Why being President-elect is a difficult job

by on January 5, 2009 at 8:13 am in Political Science | Permalink

But evidence is mounting that Obama is already losing ground among
key Arab and Muslim audiences that cannot understand why, given his
promise of change, he has not spoken out. Arab commentators and
editorialists say there is growing disappointment at Obama’s detachment
– and that his failure to distance himself from George Bush’s strongly
pro-Israeli stance is encouraging the belief that he either shares
Bush’s bias or simply does not care.

The Al-Jazeera satellite
television station recently broadcast footage of Obama on holiday in
Hawaii, wearing shorts and playing golf, juxtaposed with scenes of
bloodshed and mayhem in Gaza. Its report criticising "the deafening
silence from the Obama team" suggested Obama is losing a battle of
perceptions among Muslims that he may not realise has even begun.

Here is more.  Under one interpretation of the signaling game, these observers might have inferred that the very timing of the Israeli attack implies Obama’s disapproval or at least an uncertain reaction; the Israelis could have waited for the Obama Presidency but they did not.  Under another interpretation, signals aren’t just about information but signals also show caring and solidarity as valued for reasons not directly related to the initial information.  Message recipients care about who sends the signal, and how the signal is sent, not just the revelation of the underlying information.  Under this second interpretation (relatively neglected by economic theory, I might add, though not by Robin Hanson), it is much harder for things to go well.

1 John Thacker January 5, 2009 at 8:51 am

The very act of being President, not just President-elect, is difficult. When you’re running for office, and haven’t specifically addressed a particular issue, supporters overlook things and assume that “he must agree with me.” (Some supporters will go farther and assume that even if the candidate says something they don’t like, that that’s really just for other people and he really agrees with them.) Actions, however, are bound to disappoint people.

This was equally true for, say, Bush on immigration.

2 a student of economics January 5, 2009 at 9:05 am

In the middle of a war, the tribal instincts of supporters of each side get inflamed. It’s hard enough to get humans to overcome primitive limbic system modes of thought on an issue like this in the best of times, but during open hostilities, the brains of millions of people shut down to reason and rationality. (Perhaps this reaction once had some evolutionary survival advantage, though I doubt it does in the 21st century.)

Unfortunately, Obama’s best tactic is to keep his head down until the active fighting subsides. Any speech or action during this time will get misinterpreted by large numbers on both sides and only get him imprinted as an “enemy” sympathizer, making later efforts at reconciliation, trust-building and peace all the harder.

3 meter January 5, 2009 at 9:39 am

Aggression is stealing land that isn’t yours (in my book anyway).

Firing rockets isn’t the solution but let’s face it: what would you do if someone showed up in your backyard tomorrow morning and started laying a foundation?

4 DK January 5, 2009 at 9:53 am

A more obvious lesson here is that Obama cares less about signaling to the arab street than to the American one, which will probably have a greater impact on the success of his presidency and his ability to change anything.

5 Bob Murphy January 5, 2009 at 10:13 am

Whatever one’s view of Obama, can we all agree that the following defense is a bit ridiculous?

Its report criticising “the deafening silence from the Obama team” suggested Obama is losing a battle of perceptions among Muslims that he may not realise has even begun.

I’m not saying he should abort his Hawaiian vacation every time a war breaks out (Georgia, Gaza), but let’s not pretend he is innocent of politics. I’m pretty sure he’s got advisors, one of whom said, “Do you want to be seen surfing while this is going on?”

6 dearieme January 5, 2009 at 11:21 am

It may be the only decent holiday he gets in a decade: I hope he enjoys it.

7 Tracy W January 5, 2009 at 11:34 am

Well disappointment was bound to happen sooner or later, non-American expectations about the change Obama will make were ridiculously high. And I suspect that passsions are so inflamed about Israel and Palestine that anything short of Obama being willing to send US troops in to overthrow the Israeli government would disappoint some commentators and probably be regarded as terrible American bias in favour of Israel

It may be good for Obama to start off by lowering expectations in the rest of the world. (I am not an American).

8 Jason January 5, 2009 at 12:49 pm

the Israelis could have waited for the Obama Presidency but they did not

Sorry, but I don’t get this post.

Obama came out in favor of Israel doing pretty much anything it wanted to defend itself during his campaign. Besides, Obama said he was going to bomb a nuclear power, Pakistan, so what can he say against Israel?

If anyone is doing signally it is Iran. I don’t think it is controversial to say Iran and Hamas are connected. Iran has Hamas bomb Isreal to drive up the price of oil. Yes, there is no reason for the price of oil to go up because Isreal gets bombed, but the market has a Pavlovian response. It is very similar to people on Wall Street being happy about stimulus plans. Many don’t necessarily think stimulus plans will do anything, but they seem sure the perception that something is being done will help them out.

9 StreetWalker January 5, 2009 at 1:55 pm

That Israel attacks now is surely a strong signal they don’t believe Obama is its strongest supporter. Look ahead, reason back, and draw your game tree, right?

One of the early factors thought to distinguish Hillary from Obama was Jewish support. Over the summer there was a lot of question as to whether Jews would support Obama without Hillary on the ticket.

This is the origin of Sarah Silverman’s Great Schelp, right? To persuade your Jewish grandparents to vote Obama?

When Obama thought he needed Jewish support, he suddenly became a talking-point Zionist, just as when he needed gay support, he was a talking-point friend of civil unions and nondiscrimination.

Now that gay people, see Frank Rich, have realized that Obama is quick & happy to betray them (by his choice of inauguration preacher), the Israelis won’t be fooled.

They attack now. And having seen gay people discarded, and the Israelis move, other marginal groups in the Obama coalition – such as Muslims – are right to suspect him. Obama seems little aware of how the choice of Warren for the inauguration was an error.

10 JerichoHill January 5, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Is the obvious point that Obama has stated repeatedly that we have “one President at a time” lost on both the current critics of his silence on the Gaza trouble and some commentators here?

It shocks me, but mayhap he actually meant what he said? I’m not going to start cheering or criticizing Obama until he umm, actually gets sworn in as President and has responsibility for the duties.

11 torabora January 5, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Anyone who expects anything different out of duh1 now or in the future is gonna be disappointed. This guy is exactly the moron he appears to be. There are rocks smarter than he.

12 Superheater January 5, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Hey get a clue.

Obama is a mere human being, sorry, I mean he’s a politician. Actually, he’s a mirage-the problem with “hope and change” is that much of politics is dealing with disappointment and institutional inertia. The problem with being all image is you are always afraid having it exposed.

Its a lot easier to to persuade people you know what to do when you complain about somebody else-then when you actually have to do it.

Withdrawal is always a sign of uncertainty and indecision.

Maybe there is something to the whole 2012 end of the world thing.

13 Tangurena January 6, 2009 at 10:06 am

Israel has an election on Feb 10, so it is my belief *that* deadline has more to do with the timing of the attack than any approval/disapproval by Obama (call it 70/30). Since both major parties in Israel need the backing of a couple of the smaller ones to form a coalition, they both have to sound and act extremely bellicosly to appeal to the hawks in the smaller parties.

14 Miako January 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Tanq has nailed it.
Nonetheless the timing here, as confirmed by Israeli sources, was to take advantage of Christmas/NewYears and a lameduck President.

Obama should speak out, even if tepidly (say he would like a ceasefire). However, he will not, as that might undermine sensitive negotiations.

Negotiations are ongoing, as they always are. Obama is in firm contact with Foggy Bottom, and they are studiously reorienting themselves to his policies, all while still theoretically supporting Bush’s. As far as is warranted, and I don’t know how far that is, State’s ambassadors are passing the word on what to expect from Obama.

No, the gay people are getting what they wanted. Growing alarmed and asserting your voice are two different things.
I can’t stand Warren because he thinks that I’m going to hell for not believing in his religion, but that’s a different ball of wax.

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