Obama’s Birth Certificate: Diminishing Marginal Utility and Finite Agenda Space

I posted this on Seth Masket’s facebook page a moment ago (see his blog here).  Seth asked why Obama released his birth certificate now when there is presumably an electoral incentive to keep the issue alive (given that it makes Republican candidates like Donald Trump look silly and lose credibility).  Some of the responses from to Seth’s question included:

  • Public opinion is starting to turn against Obama on this issue
  • Obama is tired of refuting Republicans on this point
  • Birthers will look even more stupid trying to refute his birth certificate

My thoughts are somewhat different.  I think the answer has to do with  (1) diminishing marginal utility (a concept from economics which says that every additional unit of some good will yield less beneficial outcomes or “diminishing returns”) and (2) the limited amount of agenda space. Here is a reprint of my facebook post (edited slightly):

If all else were equal, Obama would love to let Republicans continue to look foolish over the birther issue. Clearly, in my eyes, they have intentionally kept the issue alive rather than squashing it months ago.  However, all else is not equal in this case. With the media’s obsession with Trump and the birthers, other political issues are getting crowded out or ignored entirely (political agendas are finite, after all). In particular, there is less attention on the Ryan budget plan, which the Obama White House probably views as a winner for their side (polls show that upwards of 80% are against cutting Medicare, for example). To win in 2012, Obama needs more than the birther issue. Diminishing marginal utility makes sense of this because “additional units of crazy” produced by the right are likely to yield diminishing returns. In other words, people have made their mind up on the birth certificate issue so the benefit to Obama and Democrats has already been awarded (to the extent that large segments are turned off by the birther issue).  Keeping the issue alive will produce few additional gains while keeping the budget issue out of the media.  Thus, Obama made a strategic calculation, deciding to get his birth off the agenda and return the people’s focus to a substantive issue in which they can beat Republicans in 2012 (Ryan’s draconian cuts).

Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.  Back to my dissertation…

This entry was posted in Congressional Absurdity, Legislative Politics, Policy Agendas, Political Behavior. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Obama’s Birth Certificate: Diminishing Marginal Utility and Finite Agenda Space

  1. J. Maggio says:

    I think you nail this exactly. The president wants to hang the Ryan budget around the neck of the GOP. Whether that works, who the hell knows. But enough was enough. I will say that some of this does play into the narrative of Obama “following.” (He has followed Trump, Sarkozy into Libya, Pelosi into HCR, etc.)

  2. Jordan Ragusa says:

    Thanks for the comment Jay. I see the point about “following” but I would put a more rational choice spin on the whole thing. I would say that Obama has “goaded” or “provoked” Trump and the other birthers into this situation. The reality is that this whole issue could have been laid to rest many months ago. Moreover, it seemed to me that the White House brought the issue up on some occasions (rather than simply responding). The question, in my eyes, then becomes: Why release the long-form birth certificate NOW? The answer is either they don’t see it as politically viable any more (diminishing returns) or their utility (in terms of votes) is maximized by adopting another strategy (attacking Republicans on the budget, thus the need to shift the agenda).

  3. Rick says:

    This makes an awful lot of sense. Ryan’s budget is just starting to get traction (e.g., embarrassing questions at townhalls), so at this point birtherism is taking up media oxygen to no purpose. Releasing the long form birth certificate sends the topic to Area 51 territory, too embarrassing for the media to keep talking about.

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