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Obama channels Fenno

- February 4, 2010

In his “comments to Senate Democrats”:http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-senate-democratic-policy-committee-issues-conference yesterday, President Obama kicked into “Intro to American Politics” mode. The president invoked what has become known as “Fenno’s Paradox” after Hall of Fame congressional scholar “Richard Fenno”:http://www.rochester.edu/college/psc/people/faculty/fenno.php — basically, why do members of Congress always get reelected if no one thinks Congress is doing a good job?

The answer, as Obama put it, is that “When you look at polls, people hate Congress, but individual members, a lot of them feel, are really working hard on their behalf.” Thus (in Fenno’s famous phrase), “people run for Congress by running against Congress. (“Here’s”:http://www.congresslink.org/print_expert_effectivecongress.htm one useful discussion of the point, by UCLA’s Barbara Sinclair.)

This didn’t have the cheeriest implications for Senate Dems, and perhaps we might hope in any case that our U.S. Senators aced Intro to American. But as the Pew Research Center “results”:http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1478/political-iq-quiz-knowledge-filibuster-debt-colbert-steele released last week suggest, few Americans have. Only 26% knew how many votes it takes to stop a filibuster and 32% that no Republican senators supported the most recent health care bill. This suggests that the president – as so often – is really speaking not to the audience in the room, but to the public in their living rooms. Sadly, most likely the latter are watching _Lost_.