Tail Wags Dog: Why Is Obama Heeding Pundits' Calls for an Apology Tour?

President Obama took blame for not changing the tone in Washington while speaking to reporters on Air Force One Cliff Owen / AP

Immediately following the election, you couldn't turn on cable news without hearing a commentator bloviating about how President Obama didn't "get it," whatever that was, or that he needed to show more humility, or apologize to the American people.

Clearly, Obama doesn't watch The Daily Show, which devastatingly showed why this was silly. As The Washington Post's Perry Bacon notes today, he's on a veritable apology tour. Speaking to reporters as he returned from a trip to Asia this weekend, he blamed himself for not changing the tone in Washington. And in appearance after appearance, he's pointed the finger at himself while deflecting culpability from his party, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or his aides. Apparently, Obama has taken the pundits' advice: he has to show contrition to go forward.

But wait. Who, exactly, is going to be swayed by this? Liberals—or, in Press Secretary Robert Gibbs's now-famous formulation, the "professional left"—have been blasting him for being too willing to compromise for months, so it won't please them. Conservatives aren't likely to care that much, either. Voters who voted against him because of staunch opposition to, say, health-care reform aren't going to change their mind because he apologized. They're either already decided, or else they'll change their mind if the new law benefits them.

There's a sizable literature, driven especially by political scientists, that argues that what really matters to voters is the economy: the fate of the ruling party in both presidential and midterm elections is reliably predicted by economic improvement. And—you guessed it—Obama's effusive contrition isn't going to fix the economy. That makes a strong argument that Obama's praise for Pelosi and Reid, and his resistance (thus far) to serious shake-ups in his team, aren't a bad strategy.

But apologizing might be detrimental. Liberal blogger Digby argues that if Obama keeps apologizing for not "chang[ing] the way Washington works" but can't actually bring change, he'll lose in 2012. But that's a rather idealized view of the electorate. In truth, policy results matter more, and it's those results that he's endangering by apologizing so often, because he's immediately placing himself on the defensive. The market for compromise isn't really that big, if Gallup is to be believed—and recent events suggest it is. When Tea Party legislators persuaded the Senate Republican leadership to back an earmark ban, Obama spoke in favor of it. Presumptive Speaker-to-be John Boehner promptly fired back by asking if Obama really favored an earmark ban.

At least that's something Obama really seems to believe in. But while his Democratic colleagues are essentially signaling surrender on the Bush tax cuts, Obama and his team insist they still want to extend them only for the middle class. Combine an intransigent Republican faction with a self-undermining Obama and it's hard to see how he gets a victory. Meanwhile, Obama—also as part of his humility act—is generally declining to attack Republicans, even as they lob verbal bombs at him on a regular basis. (This also all has the weird effect of acceding to a demand from Sarah Palin that he apologize.)

And that's all while Democrats still control both chambers of Congress. It'll be even harder for him in January, when the GOP takes over the House. Pundits might be eager for contrition, Mr. President, but if you want to successfully move policies that improve and get you reelected, it's a dud. Sorry.