Campaign Efficiency Curbs Presidential Power

If this summer in Eugene seems more peaceable than most, that might be explained by the spate of road construction projects. All those activists who live in the city’s south hills can’t easily drive downtown in their bumper-stickered Prii (which must be the plural of Prius.) They could of course bicycle to the Protest of the Day, but toting placards subjects fellow cyclists to a “wide load” hazard. Protest paraphernalia on a public bus these days might cause an impromptu picket, risking the embarrassment of premature exasperation.

So our indignated elite may be staying home and watching CNN and reading the Huffington Post, focused on national affairs instead. I will therefore attempt, without unfairly maligning the Japanese heritage of Kabuki, to interpret the current so-called “debt ceiling” negotiations in Washington, D.C. Or, to label it more precisely, the so-called “negotiations” regarding the (very real) debt ceiling.

You already know the details about various positions staked by Cantor, Boehner, Pelosi, McConnell, Biden and Obama. You know that August 2 will mark either the end of the World As We Know It, or 65 shopping weeks until the next presidential election, depending on who you ask. You know they’re talking about trillions of dollars, except you don’t know how many zeroes make up a trillion. (Twelve.) I won’t repeat what you’ve already heard.

Obama has stated this week that he’s willing to stake his presidency on getting a deal that benefits everyone. This is as it should be, and harder than it was in the recent past. In the 1980s, two American presidents believed the U.S. Constitution should be changed to make the office more effective.

Jimmy Carter left the Oval Office in 1981 believing that the president should serve a single, six-year term. He reasoned that economic policies enacted by a president cannot properly be evaluated after only three or four years. Big ships turn slowly. Moreover, he lamented how much of his first term was consumed with his own reelection plans. Carter wished as president he had governed more and campaigned less.

On the other hand, Ronald Reagan retired in 1989, hoping to see the 22nd amendment someday repealed. He thought a president should be allowed to campaign for as many terms as the voters wanted.

Neither man followed through on his pledge, but taken together they demonstrate two points. Democrats believe in government, which is why they reflexively argue for more of it. The more skeptical stance of Republicans plays better in stump speeches. Democrats connect with their constituents by governance. Republicans connect best when they are campaigning.

Remember when Obama first caught the nation’s imagination? He gave an inspiring speech in 2004 that decried partisanship. We’re not red states and blue states. We’re the united states — of America. That lofty vision is being tested this week.

The president has been that unifying figure in our history. No one remembers who was the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader at the conclusion of the Civil War, nor should they. Only the president faces every American voter. Only the president speaks for all of America. But that has become more difficult, thanks to another past president.

Bill Clinton’s campaign consultants crafted a media-buying strategy in 1992 that bypassed national ad placements for strategically chosen local buys. Before Clinton, presidential campaigns bought television advertising as if they were selling Maytag. Since Clinton, they buy ads the way Oldfield’s does. Same product, different strategy. Presidential candidates focus now on “swing states.” That term barely existed 25 years ago.

Campaigns have consequences. The president has fewer friends and favors he can call on in those uncontested red states. Maybe he’s less sensitive to red state voters, since he met fewer of them on his campaign trail to the White House. This modern campaign efficiency has weakened the president’s bully pulpit.

How will the debt ceiling affect everyday Americans? Why should we care, and once we do care, what should we do? Only the president can answer these questions.

Barack Obama knows we stand strongest when we stand united. If his campaign didn’t forge that conviction deep inside of him, he might call Oregon’s newly post-partisan Governor Kitzhaber for a little advice.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.