Be Nice to Your Friends

At the end of my post yesterday about the Rick Warren controversy, I noted in very general terms that Barack Obama could (and should) pay a price for alienating those among his core supporters who support gay civil rights -- or, indeed, anyone who finds Warren's views on a whole range of issues scary. Obama has spent some of his political capital by making this controversial choice, and he has lost the benefit of the doubt when he inevitably needs help from these supporters in the future. I concluded: "Moving forward, the lesson to be learned is that those who want something from Obama should expect something big from him first, given the way he has treated those who supported him without a quid pro quo and who simply expected much better from him." We have recently learned to our dismay that trust matters in the financial markets, and Obama may well learn a similar hard lesson about law-making during his time in office.

One might argue, however, that there is no downside risk to Obama in making this decision. His pro-gay-civil-rights supporters -- as well as his pro-women's-rights supporters, his pro-science supporters, and his supporters who generally believe in the separation of church and state -- have nowhere to go (since voting Republican is not a serious option for those who care about any of these issues). Besides, the next election is a long way away and this is all about meaningless symbolism anyway. Even if the only consequence of presidential decisions were its effects on elections, however, this analysis is clearly incomplete. The standard approach to analyzing these decisions, after all, makes clear that one must take into account the risk of alienating supporters so much that they stay home from the polls, choose not to volunteer to work on campaigns, and refuse to donate money to a candidate. Maybe Obama is simply calculating that the odds of losing supporters is more than compensated by the odds of gaining ground among religious voters. As I noted yesterday, he might turn out to be right; but he is taking a very big risk.

Even if one looks at this as nothing more than cold political calculus, however, this analysis leaves out a very important way that presidential decisions -- even (especially?) symbolic ones -- can blow back on the president. The phenomenon is partly captured in the famous line (attributed alternatively to Wilson Mizner or Jimmy Durante): "Be nice to people on your way up because you might meet 'em on your way down." Applied to this context, the point is that Obama is going to have some rough times in his presidency, and at those times he will need the support of the people who supported him from the beginning. Facing a record-setting recession that could well become a depression, Obama's currently high approval ratings will surely fall, Republicans in Congress will oppose his initiatives, and Obama will need to rely on a core of devoted supporters to push back against his opposition. Will the Warren devotees whom Obama hopes to attract stick around when Obama's popularity starts to tumble? "Last in, first out" is not just a concept in inventory management but a staple of political life. You need to be able to count on your real friends.

As Paul Krugman put it in his column yesterday (which was not about the Warren controversy but is quite relevant nonetheless): "[T]he Obama administration and Democrats in general need to do everything they can to build an F.D.R.-like bond with the public. Never mind Mr. Obama’s current high standing in the polls based on public hopes that he’ll succeed. He needs a solid base of support that will remain even when things aren’t going well." Emphasizing the importance of symbolism, Krugman added that he could not have been "the only person who winced at reports about the luxurious beach house the Obamas have rented, not because there’s anything wrong with the first family-elect having a nice vacation, but because symbolism matters, and these weren’t the images we should be seeing when millions of Americans are terrified about their finances."

I should add that the need to have a core of enthusiastic supporters will become obvious not just when things get tough but early on in Obama's presidency. He will need to score early "achievements," and Republicans will want to deny him those achievements for purely political reasons. Having energized supporters who are willing to write letters to the editor, call in to radio shows, write blog entries, and generally push back against the right-wing echo chamber will be essential to Obama early and often. I concede that, individually, I am not a particularly good indicator of anything. Still, given that I am now much more inclined to criticize Obama and to stop giving him a pass on policy and appointments issues, my tiny corner of the blogosphere has become very much less hospitable to Obama. (I will, for example, soon write one or more posts describing why Obama's cabinet appointments do not bode well for policy. I would have been much less inclined to take the time to do so if I still believed that the guy at the top had his basic priorities in order.) When things get tough for Obama, I -- and I suspect many others -- will be hard pressed to find the enthusiasm to come aggressively to his defense (even when I agree on the substance of a policy question). This is not a matter of spite but simply the inevitable consequence of a loss of trust and respect. It is difficult to summon the energy to support someone who has shown that he views you as expendable.

The idea that those who are offended by the Warren selection "have nowhere else to go" is, therefore, reductionist in the extreme. Not only can Obama's shaken supporters who are disturbed by the Warren invitation go home rather than to the polls on election day, but they can go back to watching TV or reading a book when Obama needs their support in any particular legislative battle. At the very least, Obama has made his life more difficult, because he has squandered the most precious of political commodities: trust.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan