Why I’m Excited about the David Leonhardt Era

The selection of New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt as the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief was widely acclaimed when it was announced last month, and rightly so — Leonhardt, a favorite of mine, was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “his graceful penetration of America’s complicated economic questions.” But despite all the acclaim, I still don’t think people have fully appreciated the difference in perspective that he could bring to the job.

Here’s what Leonhardt said, for instance, during a discussion of opposition to President Obama on Jonah Keri’s podcast yesterday (starting at 21:22):

I do think the economy is the dominant thing. I think what tends to happen is the economy drives elections and then we construct narratives around that to explain things. I think if the unemployment rate had been falling in the summer of ’10 and into the fall the Democratic losses would have been much less in that midterm election.

It’s hard to understate what a radical statement this is from the incoming DC bureau chief of the Times. Journalists tend to create dramatic narratives centered on candidate tactics and personalities to explain electoral outcomes that are largely driven by structural factors (the state of the economy, the distribution of seats in Congress, etc.). If Leonhardt shifts the NYT’s political coverage away from these bogus narratives and toward the careful explanatory journalism he has practiced so successfully, it would be a huge step forward for the field.

Immediately after making the statement above, Leonhardt also went on to criticize what I’ve called the Green Lantern theory of the presidency (see also here), which has been back in the news as liberal critics of Obama have become more vocal:

Some of the criticism of the White House I think is not reality-based. You hear a fair amount of criticism on the left that basically amounts to “If only he had been tougher, if only he had asked for more of these things and demanded more of these things, Congress would have gone along.” But when you try to tease that out to the end, it ends up being fairly weak tea. It’s not at all clear if by giving more liberal speeches Barack Obama could have persuaded Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman and controlled the Senate to vote differently…

Again, rather than engaging in the false hype of the powers of the bully pulpit that so often appear in press coverage of the presidency, Leonhardt recognizes that the president’s power over Congress is quite limited. As he notes, these critiques are speculative and unsupported at best.

There’s an important connection between these two myths. In both cases, journalists tend to prioritize the visible and the dramatic (speeches, ads, etc.) over empirical evidence about what matters. Leonhardt is the rare journalist who has succeeded in political coverage by emphasizing the latter rather than the former.

With that said, it’s important to note that Leonhardt faces a difficult set of challenges. In the past, the Times has featured the work of writers who manufacture crude narratives while frequently neglecting the role of the economy in politics. Given likely institutional resistance to change, we shouldn’t set expectations for Leonhardt too high. But I’m still more optimistic about the Times than I’ve been in years.

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.