Barack Obama and The Fundamental Attribution Error

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In high school psychology, students learn about an odd tendency of the human condition, the so-called “fundamental attribution error.” We people are hard wired, it seems, to overvalue the personality-based reasons for someone’s behavior, while under-valuing the circumstantial reasons. If a waitress is rude, our instinct is to assume she is a bad person, not that there are circumstances (a home foreclosure, a divorce, a sick child) that would explain the rudeness. When a hedge fund manager hits a jackpot, we assume he is just more brilliant, not that he got lucky.

Over the last few months at the White House, aides to President Obama have talked in similar terms about their own situation. Though they never use the terminology, they accuse the American public, as read in presidential approval polls, of being mislead by a sort of fundamental attribution error. While many in America attribute the current national malaise to President Obama’s leadership, he and his aides are busy pointing at all the situational factors that have nothing to do with the president’s leadership–the financial collapse, the intransigence of Republicans, the inanity of the cable news shout fest.

The White House press corps reigning dean, Peter Baker, gets right at the heart of argument in his definitive two-year New York Times magazine check-in of the Obama Administration.

[F]or all the second-guessing, what you do not hear in the White House is much questioning of the basic elements of the program — Obama aides, liberal and moderate alike, reject complaints from the right that the stimulus did not help the economy or that health care expands government too much, as well as complaints from the left that he should have pushed for a bigger stimulus package or held out for a public health care option. . . . Instead, what you hear Obama aides talking about is that the system is “not on the level.” That’s a phrase commonly used around the West Wing — “it’s not on the level.” By that, they mean the Republicans, the news media, the lobbyists, the whole Washington culture is not serious about solving problems.

In other words, the problem is circumstantial, not personal. This argument leads to the president’s current self confidence despite all the bad news around him, and will likely lead him to govern in his second two years with more consistency than Bill Clinton after his big midterm defeat chased him to the center. Obama acknowledges almost no regrets, no inclination to shift strategy in any major way. He is telling voters to vote Democratic in the midterms because they will get more of the same from the Democratic party, not something different. If Obama is right, then when the circumstances shift, he will be vindicated.

But he may also be wrong. There are lots of signs that the American people may not much like Obama’s actual policies. Health care reform has not polled well for about a year. Less than half of Americans have much faith in the federal government to solve problems, even as Obama posits more government as the solutions to health care, energy, education and the economy. In the story, Baker gets at some of the skepticism around Washington that the president’s diagnosis is correct. “One prominent Democratic lawmaker told me Obama’s problem is that he is not insecure — he always believes he is the smartest person in any room and never feels the sense of panic that makes a good politician run scared all the time, frenetically wooing lawmakers, power brokers, adversaries and voters as if the next election were a week away.”

Whatever the results of the coming midterm, a period of Democratic self-evaluation will ensue. If the losses are big, the infighting could get ugly. The president has a lot riding on the outcome. He needs to convince his own party, going into 2012, that the losses they have just suffered have external causes, not internal ones. Ironically, if the external factors remain bad, then Obama’s refusal to shift approach may only confirm the belief that it is all his fault.