Monthly Archives: December 2008

Obama and Blagojevich: What Jimmy Carter Can Teach Us

In November, 1976, President-elect Jimmy Carter announced that he had nominated his friend and banker from Atlanta, Bert Lance, to be his OMB director. In the first months of the Carter presidency, Lance developed into perhaps the President’s most trusted and influential adviser. But there was a problem. Lance, during his Senate confirmation hearings, had promised to divest himself of stock he held in the bank he formerly ran, in order to avoid any conflict of interest in his role as budget director. However, when it became apparent that he would suffer a deep financial loss by divesting within the year, Lance sought an extension to delay divesting until the bank’s stock position improved.

That request triggered a renewed scrutiny of Lance’s finances, particularly the method by which he had bought the stock in the first place. Media investigations began, congressional hearings were held, and the comptroller-general’s office conducted an inquiry into Lance’s financial dealings. Although Lance was cleared of any legal wrongdoing, the investigation also revealed that he had long capitalized on his position as bank director by frequently compiling overdrafts on his account.  The money was always repaid, and Lance pointed out that this was not unusual practice for the director of a local bank.  If not illegal, however, the overdrafts hinted at a double-standard; members of the public were not allowed the same courtesy.  The media, scarcely two years off of the Watergate scandal, redoubled its efforts to investigate Lance’s banking practices, and uncovered more instances of financial dealings that, if not illegal, were perhaps ethically dubious and had not been disclosed by Lance.  (It turned out that Lance had used a bank’s deposits as, in effect, collateral to finance his own borrowing. There were also allegations that he used a bank-owned jet while campaigning for Carter.)  With the nation watching via televised coverage, he was called back to testify before a congressional oversight committee.  Although he defended his dealings, the media were now in full feeding frenzy, with broader investigations poised to begin. Lance realized he had become a lightning rod for controversy, and the ongoing story threatened to undercut Carter’s presidency. He offered, and Carter accepted, his resignation in the fall of 1977.  It was a blow from which Carter’s administration never truly recovered.  Lance had provided a voice of wisdom and experience within Carter’s White House, and his loss was keenly felt.

There are several important lessons from the Lance affair, all of which may – I repeat may – be relevant in the aftermath of recent events involving charges of influence peddling by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. First, Lance broke no laws. Instead, it was the perception of wrong-doing – the faint whiff of favoritism and double-standards that brought him down. Second, there is no evidence that Carter knew anything about Lance’s alleged financial improprieties. Nonetheless, the controversy in the eyes of both the media and much of the public inevitably became a litmus test for judging Carter’s integrity and leadership. In the end, to protect his own reputation, he was forced to let Lance resign.  Third, Carter waited much too long before pulling the trigger on Lance; the controversy extended eight months into this first term when crucial first impressions are formed. In retrospect, Carter would have been much better off if Lance had either resigned when he realized he could not sell the stock at a profit, or Lance had stuck to his initial agreement and sold the stock at a loss.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but sometimes history can also serve as a guide for future presidents. As most of you know by now,  the Feds arrested Blagojevich on charges of wire fraud and bribery, the result of a five-year-old public corruption investigation of pay-to-play schemes, including insider-dealing, influence-peddling and kickbacks involving Blagojevich, his chief staff aide and perhaps other public officials. Among the allegations against Blagojevich are charges that he sought to ‘sell” Obama’s vacated Senate seat.

In light of these charges, the Lance affair, I argue, provides Obama with a cautionary tale regarding how a president can become ensnared in ethical controversy involving aides – even aides who have done nothing legally wrong – and what to do to avoid it.  First, as with Carter and Lance, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Obama or his aides. Indeed, the leaked transcripts of tapped telephone conversations indicate that Blagojevich was angry because Obama and his aides were not playing ball.  Obama already has come out to say that he had no direct conversations with Blagojevich about filling the Senate position.  Nonetheless, there are potential storm clouds on the horizon. Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with Obama, or his aides, discussing Obama’s replacement with Blagojevich. Indeed, one would have expected – even hoped – that a smart politician like Obama would discuss the list of possible Senate replacements, or would entrust a key aide with this task, to insure placing a reliable vote and political ally in the Senate.  And one of Obama’s senior White House aide-designates, David Axelrod, was quoted just recently on television as saying that Obama and Blagojevich had in fact discussed filling the Senate position.  But yesterday Obama went on record to flatly deny that any conversation of that type took place. Also yesterday, Axelrod reversed himself and supported Obama’s recollection, saying he was mistaken and in fact Obama had never discussed his replacement with Blagojevich.  The change in Axelrod’s story, no matter how innocuous, will inevitably trigger further media inquiries regarding whether he is covering for the president-elect. More generally, one wonders why Blagojevich is complaining that Obama and his aides are not playing ball if there was not any discussion between the two camps regarding filling Obama’s Senate seat.   My guess is that there almost certainly were talks between Obama’s aides and Blagojevich about replacing Obama. One potential point of contact: Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s White House chief of staff-designate and former Illinois congressman who worked closely with Blagojevich during the latter’s run for Governor.  It would make perfect sense for Emanuel to have discussed Obama’s replacement with Blagojevich.  To my knowledge, Emanuel has not yet commented on this issue.  It may be that no conversation of this type took place.  But if it did, no laws were necessarily broken.

As in the Lance affair, no one in Obama’s administration has been accused of any wrongdoing. But the Lance affair is a reminder that the perception of covering up a potential wrongdoing – even in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing itself – can be politically fatal. The danger to Obama is not if there were talks between his aides and Blagojevich, but if in the effort to create distance between Obama and Blagojevich his aides create the perception of a coverup by insisting that no contact – even indirectly – took place between Obama and Blagojevich.   If the transcripts reveal otherwise, that could place Obama in the delicate position of  acknowledging that he knew of discussions to fill his seat. One could imagine him trying to parse words, as in, “I never had any direct talks with Blagojevich, but I did authorize my aides to do so.”  Or, “I did not authorize these conversations, but my aides reported back to me about them.”  If the transcripts indicate that Obama’s aides were working on his behalf after his aides insist that Obama knew nothing of this, then issues of credibility arise.  Media inquiries will intensify, aided and abetted by the conservatives in the blogosphere. And there is always the danger that transcripts will be released showing that one of Obama’s aides listened to Blagojevich making a sales pitch regarding the Senate seat, and did not report it.

The crucial point is that if there were discussions between Obama’s aides and Blagojevich regarding filling the Senate seat, and that Obama implicitly condoned those talks or knew of them, those involved should anticipate that it will become part of the public record and thus they should acknowledge those conversations now. Carter’s mistake was failing to anticipate the potential fallout from allegations of impropriety on the part of his senior aide. If Obama’s aides did discuss the Senate seat, Obama needs to be proactive and reveal that those conversations took place, before they are revealed through media inquiry or leaks from the District Attorney’s office. And if those revelations contradict any public statements by Obama’s aides, or implicate the aide in question by showing he knew that Blagojevich was selling the seat, Obama will be best served by accepting the aide’s immediate resignation.   The last thing Obama needs is to spend his first months in office watching a senior aide slowly twisting as he defends himself against allegations of wrongdoing.

This is all speculative at this point, of course.  Indeed,  it may be that Obama’s aides not only will not be implicated in a coverup, but instead will be shown to have helped blow the whistle on Blagojevich.  We should know more in the next few days.  No matter the outcome, the crowning lesson of the Lance affair is worth remembering: no aide, no matter how senior, is bigger than the President. In the end, it is the President who will suffer from any mistakes those aides make.

Obama the Centrist: Should We Be Surprised?

In an earlier post I noted the growing unease among left-leaning bloggers regarding Obama’s initial appointments and policy statements. His national security and economic teams are filled with either Clinton-era holdovers or those who espoused the very policies in Iraq or on economic issues that Obama promised to change.  And Obama’s few public statements, such as his equivocating response at his most recent press conference regarding whether he would stick to his campaign pledge to pull out combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, have done little to assuage these fears.

That unease has now spilled over into the mainstream punditocracy, with recent columns by Frank Rich (see here) , Bob Herbert (here)  and David Corn (here) among many expressing concern that Obama’s message of change has been sacrificed on the altar of competence, credentials and continuity.  That sentiment is concisely captured in the lead passage from yesterday’s article at the website Politico (see here): “Liberals are growing increasingly nervous — and some just flat-out angry — that President-elect Barack Obama seems to be stiffing them on Cabinet jobs and policy choices. Obama has reversed pledges to immediately repeal tax cuts for the wealthy and take on Big Oil. He’s hedged his call for a quick drawdown in Iraq. And he’s stocking his White House with anything but stalwarts of the left. Now some are shedding a reluctance to puncture the liberal euphoria at being rid of President George W. Bush to say, in effect, that the new boss looks like the old boss.”

Without judging the merits of Obama’s initial appointments or policy statements, let us concede that they are far more centrist and moderate than one on the Left might expect from an agent of “change.”  The question becomes: should we be surprised?

The answer, I suggest, is no. Presidency scholars have long understood that one can often discern clues regarding a president-elect’s personality and likely governing style by closely examining their pre-presidential political behavior, focusing particularly on those experiences that come closest to mimicking the exercise of executive functions.  For example, Jimmy Carter’s efforts while President to pressure Congress by taking his message to the people came as no surprise to those who studied his use of similar tactics as Governor of Georgia. Similarly, longtime observers of Ronald Reagan’s tenure as California governor were not surprised when he proved unwilling as President to push conservative legislation on hot-button issues such as restricting abortion, mandating school prayer or rolling back affirmative action; despite his conservative rhetoric to the contrary Reagan had proved much more moderate when dealing with a Democratically-controlled legislature in California.  And who was surprised by Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal, given the history of “bimbo eruptions” characterizing his political life?

To be sure, this process of predicting behavior based on past executive experience is not foolproof and is often easier done in retrospect than prospectively. For some events (see 9-11), there is no equivalent prior experience. Moreover, the process becomes more difficult when, as is the case with Obama, the president-elect has little prior executive experience. The difficulty becomes how to sift through an individual’s prior experiences – much of which seems of little relevance to the presidency – to discern those that are most telling for predicting presidential behavior. One approach is proposed by political scientist James David Barber, who suggests we should pay particular attention to the strategy an individual employs to achieve his “first independent political success” – a political goal or position of political prominence. Barber describes this period as “the time of emergence, the time the young man found himself” and suggests that the tactics used to achieve this success become a key component of the individual’s operating style throughout their political life.   .

What is Obama’s analogous moment?  When did he achieve his first public prominence on the national stage? I would argue that it is not his half a term in the Senate, most of which was spent in preparation for his presidential campaign, nor his prior three terms in the Illinois state legislature. Nor is it in his much-discussed role as community organizer, which is more akin to a legislative than executive function.  Instead, if we want to understand his preference for surrounding himself with established, credentialed Ivy Leaguers, and his accent on continuity and moderation rather than dramatic change, we should examine his time at Harvard Law School from 1988-92, particularly his successful effort to become the first African-American to head the Harvard Law Review. It was his first electoral effort, and the publicity from that experience led him to publish his memoir Dreams from My Father in 1995 which ends at the point where he enters Harvard Law. In addition to the publicity, Obama learned valuable lessons from this experience regarding how to navigate through polarized waters, and how to appear to be many things to many people.

The story of Obama’s efforts to become an editor and then president of the Review cannot be fully described in a post of this length, although I hope to devote a separate post describing his strategy.  A good description of this period is provided in this Frontline piece (view here).  Suffice to say he won election at a time when the law school was highly polarized between the Left and the Right on issues such as faculty promotion to tenure, race, and affirmative action.  Classmates recall him as someone who exercised effective leadership, but not by expressing his own views on these issues. Although sympathetic to the Left’s perspective, he proved effective at playing his cards very close to his vest, and finding a middle way between polarized factions. Once selected to head the Harvard Law Review, there was an expectation of those on the Left that he would align himself with them, by championing their politics and appointing them to key editorial positions. Instead, Obama reached out to conservatives including members of the Federalist Society; he emphasized meritocracy rather than ideology in his appointments, and in so doing disappointed many on the Left.

In short, we see that all the hallmarks of his leadership style, as manifested to date as president-elect, were honed or at least were evident in his first political success at Harvard Law.  So we probably shouldn’t be surprised that his initial appointments seem to emphasize competence and continuity more than progressive change.  Indeed, the real surprise would have been if he veered away from the style that proved so successful in his political life to date.


Assessing Obama’s Coattails: Is the New York Times Correct?

Many of you may have seen yesterday’s New York Times article here analyzing the 2008 Democratic vote in House races. The Times .would have you believe that because many Democratic congressional candidates received more votes than Obama did, this indicates a stronger pool of Democratic candidates who should be less vulnerable to Republican attempts to capture these Democratic House seats in two years. (They also acknowledge that it might make it more difficult for Obama to count on House Democrats’ support, but this point is downplayed.) As with any NY Times articles that go beyond reporting the news to interpreting it, you should view this argument with skepticism, for several reasons. Let me address them here.

In theory, comparing how well a presidential candidate does in each congressional district is a useful tool for assessing presidential “coattails”.  A president who runs ahead of the congressional member in her district can be expected to have greater leverage with that member once in office. He can tell her, “Your constituents like me better than you, so if you value your seat you’ll support my policies.”  However, despite its claim that it is assessing the relative strength of House Democrats versus Obama, the Times article does not actually provide this data. If you go to the source of the data (see here) referenced in the NY Times article, you will see that the data actually compares how well Obama did in the entire state to how well the Democratic candidate did in their single congressional district. This is an apples-to-oranges comparison that is not a very useful measure of Obama’s “coattails”. What we would really like to see is how well Obama did in each congressional district.

But even if the state-to-district comparison was meaningful, the interpretation the NY Times give is suspect. Rather than a sign of Democratic congressional strength, we might equally view it as a sign of Obama’s electoral weakness – in the closest House races, he ran behind the winning candidate. That is, he lacks substantial coattails.  Indeed, that is how political scientists usually interpret instances in which the president receives fewer votes than does his party’s candidate in the congressional district. Because the member of Congress is more popular than the president, she feels less obligated to follow his lead.

In any event, in the absence of additional information, such as the location, previous results, and margin of victory for each of these “competitive” races, we cannot tell very much about the likelihood that these candidates will win reelection in the 2010 midterm elections. Historically, of course, the president’s party tends to lose seats in the first midterm election after the election of a new president.  The recent exception was 2002, when George W. Bush’s Republican Party gained 7 House seats. Prior to that time, however, every newly elected president dating back to Harry Truman lost seats in their first midterm election – indeed, the average loss is 24 House seats!

In short, we cannot be sure that because Obama ran behind House congressional Democrats, those Democrats are a stronger than usual pool of candidates. To take an extreme historical comparison, Bill Clinton ran behind every single House Democrat in 1992. By the NY Times’ reasoning, that would suggest that 1992 saw a boatload of strong Democrats elected to office. In fact, the Democrats lost 52 seats and control of the House in the Republican wave of 1994.

There is an additional complication. House races are not simply a reflection of national forces – they usually turn much more on local issues and specific House candidate qualities. Indeed, political scientists have tried statistically to separate the national and local component of the congressional vote in previous elections, and we find that local factors are almost always a greater influence than national factors in explaining the congressional vote. (For the statistically interested, what we do is regress the current House district vote on the previous House district congressional and presidential votes, and use the coefficient for the presidential vote as a proxy for “national” trends.)   I am currently writing an article that assesses the relative importance of national and local forces in the 2008 congressional races, and I will report the results here when I calculate them. Suffice to say, however, if history is any guide, local factors will be of greater importance than any national tide in explaining the outcome of most congressional races.

Without additional data, then, and a more sophisticated effort to tease out the interplay of local versus national forces on the 2008 House races, it is difficult to assess whether Democrats have in fact elected a stronger pool of candidates than in previous years. But, contrary to what the Times suggests, we shouldn’t assume based on this data that Democrats are better positioned to buck the historical trend in which the president’s party loses House seats in the first midterm election.  And we cannot yet assess the length of Obama’s coattails, if any, in the 2008 election.   When I get that data, you’ll be the first to know.