Under-promise and over-deliver.
In business that is common advice: it is better to impress a client by exceeding expectations than to catch her eye with claims that ultimately cannot be honored. Alas, the incentives of electoral politics lead many toward the opposite approach: during campaigns, voters are promised all manner of fantasies that elected officials couldn't make good on even if doing so were their most fervent desire.
These pols create a polity that is more cynical than would be the case if office seekers just leveled with them. An apt example is President Obama, a man whose soaring rhetoric inspired so many voters, even as he made certain promises that couldn't be kept no matter how earnest his desire to do so.
A major example is discussed by William Voegeli in a Claremont Review of Books essay he wrote about the Tea Party movement. The author, a conservative critic of the Obama Administration, begins with the Election 2008 claim that what is needed now in politics is replacing cynicism with hope.
Purging cynicism will transform our political process, making it solicitous toward ordinary citizens rather than powerful insiders. Those transformed processes, in turn, will lead to dramatically better and fairer policy results, as the people's elected representatives openly conduct the people's business.
In a debate in January 2008, for example, Obama described how his administration would approach health care reform: "Not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN, so that the American people can see what the choices are, because part of what we have to do is enlist the American people in this process." He repeated this promise several times during his campaign. When delivered in speeches, it always drew loud cheers.
A moment's reflection, however, will show that any such promise is unachievable. The moment you begin to televise negotiations over a major piece of legislation, the proceedings you televise cease to be negotiations. They become, instead, campaign speeches and posturing (as we saw in February 2010 during the president's health care summit with congressional leaders). The real negotiations move to a room without TV cameras and microphones.
Any promise that can't conceivably be kept is one that never should have been made. There are only two possibilities--either the president never understood the futility of televising health care reform negotiations, or he always understood it. It's as hard to know which explanation is true as it is to decide which is worse. If Barack Obama spent two years campaigning to be president without doubting the feasibility of negotiating important public policy on a television show, then he really was as callow and ill-prepared as Hillary Clinton's "3 a.m. phone call" ad alleged.
If, on the other hand, he always knew that health care reform legislation would not and could not be hammered out on television, then Obama is not only brazen in ways that compare impressively to other people in his line of work, but stands condemned by the far more exacting standards by which he invited the voters to judge him. In November 2007 at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines, Obama gave a speech that propelled him to victory in the Iowa caucuses and, from there, to the nomination and the White House. He spoke of the need to address voters "who've lost trust in their government, but want to believe again" by realizing that "telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won't do." If Obama's inner council understood all along that the candidate's risible C-SPAN promise would have to be shunted aside after the inauguration, then his campaign was the latest validation of the Code for Modern Living: every time you're ready to conclude that you've become too cynical, the world finds a way to teach you that the real problem is that you haven't been cynical enough.
This is among the most powerful critiques of President Obama's political strategy that I've yet seen. Conservatives and liberals may disagree about whether cynicism is indeed ruining our politics, or whether it is an appropriate reaction to contemporary governance. I tend to believe that cynicism is more than justified, even as I root against my better judgment for a pol to show me that better results than I imagine are possible.
Only because I've covered legislators negotiating in public and private do I know how naive and untenable it would be for major health care legislation to proceed according to the results of negotiations broadcast on national television. Surely candidate Obama, a state legislator and a United States Senator, understood that as well as anyone. But he promised this kind of negotiation, despite its impossibility, on the assumption that it would appeal to a polity less versed in the reality of legislative progress.
The gambit worked in the short and medium terms: President Obama won Election 2008, and health care negotiations conducted behind closed doors resulted in historic reform legislation that, whatever one thinks of it, conforms to the president's vision of improving the system. In taking this approach, however, Obama assured that in the long term, folks cynical about government for reasons he once diagnosed so clearly would grow even more so, having been promised a transparent legislative and denied it.
Ours is a system where decisions are made "behind closed doors," and by casting aspersions on this method without any way of altering it, Obama marginally increased cynicism about unavoidable elements of the legislative process. If he truly believes that cynical voters are corrosive to our system of government, shame on him, because he has exacerbated the problem.
Every major national politician in recent memory has behaved as badly, so it's no wonder that esteem for elective leaders is waning. They're savvy political insiders who describe as indefensible traits of our political system that are unavoidable. The worst are responsible for engendering hope that is dashed so inevitably and starkly that it can only lead to even more cynicism than is justified. Few traits are shared by Barack Obama, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan. But this is one of them.