Please Stop Saying That

Frankly, I’m sick of hearing “it’s the economy, stupid,” both the medium and the message.  Yes, it was a catchy Carville phrase 18 years ago, but, in the meantime, it’s lost its luster being uttered by every talking head and tucked into every blog post each time any elected official shows any sign of being politically confused.  I get it. It’s no longer a fresh idea; it’s a crutch used to embody a stale philosophy when one’s got nothing new to say.

Unfortunately sightings of “it’s the economy, stupid” have again swelled since Scott Brown’s victory blindsided the Democratic Party last week (yes, that’s largely what happened).  As the argument goes, wounded, the president, needs to retreat to this core idea, as if the economy weren’t his top priority already and as if he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.  As a side note, Carville coined “the economy, stupid” on a banner in the Clinton campaign office between two other bullet points, “Change vs. more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care.”

A corollary of this philosophy speaks to foreign policy, as was spelled out in this discussion between Kaplan, Ackerman, Yglesias, and Drezner.  The group arrives at the conclusion that the President’s major foreign policy priorities are now off the table and that, at least for Kaplan and Drezner, even if he could ram them through, it wouldn’t be the savviest political idea.  “It’s the economy, stupid.”

I’m not taking these guys to task, and they’re certainly right that “key items on Obama’s international agenda” like a climate bill and any number of international treaties are in deep peril, given the Senate Dems’ seemingly weak stomach for tough politics. 

I would like to argue, however, that there are significant and politically positive foreign policy goals that this administration can and should pursue.  Kaplan points this out even if he doesn’t fully flesh it  out: “Constitutionally and practically, [U.S. presidents are] allowed much more leeway in foreign affairs—and thus more opportunity to display the qualities of executive leadership.”

After reading that sentence, this headline caught my eye, “Uganda backs down on anti-gay legislation.” You’ll recall that legislation was introduced in Uganda that would have condemned those engaged in homosexual acts to life in prison and those who were HIV positive to the death penalty (regardless of whether their partner was aware). 

Explaining the shift, Ugandan President Museveni said:

Because it is a foreign policy issue, it is not just our internal politics, and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles but also takes into account our foreign policy interests.

In other words, Uganda buckled under foreign pressure (from the U.S., the UN, and others). A clear, if politically minor, victory for soft power and the Obama Administration — executed without Congressional approval. In fact, ties have been made between Ugandan officials that originally pushed for the legislation and fringe elements of the U.S. Congress. 

Is this a major victory? No. Is this the cornerstone of a reelection campaign? Certainly not. But it does show clout abroad and an ability to maneuver without Congress’s OK.  It is also the exact type of headline that might appeal to more than one interest group in the U.S., and this was a relatively minor act. 

This all brings me around to say, again, that the aforementioned political philosophy is simply too shallow. Yes, of course, the economy is important, but, if it were the only important thing, nothing else would have been discussed leading up to the last election.  

Obama may or may not be able to turn the economy around, and that may or may not be in his hand. But, I am sure that, in three years, Obama will be judged on all his victories and perhaps, more important to note, how he sells those victories.  “It’s the economy” lets a lot of people off the hook, including those paid to tell us why the President is doing what he’s doing.  In reality, I’m stealing this idea from Steve Clemons, who quotes Pincus who quotes Nixon: 

In the final analysis, elections are not won or lost by programs. They are won or lost on how these programs are presented to the country, and how all the political and public relations considerations are handled.

I’m not hitching myself to Nixon, but he does have a point. These are politicians after all, half elected for their ability to sell the priorities we want them to execute.  To introduce an even more worn out cliche, Obama was chosen to lead not follow the whim of the electorate. The answer to the populace’s retreat to the economic is not to toss the other priorities you were elected to execute, but rather to double down, keep winning where you can, and tell the country how you are driving them in the right direction.

I, for one, will hold him to account on that, particularly when it comes to his foreign policy, and I imagine others will too.