The problem, as Greg Sargent at the Wash Post notes, is that when confronted with the news that they were losing the message war with the GOP - that the public had accepted the Republican argument that the best way to help the economy was to cut spending, which would in fact shoot the economy in the foot - rather than fight back against that message, rather than educate the public, the White House embraced the fallacy in order to shore up the President in the polls.
First Greg quoting the book (Showdown by David Corn), then Greg:
This is something a number of us suspected, and warned about, for a while now. That the White House communications team - likely a reflection of, and constraint imposed by, the President's own thinking - has been too predisposed to what the public thinks, and to what Congress thinks, while giving less attention to whether they have the ability to move the public and Congress on any given issue. And what's worse, they ceded much of the debate to the GOP, which is why I believe we keep seeing such terrible polling on health care reform. The Republicans seem to attack HCR far more than the administration defends it. Which is somewhat understandable as the message is "jobs" - but we might not have HCR much longer if the numbers go any further south.[This is quoting the book:] With Sperling sitting in on the presentation, Garin reinforced the White House view that Democrats had to up their game on deficit reduction. His firm had conducted extensive polling and focus groups. He told the senators that voters saw jobs as the most pressing priority. This might seem to support those Democrats who believed Obama had gone too far overboard on the deficit-reduction cruise. But when asked what the president and Congress should do to boost job creation, most voters said reduce the deficit and the debt. They had imbibed the GOP message; the problem with the economy was governmental red ink.[And here's Greg:] Of course, progressives argue that it’s precisely because voters conflate economic anxiety with worry about the deficit that Dems shouldn’t have allowed concern about the deficit to drive them to make the pivot. But Democrats decided to draw the opposite conclusion. As both these passages show, Dems and White House officials knew that the policy justification for the pivot to deficit reduction was flimsy at best. But they decided they couldn’t win the short-term argument, and went ahead and pivoted, anyway.
That was not accurate. The financial crash that triggered the economic collapse was unrelated to federal deficits. But Garin measured voter perceptions, not whether voters were correct. And he told the senators that voters would not listen to what the Democrats — including the president — had to say about jobs and investments if they did not sense that the Democrats were willing to wrestle the debt monster to the ground.
The White House had the support in this woe-is-me, the-president-has-no-power-to-influence-congress-or-the-american-people, thinking from a small but influential group of young liberal pundits who had never actually worked in politics. And those pundits were wrong. Presidents may not be able to cast a vote in Congress, but they have unprecedented power to sway the country and Congress on an issue if they do their job right. It's no guarantee. And on some issues, it might be wiser for the President to cave to public opinion. But on far too many issues during the first two years of the Obama presidency, the White House seemed to cave far too easily on issue after issue - if the poll numbers were bad, if the initial vote tally in congress was bad, the White House punted rather than attempt to change those numbers - and the President and Biden often noted that Obama wasn't God, that he wasn't king, etc., only reinforcing the notion that he was weak.
As I noted this morning, I think all of that has started to change. I think the President has been fighting back a lot harder this past year, and I think public opinion has turned as a result - certainly the electoral math has changed, and the President's approvals seem to have increased some, while Republicans are more loathed than ever. Hopefully the President learns a lesson from this that outlasts November.