Daily Breakthrough: Did the President Choke or Panic?

January 27, 2010 | Yael Borofsky,

The choke job that Democrats pulled in Massachusetts last week has the Obama Administration in full blown panic. Unfortunately, tonight's State of the Union, it appears, will not offer much hope for displays of courage, perseverance, valor, and oh yeah, level-headed leadership.

Last year, Obama used his congressional address to take on every major challenge facing the nation, all at once, but it appears Obama will revert back to Clinton era small ball in his first State of the Union address tonight. Press reports suggest that the President intends to offer the nation a range of small and symbolic actions - a $100 million or so in middle class tax breaks and a freeze on non-military discretionary spending, most prominently.

For those keeping score at home, $100 million is approximately equivalent to 1/20th of what George Soros made last year betting against the Bush economy and non-military discretionary spending covers pretty much everything except all the stuff that is actually driving up the budget deficit.

Little League Predictions that President Obama will announce middle class tax breaks and a spending freeze in tonight's State of the Union are reminiscent of President Clinton's political strategy, despite the fact that the political climate today is vastly different.

Dear Obama, David Axelrod, or whomever decided this was a good idea: That whole school uniform triangulation strategy made some political sense back in the Clinton years because the economy was already in the midst of the largest economic expansion in American history. With Gingrich and Co. attempting to lay waste to the entire federal government, symbolic proposals were a useful way to take some credit for the economic boom while reminding everyone that the President was still relevant.

But last we checked, the President still had 59 Democrats and fellow travelers in the Senate, a commanding majority in the House, and a stalled economy with 10% unemployment that the American public expects him to fix.

As Nate Silver points out, it doesn't matter that "the spending "freeze" will only apply to certain types of spending," what does matter is the "cognitive dissonance that is going to be created in the mind of the average voter when the White House is promising to freeze spending on the one hand... and on the other, trying to defend its stimulus and its health care reform package, trying to excuse the bailout package as a necessary evil, and perhaps trying to champion new programs."

So what's it going to be Mr. President? School uniforms and deficit reduction or a massive jobs bill in hopes of saving everybody's political hide? This is still Obama's economy and Obama's Congress. Generally you wait until after the other guys have taken control of the nation's checkbook to propose the discretionary spending freeze. The administration's current peregrinations look more like a frantic casting about for every post-1994 Clinton era fix they can think of than a coherent plan to revive the Democrats' flagging political prospects.

If panic, as readers will recall from our last Daily Breakthrough, results in the inappropriate application of familiar tactics to new and unsettling circumstances, then it's clear that Democrats have hit the big red "press only in emergency" button. In the current political and economic context, ceding the majority before you've lost it, and calling for a spending freeze while hanging your political fortunes on more spending to turn around the economy is more likely to get you attacked with a pitchfork than offered a life vest.

Red Alert Since losing the Senate supermajority last week, Democrats appear to be panicking about the upcoming November elections instead of capitalizing on the majority they enjoy in both the Senate and the House.

At least POTUS has company. Beau Biden, another Democratic definite for the Senate, announced he won't be running for the seat his dad had already decorated with a name-tag and balloons. And other Democratic incumbents are following suit, concluding that they have no chance to win come November.

John Kerry, meanwhile, has announced that he is going down with his "cap"sized ship, declaring that the forthcoming Senate economic rescue package would have no impact on his plans for climate legislation this spring. Some green groups are apparently planning to back that effort with $60 million in cold hard cash. Looks like a suckers bet to us and Lindsey Graham, Senator Kerry's erstwhile Republican partner in this effort apparently agrees.

Other greens say they've had enough and are looking to strike out in a bold new direction. Could it be that they are joining Breakthrough, Adam Werbach, Mark Kimbrell, and, yes, Bill Gates in calling for public investment in clean energy innovation as the next and best option?

Nah, the Climate Task Force Alliance has come up with something truly novel: a carbon tax!

Scott Brown literally won his MA Senate seat by yelling "cap and TAX!" from the top of his lungs and that's their advice? A tax?

Meanwhile, Frank Luntz's new EDF funded poll shows - surprise, surprise - that energy security and economic competitiveness are the strongest arguments for addressing climate change and building a clean energy economy. The boys over at ClimateProgress can't seem to decide what to make of him. Dan Weiss thinks he's just dandy now that EDF has paid him to say nice things about climate legislation but Joe Romm continues to believe that Bill Gates, like anyone else who tells the truth about the energy technology gap, has fallen under his evil spell.

Regardless, we're pretty sure Frank knows that a "carbon tax" doesn't stand a chance in hell. We're also pretty sure that once Frank gets paid for the latest green group vanity poll he'll get back to telling his regular clients what he really thinks the public thinks about cap and trade.

Joe Klein, on the other hand, thinks the public is just plain dumb - too ignorant to understand that the stimulus money hasn't been wasted because it mostly hasn't been spent yet. And no doubt, it's true that you can't really expect stimulus money to improve the economy when it hasn't actually been spent. But when you pass a stimulus bill with the promise that it will stimulate the economy RIGHT NOW and then can't figure out how to spend most of it for the better part of a year, it's hard to blame the public for concluding that you wasted the money.

Martha Coakley's pollster and long-time Friend of Breakthrough Celinda Lake properly gives the public more credit:

"Somebody is going to get the blame for what's happening right now to the American public. They're incredibly angry and incredibly frustrated. And somebody's going to get credit for trying to turn it around. And right now, we're getting the blame and we're not getting the credit,....Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it. And right now they think they've got economic policies for Washington that are delivering more for banks than Main Street."

And that brings us back to the "C" word we started with - choke that is - and we're not talking about the pretzel that nearly did in Obama's predecessor.

Choking is different than panicking. In the same piece from which we borrowed his definition of panic, Gladwell also offers a useful definition of choking. Choking, he says, occurs when "nder conditions of stress... the explicit [knowledge] system...takes over." In other words, you over-think what you already know how to do by rote.

The Art of Failure In a 2000 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell explained that panicking and choking were actually opposites of one another. He said, "Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct.

"If panicking is conventional failure, choking is paradoxical failure," Gladwell observes.

On the 2008 campaign trail, it seemed like Obama had an inherent, or say, "implicit," knack for appealing to the middle, for upending the old way of doing things and persuading many long-since jaded and cynical Americans that Washington could change -- for the better.

But under the initial duress of the Presidency, he reverted to his explicit learning system (read: vintage Clinton era Democratic conventional wisdom). Instead of capitalizing on his hard-earned popularity and widespread public demand for change, he embraced the Bush Administration's Wall Street bailouts and made them his own, handed his legislative agenda over to a vastly less popular Democratic Congress and his energy agenda over to green groups - whose disconnection from public opinion reality is awe inspiring in its stubborn persistence.

One year later, a disheartened public is still waiting for the big changes that Candidate Obama promised. Reflecting on the meaning of the Coakley defeat, her pollster said it best:

"We're either going to get buried by the wave or we're going to ride it. And we're running out of time to ride it."