When I was younger, I played a computer game that placed the user in the role of the new president of Russia. Yes, this game made me a bit of a nerd even within the computer gaming community. It was right after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the challenge posed by the game was how to rule this country after the fall of the Soviet Union. A democratic reformer had to deal with a hardline legislature and military skepticism, a moderate reformer was caught between the same hardline pressures and an increasingly agitated populace and more democratic local governments, and a hardliner — well hardliners had it pretty easy because they could just kill people, but the country suffered without foreign support.
I tended to cast myself in the democratic role, and one trick that I found exceptionally effective in the game was the option to bypass the legislature and take bold proposals directly to the people. Constantly going to the people and whipping them into excitement over the proposal muted the opposition. It was a perk of being the president in the game that your public appeals tended to carry more weight so long as you had the approval of a majority of the country.
I’ve thought about this game recently as I’ve watched the GOP leadership in Congress complain incessantly about President Obama’s “campaign mode.” Mitch McConnell blasted the President for taking his fiscal proposals to the public:
So it was with some concern that I read this morning that the President plans to hit the road this week to drum up support for his own personal approach to the short and long-term fiscal challenges we face. In other words, rather than sitting down with lawmakers of both parties and working out an agreement, he’s back out on the campaign trail, presumably with the same old talking points we’re all familiar with.
John Boehner has echoed that criticism, again suggesting that President Obama is not “leading” if he is selling his proposal to America rather than personally hammering out deals in Washington.
Based on my experience with my old Russian computer game, as well as my interpretation of the 2010 midterms, the Republicans are clearly wrong about the power of taking the message directly to the people. Obamacare was villified by Republicans taking every opportunity to hurl wholly untrue statements about “death panels” and “doctor choice” and managed to translate that into a 2010 victory. Now President Obama is following this route too, continuing to call upon his grassroots support to spread the message and pressure Congress from the outside.
And who can blame him? Mitch McConnell has publicly said that his only legislative goal was to prevent President Obama from scoring a legislative victory regardless of the cost to the country. If this defines the landscape, having daily meetings won’t change anything.
But, McConnell and Boehner need Obama back in Washington for two reasons. First, if President Obama is restricted to meetings with legislators, his command over airtime becomes equal to McConnell and Boehner. Putting aside that Obama hates press conferences, even if he did speak to the media every day, a simple Washington press conference isn’t much more of a draw than the Republican press availabilities. Appearances with regular Americans begging for a revenue-based approach to the fiscal cliff is a much more alluring media event. Lowering himself to day-to-day negotiation levels the playing field for McConnell and Boehner who can claim status as equal partners in the process.
That both McConnell and Boehner accuse Obama of lacking “leadership” is more than a playground insult they hope can get under the President’s skin, it should be a klaxon warning Obama not to back down on his public efforts. While Obama publicly talks about the fiscal cliff, Americans perceive leadership because they are the audience for his persuasive efforts. GOP leaders are trying to get us to ignore the public impression Obama is making. But if Obama lowers himself to the backroom congressional process and then McConnell and Boehner don’t agree to a deal there is a very believable argument that Obama hasn’t shown leadership.
So Obama needs to keep up the fiscal policy campaign. Get as much popular support as possible and walk into the fiscal cliff with either the support of a small cadre of patriotic Republicans breaking ranks or take a final page out of Mitch McConnell’s playbook and set up the conditions for McConnell to take the blame for all the consequences.
That’s how I’d run early-90s Russia anyway.