referendum can only be triggered by an overwhelming vote of the Majlis (the Parliament) in favor of setting up such a vote. In fact, the original decision for Iran to become an Islamic Republic was a consequence of a referendum at the outset of the Islamic Revolution. Iranian voters had a Sophie's Choice (same year the film was released incidentally) between having an Islamic Republic or having a monarchy. Hopefully, if the Iranian people were able to vote in referenda in the Rouhani era, they would have better choices than that one.

This news sparked a discussion among some of my friends regarding what it would look like if the United States had a mechanism for a national referendum. No such tool exists in our constitutional and legal framework. On the other hand, states do have ballot initiatives and referenda -- a reform that grew out of the Progressive Era of the early 20th century. In fact, in the 2014 midterm elections, voters in many states utilized these initiatives and referenda to vote in favor of raising the minimum wage in their states, among other policy items, such as stricter gun laws. Notably, in the 2012 elections, Colorado and Washington voters went to the polls to legalize marijuana in their states. Several states have either banned or legalized same-sex marriage through such a process too.

The merit of such efforts is heavily disputed in the political world. It is true that some states have utilized such measures to get out ahead of the federal government on key issues, such as the aforementioned topics. States are often said to be the "laboratories of democracy." This point is usually trumpeted by conservative-minded thinkers but it is also often embraced by progressives too when they seek to achieve policy goals that are elusive at the federal level. Nevertheless, the detrimental effects of referenda and initiatives are all too real and vivid in our history. In 2004, 11 states voted to ban same-sex marriage on the same day George W. Bush was reelected president. In California, where the state government is required to balance the budget like in other states, residents voted against tax increases and against cutting spending thus tying up the hands of their legislators. In 1858, the notion of "popular sovereignty" in the Kansas-Nebraska Act was ultimately harmful to the country and to the cause of abolition of slavery.

The experience we have with these efforts begs us to ask the question of what it would be like if there were federal initiatives and referenda? The fact of the matter is that, in a federal republic like ours, there is no doubt that the people rule. The Declaration of Independence makes clear that "governments are instituted among Men" -- that government only derives its power "from the consent of the governed." Our country is undoubtedly stronger because of this core foundation upon which it is built. Our nation is freer, more inclusive, and greater because of the sacrifices, speech, and activism of generations of movements of real people who continually fought for the expansion of civil rights and civil liberties. Further, our relatively transparent, democratic, and fair election and voting process, albeit flawed in numerous ways, is still something to behold as genuinely admirable. People ought to have the right to choose their leaders (which should include abolition of the Electoral College) and representatives.

Nevertheless, there is a key reason why the Founders explicitly established indirect democracy in the United States. Their central intent was to ensure that, while voters had a say in sending representatives to Congress and that they had a role in the presidential election, the actual policies would be formulated by elected officials, who would ideally gain knowledge from research and expert advisers. Their basic thinking was sound in that their fear of the heat of the moment and power of special interests overtaking public sentiment was fairly reasonable. Of course, such pitfalls occur in the current legislative process anyway, as seen in legislators' rush to broadly expand national security powers after 9/11, for instance. However, if voters do not like the policies that legislators pass in such moments, they ought to vote out those legislators in the next elections -- a power they already hold -- rather than have a chance to craft the policies themselves.

If voters were given the chance to shape the specific policies in referenda and initiatives, the result may not be pretty. In the current elections process, voters already, according to the Campaigns and Elections political science textbook, do not engage in proximity voting, that is, voting based on policies. Voters, often by their own admission, usually do not have, by and large, the expertise, knowledge, interest, and time to comprehensively analyze and research extremely detailed and complex policy issues. If voters do not already engage in policy-based voting in presidential and congressional elections, as is well documented in political science research, is there any evidence to suggest that they would engage in such voting in referenda and initiatives, which are policy-based?

Further, the political debates of our modern history suggest that that if some of those issues that dominated discussion were put to vote nationally, the result would have been detrimental to the country's progress. When the Civil Rights Act was polled in 1964, only a relatively slim majority of Americans (54 percent) told pollsters they favored its adoption, according to a Harris Survey poll analyzed by the Roper Center on Public Opinion Archives at the University of Connecticut. Such a poll result makes one wonder if the bill would have passed if it came to a national referendum rather than in Congress.

Also, given the virulent opposition the legislation faced in the segregated South, where poll taxes and other obstacles made voting unnecessarily difficult for blacks, it is very likely the Civil Rights Act would not have passed in this climate in a national vote. More recently, in the opinion of a wide range of expert economists, the Recovery Act was successful in preventing a second Depression and in creating or saving millions of jobs. Nevertheless, the federal stimulus package was not very popular at the time of its passage -- an unpopularity that only grew by the 2010 midterm elections. If the legislation were put to a national vote, rather than a vote in Congress, it may not have passed and the country would be worse off because of it.

Ultimately though, voters, to their credit, did not defeat Presidents Johnson and Obama for these efforts, demonstrating that, although they may not have agreed with some of their specific policies, they gave their leaders the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, the fact that voters ought not to have the power to vote in referenda and initiatives is not necessarily an indictment of their judgment, intelligence, and attitudes. In fact, as evidenced in many states' initiatives recently, voters are often ahead of their politicians in terms of many important issues.

In the end, the best argument against such a proposal was made in a 2010 Columbus Dispatch editorial, written by election law professor Leah Sellers. She convincingly argued that though a national referendum could be a positive development, it ran the risk of "unleash[ing] 'the tyranny of the majority,'" which founding father James Madison warned against in The Federalist Papers. Beyond that, as GW political science professor John Sides noted recently, there is no evidence to suggest that voters are particularly mobilized to turn out and vote in high numbers when states have referenda and initiatives.

Sides noted that the evidence is lacking that particular issues excite enough voters to increase turnout in a meaningful way; states that passed various initiatives and referenda in 2014 still had low voter turnout anyway, similar to those states without them. Therefore, if a national mechanism existed, it is unlikely that voter turnout would be particularly higher for a given policy matter or that voters would be especially mobilized by specific issues. If anything, the worst actors in our political process may exploit the process.

It is easy to imagine a national referendum on environmental protections being subject to the will of voters who either, on the one hand, voters who do not even consider any economic costs and, on the other hand, those voters who do not recognize climate change as real. When a topic like the environment is instead left to policy experts in the EPA, which is run by an administrator who answers to the President (who answers to the people who voted for him!), those kinds of existent checks and balances and nuances are sufficient for progress. Indeed, as aforementioned, such checks and balances even include the ability of voters to actually vote out their members of Congress in the next election if they do not like the policies. Arguably though, for the sake of the country, it is probably not the best idea to have a mechanism for national referenda and initiatives.