Creating an incentive for dysfunction

The New York Times had an interesting piece today on the White House’s expectations that “moderate and independent voters” will be impressed with President Obama’s economic agenda, to be unveiled tonight.

Mr. Obama has managed, the pollsters say, to come out of this summer with slightly less blame among voters for the debt ceiling and budget fights than have his Congressional Republican adversaries. But his attempts to appear willing to compromise have not cut any slack with moderates and independents so far because not only has the economic picture worsened, so, too, has public confidence in Washington’s ability to fix it.

“I’m not as dissatisfied with him as I am with Congress,” said Susan Jean London, a retired teacher in Palmyra, Me., who said she was not registered as either Republican or Democrat. “I don’t know if I want to give Obama another chance.”

With two children who are looking for work, Mrs. London said in a telephone interview that she was disheartened by a culture in Washington in which Congress rejects everything that Mr. Obama proposes.

Obviously, there’s no point in drawing sweeping conclusions from the perspective of one individual voter, but I think this woman’s take is worth keeping in mind. London apparently voted for Obama in 2008, but she’s not sure if she will again. Because he’s let her down? To hear her tell it, the dissatisfaction is directed more at Congress than the president.

So why would she hold Obama responsible for her frustrations with a separate branch? Because voting is often irrational. Washington is a mess; Obama’s the president; ergo, on an emotional level, some are led to believe maybe it’s time for a different president. It doesn’t make sense to blame Obama for Congress’ refusal to consider Obama’s agenda, but frustrated voters don’t always direct their aggravation in the most targeted and constructive of ways.

The larger implications of this are important. As has become increasingly clear of late, congressional Republicans aren’t just eager to undermine Obama at all costs, they’re also intent on undermining the public’s faith in political institutions themselves. The GOP sees an incentive, then, to create as much dysfunction as possible, no matter the costs.

Republicans know they may suffer on Election Day by deliberately undermining the government’s ability to function, but they also know an angry electorate is nearly as likely to blame the president for the mess, even if he’s the one trying to clean it up.

And the comments from the voter the NYT talked to suggest the strategy might very well work.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.