Ben Smith tries to put this in terms of Obama being between Bush (who didn’t really care much about what the polls said*) and Clinton (who cared a great deal about what the polls said*):
He is polling more than Bush – a bit less than once a week for most of his young term, two people involved said.
Elements of Obama’s approach bear the hallmarks of message testing, like the introduction of the words “recovery” and “reinvestment” to rebrand the “stimulus” package, and aides said the polling has focused almost entirely on selling policy, not on measuring the president’s personal appeal.
A source familiar with the data said a central insight of more recent polling had been that Americans see no distinction between the budget and the popular spending measures that preceded it, and that the key to selling the budget has been to portray it as part of the “recovery” measures.
But Obama, though polling regularly, is no Clinton either. The 42nd president studied Penn’s polls with “hypnotic intensity,” the Washington Post once wrote. Obama leaves political guru David Axelrod to sift through the results.
…but there isn’t much daylight between going over the poll results yourself and having your guy do it for you. If Obama’s White House is polling multiple times a month, and policy is being changed because of that polling, then he’s running a government-by-polls. And we really should have a word for that sort of thing by now.
On the surface, government-by-polls doesn’t seem such a bad idea for a democracy, or even a republic: after all, our leaders are supposed to be addressing the desires of the populace, and one of the principal principles of democracy is that its citizenry can be trusted to make correct choices in the aggregate. This is the point where people start quoting Edmund Burke at me, so I let me agree that your representative does owe you his judgment as well as his industry; and that he does betray you if he sacrifices it to your opinion. But he should still take your opinion into account. So the mere obsessive desire to be up to date on the current zeitgeist is not automatically worrisome.
What is worrisome is more subtle, and that’s what effect poll-watching has on the actual decision making process. There’s a story about General Grant: he was walking along with someone else when a quartermaster came up to him and asked for Grant’s orders on an arcane manner. Grant promptly gave him one and the quartermaster raced off. When his companion asked Grant how he so quickly knew what the correct answer was, Grant equitably and readily admitted that he didn’t; he instead picked the answer that sounded best. If Grant turned out to be wrong, it’d be obvious very quickly, and then they could change things accordingly, but even if he was wrong it’d still be better than waiting until the right answer was evident.
This story is often used to illustrate the advantages of decisive thinking; but it’s just as easily there to illustrate the advantages of taking infinite pains. A lot of people take Grant’s obvious approach (making a snap decision) to problem-solving without also doing the work behind it (monitoring the results of that solution). The Obama administration has, I think, fallen into that trap with their financial policy. If they were watching the polls and using the mood of the populace to fine tune their actual policies… well, that’s still sort of eyebrow-raising, but you could justify that under the ‘wisdom of crowds’ defense (or the ‘let the markets decide’ defense, for those snickering at the first phrase). But what they’re actually doing is using the polls to fine-tune the way their policies are presented to the public… which does not address whether the policies are correct. Worse, they probably think that this fine-tuning makes the policies better, when all they’re doing is just making them (the White House hopes) more popular.
In some ways, this is worse than mere navel-gazing. At least with navel-gazing you can hope for enlightenment. Or at least a good centering.
*For good or ill.
Crossposted to Moe Lane.