Does Obama Face A “Competence” Problem?

“[T]the world is a mess.” So declared former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last Sunday while appearing on Bob Schieffer’s Face the Nation. But, if the latest round of punditry is to be believed, so is President’s Obama’s foreign policy. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius* issued a blistering critique today regarding Secretary of State’s John Kerry’s efforts to broker a truce in Gaza. By targeting Kerry, of course, Ignatius’ critique will inevitably be viewed as implicitly indicting the President, who is Kerry’s boss. Ignatius’ critique comes two days after his colleague Fred Hiatt’s own attack on Obama’s policy of “disengagement.” And finally, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, citing recent survey data, argued in his column yesterday that Obama faces a significant “competence” problem that threatens both his ability to accomplish much during his second term and, not incidentally, “make things very tough for his party in this fall’s midterm election”.

I noted in yesterday’s post that much of the criticism regarding Obama’s foreign policy fails to recognize the nearly insoluble nature of many of world problems (the recurring Israeli-Palestine clash only dates back at least to 1948, after all) and overstates Obama’s – indeed, any president’s – effective influence on events in general. Today I want to develop that point by focusing on Cillizza’s latest critique of the President’s managerial abilities, which he appears to blame in part for Obama’s foreign policy failings. As evidence of Obama’s managerial incompetence, Cillizza cites a recent CNN poll in which only 42% of respondents believe the phrase “can manage the government effectively” applies to Obama, while fully 57% believes it doesn’t apply to him. To Cillizza, this is clear proof that Obama “is faltering badly on the competence question.”

What should we make of Cillizza’s argument? To start, it’s worth noting that, as Cillizza acknowledges, the latest survey result isn’t much different from the responses in previous CNN surveys asking this same question. Indeed, back in September, 2011 – before Obama won reelection – the same percentage of respondents – 42% – came to the same conclusion regarding Obama’s lack of managerial effectiveness. Last November only 40% of those surveyed said the “manage government effectively” moniker applied to Obama.  In fact, as the following graph put together by Day Robins and charting responses to the CNN managerial competence question dating back to 2008 indicates, views regarding Obama’s managerial capabilities seem to have stabilized: competenceIf the President has a significant competence issue, then, it is a longstanding concern that predates his reelection, and it is not nearly as certain as Cillizza seems to believe that it will have serious political implications this fall. It certainly did not prevent his reelection in 2012.

More importantly, however, it is not immediately clear what drives survey respondents’ answers to this question. What does it mean to be an effective manager? Cillizza himself seems fuzzy on this point – he attributes the low support for Obama’s managerial qualities to “[a] series of events — from the VA scandal to the ongoing border crisis to the situation in Ukraine to the NSA spying program – [that] have badly undermined the idea that Obama can effectively manage the government…” But it seems to me that some of these issues, such as the border crisis or the situation in Ukraine, aren’t viewed by most people through a narrow managerial lens, if that means evaluating whether the President is an effective administrator of policies in these issue areas. I suspect instead that when it comes to the Ukraine conflict or immigration, people are criticizing Obama’s policies, or at least the perceived impact of these policies on outcomes, more than his managerial skills. Similarly, critics of the NSA spying program aren’t attacking how it was managed so much as who it targeted and on what basis.

But even in areas, such as the VA scandal, where outcomes do seem linked to poor management, the survey evidence indicates that most people do not blame the President. Thus, a NBC/Wall St. Journal survey from last June showed that 61% of respondents believed that the VA problems were due to a “longstanding government bureaucracy” while only 14% attributed the scandal to “poor management by the Obama administration.”

But there is a more fundamental problem with Cillizza’s focus on Obama’s managerial competence. It feeds the inaccurate belief that the President is the nation’s CEO who has primary responsibility for managing the executive branch bureaucracy. This frequently voiced belief, however, flies in the face of both the Constitution and empirical evidence. In fact, the Framers allocated the primary levers of managerial control – particularly the ability to create, define a mission and pay for a government bureaucracy – to Congress, not the President. The managerial powers the President does possess, such as the ability to appoint senior officials to head the bureaucracy, is usually shared with the Senate. In some cases presidents can “manage” unilaterally, as when firing officials, although the cost of doing so is often politically prohibitive.  But, as Obama discovered when debating options regarding a potential surge of military forces in Afghanistan, even a president’s “commander-in-chief”-related managerial powers are more limited than is commonly recognized. Journalists, in their reporting, often exhibit a blind spot to this constitutionally-mandated sharing of managerial powers, as Richard Neustadt noted more than half a century ago in his classic study of presidential power: “Even Washington reporters…are not immune to the illusion that administrative agencies comprise a single structure, the ‘executive branch’ where presidential word is law, or ought to be.” In fact, as the news that Congress is taking the initial steps to fix the Veterans Administration reminds us, when bureaucracies fail, we usually ought first to start with Congress rather than the President when seeking solutions.

My point here is not to absolve Obama of all blame for the “messy” state of American foreign policy. It is instead to suggest that the problems are probably not caused by his managerial incompetence so much as a poor choice of policy options and a limited capacity, rooted in weak formal powers, to implement those options. Nor do I mean to imply that a president’s managerial skills (or lack thereof) don’t matter. They do – but their biggest impact centers on how presidents choose to utilize their immediate advisers, a topic about which I’ve written extensively, and which I will try to address in another blog post.  In the meantime, however, I see little evidence that Obama’s alleged lack of managerial competence is the cause of his foreign policy problems or that it will be a drag on the Democratic ticket come November.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly list the author of the Kerry critique as David Sanger – it is David Ignatius, of course.

Is Obama’s Leadership Style To Blame For His Foreign Policy Problems?

It has not been a very good month for President Obama when it comes to foreign policy. Despite his personal entreaties to Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay out of the Ukrainian civil conflict, photos released today by American intelligence sources indicate the Russian military is firing artillery from Russian soil on behalf of the Ukrainian separatists.  This comes on the heels of the shootdown, allegedly by those same separatists using a Russian surface-to-air missile, of a Malaysian civilian airliner that killed 298 people. Meanwhile, Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry has had no success in brokering a lasting truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip, where the Israeli invasion, about to enter its third week, has led to the deaths of at least 1,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, in addition to the more than 40 Israeli fatalities.

While these two crises dominate the headlines for now, other foreign policy trouble spots continue to fester. In Syria, the civil war enters its fourth year and has cost more than 170,000 lives with no sign that the increasingly fractious U.S.-backed rebels will be able to overthrow the Syrian leader Bashar Assad without direct U.S. military intervention – which Obama so far has resisted. In Iraq, on the heels of the U.S. military withdrawal, unexpected territorial gains by the al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State in Iraq threaten to split that country into three partitions and, possibly, ignite another sectarian conflict. In Libya, less than three years after Obama helped depose dictator Muammar Gaddafi via a multi-nation military intervention, rival militias fight for power amid a deteriorating security situation and in the absence of any real civil authority. And in Afghanistan, where Obama’s three-year military surge recently wound down, there are growing doubts regarding whether the American-trained Afghan forces can beat back a Taliban resurgence, even as political infighting threatens to break apart the fragile civilian government.

Not surprisingly, conservative critics blame Obama for what they believe to be his failed leadership style which they argue has contributed to his inability to effectively address any of these foreign policy crises. Charles Krauthammer berates the “vacant presidency”, arguing that Obama’s “detachment — the rote, impassive voice — borders on dissociation.” A.B Stoddard, in urging Obama to “act presidential” writes, “He could acknowledge that Americans find it comforting and appropriate for their president to be present in a crisis, let alone during many at once, and not simply speaking to a bank of cameras stationed outside some incongruous setting.” Even Obama’s supporters wonder whether he can rescue his “sputtering” presidency, while more neutral observers debate whether he has achieved lame-duck status with unusual rapidity.

In assessing these criticisms, one is struck by how the adjectives used to criticize Obama’s leadership style now reference the very same traits that supporters praised on the eve of his election in 2008. Five years ago Obama was viewed as “pragmatic” – but now he lacks guiding principles. Then supporters praised his thoughtfulness – now he is passive. “Patient” has become “reactive”. At the same time polls suggest attitudes are softening a bit toward Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, who not so long ago left office criticized for his rash (proactive?), impetuous (decisive?) leadership style.

The real lesson to be gleaned from these shifting standards of evaluation is not that the pundits are fickle, or that the public does not know what it wants in terms of leadership style. It is that the foreign policy problems presidents confront are often inherently intractable, with no cost-free solution available. Bush invaded Iraq, successfully overthrew a dictator, and yet that decision set in motion a train of events that has led to the current crisis there. (I leave it to partisans to debate how much Obama’s failure to maintain a military presence in Iraq contributed to the current state of affairs.) On the other hand, Obama has refused to intervene in Syria, and the situation there is no less dire. In Libya, Obama chose not to go it alone and instead to operate as part of a multinational force, but results are arguably no better. In Afghanistan, he initially doubled down on Bush’s military intervention, and then largely withdrew U.S. military forces, and yet the long-run prospects for a stable government there remain grim.

Yes, each of these situations is unique in important respects. Moreover, partisans on both sides can and will argue the merits of their preferred leader’s particular choices. But to the objective observer it often seems that presidents are damned if they do intervene, damned if they do not, and damned if they opt to do both. It is hard to see how changes in leadership styles, at least as characterized in the short-hand jargon of political pundits, has had much impact on presidents’ ability to effectively address any of these international crises. Instead, the lesson seems clear – a president’s ability to “solve” foreign policy crises has much less to do with his (someday her) personal leadership qualities, and everything to do with the nature of the crises themselves. When there are no good solutions, changing leadership styles is hardly likely to matter, despite what partisans critics on both sides of the political aisle would have us believe.

Sunday Shorts: Hillary’s Money, Midterm Turnout and Illegal Immigration

It’s Sunday, and that means time for some short takes on trending stories:

In this earlier post I argued, tongue only partly in cheek, that Hillary Clinton may not be rich enough to be a great president. As I pointed out, our greatest presidents as rated by historians are, beginning with George Washington, often extraordinarily wealthy. Indeed, wealth seems to be a predictor of greatness! Despite this, I noted a spate of media stories of late suggesting that Hillary’s wealth may somehow prove to be a stumbling block for the presidency. Not surprisingly, given this narrative, Republican Party operatives have established a website designed to make Clinton’s wealth a campaign issue.

That Republicans are using Clinton’s wealth against her does not surprise former Bill Clinton speechwriter and Democratic pundit Paul Waldman. However, that the media seem to embrace the same logic does surprise him. As he writes in this Washington Post opinion piece, “But what may be even more remarkable is that so many in the press go right along with this stupidity… There’s a hidden assumption in some of this coverage that candidates should be nothing more than advocates for their class. If you’re rich, then you can’t sincerely care about the well-being of people who aren’t, and anything other than advocacy on behalf of other rich people is odd, even suspect.” The irony here, of course, is that Waldman’s Democratic colleagues used precisely this logic to attack Mitt Romney’s candidacy during the 2012 campaign.

Meanwhile, in an otherwise illuminating discussion of the reasons why midterm election turnout is typically much lower than that for a presidential election campaign, Pew Research Center author Drew DeSilver posted this graph based on research by Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist:

As you can see, turnout out for congressional midterm elections was actually higher than for presidential elections during the period 1789-1824, which runs contrary to the norm for most of our nation’s history.  What explains this apparent anomaly?  DeSilver’s answer: “History break: As McDonald’s chart shows, in the early decades of the republic, midterm elections typically drew more voters than presidential contests. Back then, most states only gave voting rights to property owners, and Congress — not the presidency — tended to be the federal government’s main power center and focus of electoral campaigns.” What DeSilver’s explanation does not say, however, is that for the first several presidential elections, many states did not choose electors through the popular vote. In 1792, for example, George Washington won reelection, but only 6 of the 15 states chose electors based on some form of popular input.  It is no wonder, then, that turnout for congressional elections was higher – many people simply did not have the opportunity to vote for the president (or, more properly, for the electors who chose the president). Indeed, it was only after most states began using the popular vote as a means of choosing electors, along with a decline in property-based voting requirements, that popular participation in presidential elections began increasing. That increase in participation provided presidents, beginning with Andrew Jackson in 1828, with an independent base of power and rescued the office from a dangerous dependency on Congress.

Peter Rothschild brought the following Security Weekly article on immigration by Scott Stewart to my attention. You might think, given the extraordinary media attention to the immigration issue, most recently in reaction to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s decision to post the National Guard at his state’s border with Mexico, that we are facing a record influx of illegal immigrants. Think again. Stewart writes, “Lost in all the media hype over this ‘border crisis’ is the fact that in 2013 overall immigration was down significantly from historical levels. According to U.S. Border Patrol apprehension statistics, there were only 420,789 apprehensions in 2013 compared to 1,160,395 in 2004. In fact, from fiscal 1976 to 2010, apprehensions never dropped below 500,000. During that same period, the Border Patrol averaged 1,083,495 apprehensions per year compared to just 420,789 last year.”

Of course, as Stewart acknowledges, apprehensions may not be the best indicator of the rate of illegal border crossings. Still, the data seems to belie the media narrative that the country is enduring an illegal immigration crisis. But it is easy to lose sight of this with the media focus on the apparent increase in undocumented children crossing the border. That story has far greater media legs than does one focusing on the fact that “the Border Patrol will apprehend and process hundreds of thousands fewer people this year than it did each fiscal year from 1976 until 2010.”

Finally, we are scheduled to begin occasional “simulposting” with the Christian Science Monitor sometime this coming week. If past experience is any clue (see the comments to this post on the debt ceiling crisis!), the more visible platform is likely to mean more comments from readers who often have strongly-held views. That’s fine – I always enjoy the comments from readers from both sides of the political aisle and try to respond to all of them. I also exercise a very light touch on the censor button – as long as the comments are civil, I don’t care how passionate the language or what political views are expressed, although it is worth reminding everyone that my response to a comment doesn’t necessarily imply agreement (or disagreement) with that comment.  This is a non-partisan blog – it says so right in the title! I learn a lot from readers, and my hope is that we can continue this dialogue in the months to come.

Have a great Sunday!

Cheney, Rumsfeld and the Real West Wing

Regular readers know that every Saturday we look back, via archives I’ve collected through the years, at a key (or at least interesting!) event in presidential history. Today’s original documents come from the Ford Administration, and remind us that Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney both served as senior members of the Ford White House before going on to greater glory, and both were involved in one of the first, and most thorough efforts to reduce the size and power of the White House staff.

Ford, most of you will recall, became President in August 1974 upon President Richard Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the ongoing revelations in the Watergate scandal that threatened Nixon with almost certain impeachment. Much of that scandal centered on the actions of Nixon’s senior White House staff – the so-called Palace Guard – which was accused of operating as an increasingly powerful and largely unaccountable political arm of the Presidency. As Ford’s White House assistant James Connor wrote in an August 29, 1975 memo to Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s Chief of Staff, “Until recently, the expansion of the role of the White House has been viewed as a salutary, and indeed a necessary step in the development of governmental institutions dealing with the complexity of modern problems.” The Watergate scandal, however, had reversed that perception, so that now “the size, scope and role of the White House staff became an issue of public debate.”

Ford was determined to show that the actions of his White House staff would be more transparent and more accountable than were the actions of Nixon’s “Berlin Wall” of H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Henry Kissinger. Toward this end, Ford initially decided to govern without a strong chief of staff to manage the White House on his behalf. (That experiment did not last long, and ultimately Ford appointed Rumsfeld to be his chief of staff, with Cheney as Rumsfeld’s deputy assistant.) And, because he was determined to demonstrate his fiscal bona fides, Ford – who was an expert on the budget due to his years as member of Congress – initiated a White House study project under Rumsfeld’s direction designed to make sense of what the White House staff did, and whether some positions might be eliminated in the name of cost-cutting.

That study was more successful at documenting the history and related functions of the White House staff than it was in reducing its size. (Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, would undertake a similar effort, and with a similar lack of long-term success.) The final report was issued in December 1976 (by this time Cheney had become chief of staff), a month after Ford lost a very close election to Carter, and so was never acted on. But the study does a very good job explaining what the White House staff did, and in many respects the analysis holds true today.

Among the more interesting documents were those showing a breakdown of White House staff positions and functions. Broadly speaking, about half of Ford’s White House staff, or about 250 individuals, were quasi-civil servants charged with providing administrative and clerical duties, such as handling correspondence, filing, making the payroll, etc. The second and more interesting half was the political staff – the “West Wing” of the day. Here’s a document from the internal study showing the proportion of aides engaged in external relations, internal staff management, and policy development.

Ford WH Staff Breakdown

As you can see, by far the largest proportion – 60% (or about 153) – are engaged in dealing with external relations with Congress, interest groups, the press and the public. In contrast, only 25% (69) of staff under Rumsfeld deal with internal management. But perhaps the most interesting finding is just how small the policy component is, with only 10 staff aides focused on managing the policy process. This reflects the fact that most policy still emanated from the departments and agencies, and that the major policy units within the Executive Office of the President (EOP) were all located outside the White House proper. At the time these included the OMB, which contained 2/3 of EOP employees, the National Security Council and the Domestic Council – the latter first created by Nixon. In addition, Ford had established an Economic Policy Board via executive order to serve as counterpart to the Domestic Council.  All three councils exist today.

The report serves as a reminder that the White House staff is largely a political institution – not a policy one. Its primary purpose is to maintain the president’s standing with the key constituents with whom he (someday she) must deal on a constant basis. That remains the case today – most of the White House staff positions in the Obama presidency are focused on handling political relations.

But the report also noted a potentially more fundamental and disturbing trend. In his memo to Ford, Connor writes, “It can be argued that there has in fact been a wall built between the President and his Cabinet. The wall, however, in not in the White House staff, but rather in the Executive Office of the President, particularly in the OMB, NSC and Domestic Council. These institutions filter out policy ideas to the President, speak in his name to the Cabinet Officers, and make decisions on innumerable issues which never reach the Presidential Level. Their influence is at the direct expense of Department and Agency heads… . As the Cabinet Officer is moved further and further away he is less and less sensitive to the president’s needs….the end result of this process is that the President looks out upon the bureaucracy as an enemy.”  Here’s the original portion of the report – see subheading three below:

Wall between P and Cabinet

To remedy the situation, Connor advocates for more direct interaction between the President and his cabinet and agency heads. “Were this approach to be adopted, it would be the most far-reaching change in the Presidency in the last forty years.” Alas, Ford never had the opportunity to act on Connor’s suggestions, and there is no evidence that subsequent presidents have been any more successful at integrating their departmental and agencies more effectively into the policymaking process. There are several reasons for this which I hope to address in future posts.

Today, however, the West Wing under President Obama remains quite similar in terms of size and functions from what it was under Ford. And that is a testament to its fundamental character as the personal arm of the President, devoted solely to his political success.

No, the Presidency Has NOT Become More Difficult

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote an interesting column two days ago under the headline “It’s Virtually Impossible to be a Successful Modern President.” Cillizza begins his piece like this: “Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail.”

Both those statements are wrong, of course. As I and other presidency scholars have written repeatedly, the presidency is not a very powerful office and it is certainly not the most powerful job in the world.  Indeed, even among elected chief executives in modern democracies, the presidency is one of the weaker offices. The primary reason, of course, is because the Framers wanted it that way, as indicated by their decision to embed the presidency within a constitutional system of shared powers. That’s why presidents cannot dismiss Congress, call for new elections, or even count on the support of a legislative majority to pass legislation – all expectations that many prime ministers in other nations possess. And, with the ratification of the 22nd amendment, presidents lucky enough to win reelection serve most of their second term as defacto lame ducks. As Brendan Nyhan notes in his column today, however, this weakness has not stopped individuals from exaggerating the president’s potential degree of control over events.

But what of Cillizza’s second claim? In part, both Cillizza and Ronald Brownstein, whose article here provides some of the evidence on which Cillizza bases his claim, rest much of their case about presidential weakness on the belief that America is an increasingly divided nation. As I’ve argued elsewhere,  however, the evidence that Americans are polarizing along ideological lines is weak – most of what analysts claim to be a growing ideological divide is more accurately described as party sorting. In short, there’s not much support for the claim that modern presidents are dealing with a more ideologically polarized public.

The more empirically valid charge is that modern presidents must deal with a very polarized Congress – the most partisan  polarized Congress since the 19th century. Both Cillizza and Brownstein argue that it is very difficult for presidents to get legislation passed through a Congress that is so deeply polarized along partisan lines. But the link between partisan polarization and legislative productivity is more complex than this simple narrative would have one believe. Nelson Polsby, in his classic work How Congress Evolves, describes how a cross-partisan conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans stymied the passage of liberal legislation from 1937 until the mid-1960’s. More generally, building on Polsby’s observation, studies show that too little polarization in Congress is as counterproductive to legislative productivity as is too much. This is because under conditions of limited partisan polarization, we often see great divisions within parties (see Polsby’s description of the Democrats during the era of the conservative coalition), and little difference across them – exactly the conditions that James MacGregor Burns complained about in his classic study of American political gridlock in the early 1960’s.  Evidence shows that legislative productivity under these conditions of weak polarization is as limited as under the deep polarization in Congress presidents confront today.

Moreover, there is other evidence one can cite that undercuts the premise of Cillizza’s and Brownstein’s argument. For instance, we might think that if the presidency was so much more difficult, presidents would find it harder to win reelection. However, our three most recent presidents – Clinton, G. W. Bush and Obama – all successfully won reelection. In contrast, three of their four immediate predecessors: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and G. W. Bush, did not. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson did not pursue a second full term in 1968 because of political opposition and declining support, and Nixon resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment, making Ronald Reagan the only one of those six previous presidents to serve two full terms. No wonder scholars complained of a “tethered” presidency at the start of Reagan’s first term!

Finally, consider the severity of the issues facing recent presidents. Yes, 9-11 ushered in the Age of Terrorism, and all the difficulty that entails for presidents’ efforts to fulfill their commander-in-chief functions. But the consequences of making a mistake in the fight against terrorism, while enormous, are arguably not any greater – and probably less significant – than what the post-World War II presidents confronted during the height of the Cold War. It is for this reason that Neustadt, in the final edition of his classic work which was issued as the Cold War came to a close, cautions against looking back on those years with rose-colored glasses. He writes, “From the multicentered, interdependent world now coming into being, environmentally endangered as it is, Presidents [and pundits!] may look back on the Cold War as an era of stability, authority and glamour. They may yearn for the simplicity they see in retrospect, and also for the solace. Too bad.” Although acknowledging that governing in this new age has its own set of difficulties, Neustadt reminds us that there are compensations for outliving the Cold War: “[T]he personal responsibility attached to nuclear weapons should become less burdensome for Presidents themselves, while contemplation of their mere humanity becomes less haunting for the rest of us. To me that seems a fair exchange.”

To me too. Yes, the presidency is difficult. But there’s little evidence that it is harder today than in previous presidencies during the post-World War II modern era.  Indeed, one might argue that the job has become slightly easier, although I doubt that is any solace to Barack Obama.

P.S. This post attracted its fair share of readers, so I’ll follow up with some additional discussion focused on recent evaluations by pundits of Obama’s presidency.  If you are interested in getting notifications of new presidential power posts, I post notices on twitter at: https://twitter.com/MattDickinson44

Or contact me at dickinso@middlebury.edu and I’ll put you on the anonymous distribution list.

UPDATE: Jonathan Bernstein weights in on the issue here: http://bv.ms/1xbKij5