The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Goldilocks and Tinkerbell

As the Obama administration careens through the first year of its Presidency, those on the Left are asking why he hasn’t been more aggressive in building a bigger government, and those on the Right have castigating him for overreaching in his early attempts on healthcare, cap and trade, as well as underperforming on his reformulated foreign policy.

Terry Madonna and Michael Young define what they call the “goldilocks principle” and apply it to Obama’s presidency to date:
And it [the President's initiatives] has been shut down because Obama has violated a fundamental rule of the presidency. Call it the "Goldilocks principle": presidents who under-reach their agendas end up tasting "too cold" to the American people, while presidents who over-reach their agenda end up "too hot." But presidents whose agendas are ambitious but limited taste "just right." They not only get to eat their porridge, but they get re-elected, too. Examples of all three types of presidencies have been observed throughout American history.

The crux of the Goldilocks principle is that successful presidents align their agendas within broad parameters defined by widespread voter approval. Reagan did that, Carter didn't, and Obama so far hasn't.

On his present trajectory Obama is a "too hot" president. His ambitious and expansive agenda has transformed a party with too few bold ideas into a party with too many bold ideas. And in the process he has left behind a solid hunk of the American people.

But how did a smart guy get himself into a dumb spot only some eight months into his presidency? Many will say inexperience mixed liberally with hubris prevented him from learning history's oft taught lessons about over-reaching agendas. But even more fundamentally Obama is in trouble because he has misread the tea leaves. His administration is floundering because it has failed to understand the nature of its 2008 electoral victory.

They have fallen prey to the flawed view that Obama has a mandate for massive change-a mandate to transform the fundamental relationships that have existed between the American government and its people since the New Deal. In point of fact they have no such mandate.

It is not a minor point to emphasize that Obama, like most American presidents, is trying to do what he said he would do. His problem, like other presidents who stumbled early, is that he didn't distinguish between what he thought he said and what the American people largely heard.

Obama can recover and he can become a successful President, but only if he governs from a center-left position in a center right country. His base cannot accept this, and like children, urge him onward toward his political demise. The question is whether his personal ideology is coincident with his base. I think it is, as exhibited by high-level appointments like Van Jones.

If the Goldilocks principle can be used to better understand the President's sinking approval ratings, the "tinkerbell effect" can be used to explain his current appeal among those that wholeheartedly support his initiatives. Adriel Bettelheim defines the tinkerbell effect as:
… the notion derived from J.M. Barrie’s play “Peter Pan” of a century ago that some good things are likely to come to pass so long as people believe they will.

As I listened to President Obama’s prime time speech before a joint session of congress, I was struck by his reliance on the Tinkerbell effect.

  • Adding tens of millions of people to a medical insurance plan will not cost us a dime in new taxes and will certainly not increase the federal deficit. An occasional visit to an emergency department will cost more than a family’s yearly visits to family practitioners and specialists, all subsidized by the taxpayer. You gotta believe.

  • The fees that will be levied on insurance companies wont be passed on to consumers. Nah, they’ll just eat the additional overhead without passing it along, and if forced to eat it, they certainly won’t reduce coverages to maintain profitability. You gotta believe.

  • Removing waste from Medicare/Medicaid will save $600 billion. But we’ve recognized waste and fraud for 20 years and have been unable to eliminate a dime of it. There’s a magical, heretofore hidden approach that’ll work. You gotta believe.

  • Few companies will opt out of their current coverage if a lower cost (only in the sense that it’s taxpayer subsidized) government option. The president indicates that high costs are killing many businesses, but on the other hand, if presented with a taxpayer subsidized alternative, businesses will opt to maintain higher costs. You gotta believe.

… and on and on.

The President is right when he states that Americans have a big heart and will help those in need. But the majority of us bridle when we’re asked to believe in fairy tales, and that’s the reason his claims are not being well received. Tell us the unvarnished truth, and maybe, just maybe, the President will achieve at least some of what he wants.