Monthly Archives: January 2009

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Despite Obama’s stirring vow in his inaugural address to change the culture of politics in Washington (“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”), the early evidence is that Congress is operating under a political dynamic remarkably similar to what occurred during the eight years of the Bush presidency. As most of you know by now, Obama failed to attract a single Republican vote – not one! – on the most important piece of legislation of his young presidency to date (see the nytimes article).  On Wednesday, the House passed an $819 billion economic recovery package by an almost straight party vote 244-188. No Republican voted in favor of the legislation, while all but 11 Democrats did.  The Senate begins debate on its own version of the stimulus package on Monday.

The lack of Republican support in the House is a stark reminder that despite Obama’s lofty rhetoric promising an end to partisan politics, the House remains a highly polarized body. As a result, on most issues involving economic policy, Obama is likely to follow a legislative “strategery” remarkably similar to what George Bush utilized to push his tax cuts through Congress: stake out an initial policy position close to your own party mean in the House, and then moderate that stance as necessary to win opposition party votes in the Senate.  I expect a stimulus bill to eventually pass Congress, but only after significant concessions are made to Republicans in the Senate.  That will set up a showdown with the much more polarized House as the two chambers seek to resolve their differences in legislative conference.

Why haven’t we seen the much-ballyhooed movement away from partisan politics promised by Obama?  Because the fundamentals that dictate how politics is played in Washington have not changed.  As I noted in an earlier post, Obama’s electoral victory – while decisive – fell far short of a mandate for change.  Consider the following polling data (source here) – it indicates a significant split among partisans in the public regarding the stimulus bill:

Dem  Rep  Ind D-R  Diff

Obama: Good start on economy       82%  42   60   40 pts

Support $800b stimulus                  84   52   69   32
Support it “strongly”                        58   22   44   36

More important:
Stimulus spending                           62   38   50   24
Controlling deficit                            34   58   46  -24

In Obama’s economic program        92   43   74   49
That it’ll have adequate controls      66   27   39   39

Larger govt, more services             62   21   41   41
Smaller govt, fewer services           33   77   55  -44

Given these numbers, it makes little political sense for Republicans to support the stimulus legislation as it is currently constructed.  If Obama wishes to truly pass a bipartisan stimulus bill, he will need to make significant concessions to Republicans in the form of broader and deeper tax cuts. To do so, however risks losing support of his own party’s left wing. Much of the media coverage of the House debate describes the stimulus package as Obama’s bill.  But in fact it is as much Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s bill as it is Obama’s.  The House is designed to empower the majority party. Given this institutional constraint, there was little Obama could do to bring Republicans on board.  Like most presidents, he simply is not that powerful.

My broader point is that the polarization critics often associate with the 8 years of the Bush administration had less to do with Bush’s governing strategy and more with the composition of Congress. By virtue of the constitutional-derived incentives, members of Congress react to different electoral influences than does the President. Obama may have “won” the general election, but he received fewer popular votes than most Republicans and many Democratic legislators (I’ll present more data on this in a later post).  Consequently, in the absence of significant legislative concessions by Obama, Republicans and many Democrats feel little obligation to follow his legislative lead.

Because that deep-seated polarization in Congress did not go away with Obama’s election, I don’t expect much change in the nature of legislative politics, Obama’s stirring words in his inaugural address notwithstanding: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them; that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” Call me acynic, but the evidence indicates the ground hasn’t shifted much at all. As my students know, I’m not much for rhetoric – show me the numbers.  In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at those numbers to document the rise and sources of party polarization in Congress.

For now, however, we simply must lower our expectations regarding Obama’s ability to bring change to Washington. Campaigning is not governing. Except in very rare historical instances, presidents cannot remake politics – it is the politics that make the president. On economic issues centered on taxes and government spending, Obama will appear every bit as divisive as Bush.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Obama, Approval Ratings and Presidential Honeymoons

The venerable Gallup Poll released its first approval polling numbers for the Obama presidency yesterday.  As most of you know, since FDR’s presidency Gallup has been asking a random sample of the American public “Do you approve or disapprove of the way [president’s name] is handling his job as president?”  (Gallup actually began presidential approval polling in the 1930’s, but didn’t settle on this wording until FDR’s third term and didn’t begin regular monthly polling until  the start of Truman’s presidency in 1945).

According to Gallup, 68% of Americans surveyed from Jan. 21-23, 2009 approved of the job Obama was doing, while only 12% disapproved, with another 21% expressing no opinion. Over the course of Obama’s presidency, versions of this question will be asked by news organizations on an almost weekly basis, and the results will be mistakenly trumpeted by the news media and the punditocracy as a useful barometer of how well Obama is doing his job.  Given the ubiquity of approval polling, I thought it worthwhile to put these initial results in their historical context, as a first step in understanding the sources of a president’s popularity and how those numbers are driven by influences that have little to do with a president’s job performance.


Because only Gallup has polling data going back to FDR, I will focus on the Gallup data.

Here are the initial approval figures for the 9 presidents first elected to office in the post-FDR “modern” presidential era.  How does Obama’s approval rating compare?




Approval %

Disapproval %

No Opinion


Feb. 1-5






Feb. 10-15






Jan. 23-28






Feb. 4-7






Jan. 30- Feb. 2






Jan. 24-26






Jan. 24-26






Feb. 1-4

Bush II





Jan. 21-23





To begin, Obama’s first rating is tied with Eisenhower for the second highest initial approval, and is about 7% above the average of 61.1% approval for this cohort. Kennedy’s rating of 72% is the highest.  It’s no coincidence, I think, that Obama and JFK have the two highest initial approval ratings – both are presidents whose elections broke longstanding barriers to the nation’s highest office.

Interestingly, however, Obama’s disapproval is no lower than the average of 11.1%, and, in fact, 5 of the 9 presidents had lower DISapproval ratings than Obama’s. The percentage of respondents with no opinion of Obama’s performance is almost 7% lower than the average of 27.7%.  Only 1 president entered office with fewer people having no opinion of his performance: Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush.

We see then, that Obama takes office with fully 79% of Americans already willing to express an opinion of his performance, three days into the job. This is the second highest proportion ever recorded this early in a presidency.  It reflects, I think, the ever escalating media coverage of the presidential selection process and the transition period. In this era of 24-7 news coverage, augmented by a highly partisan blogosphere, Americans have more information by which to make an initial judgment of the president’s performance. That Obama starts office with a historically high level of support bodes well for his presidency, particularly given the high number of people who are willing to express an opinion. On the other hand, we also see that he is, comparatively speaking, already a somewhat polarizing figure, much like his two predecessors were at this stage of their presidencies.

Note, however, that these initial judgments are still highly malleable. Obama is currently experiencing the presidential “honeymoon” – an initial period of inflated support for the new president that can last for several months before it begins inevitably to dissipate.  Given the historic nature of his election, we ought not to be surprised that his initial approval is so high.  And this should remind us that approval ratings are driven by factors that have little to do with the president’s actions in office.

Given this high level of support, why do I predict that it will dissipate? Note that Obama won slightly less than 53% of the popular vote. As of now, then, he’s attracting support of roughly 15% of Americans who are not “naturally” inclined to support him. This is what we mean by a presidential honeymoon period; during this initial phase of the presidency, we project our highest hopes on the president. With no evidence to the contrary, we believe that he will fulfill all our expectations. (He will close Gitmo! He will restore American respect abroad and protect civil liberties at home! I know he’ll have combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months!) For those of you who are married, think back to your honeymoon.  When did it dawn on you that your spouse might be less than perfect?  How soon before you noted how (s)he squeezed the toothpaste tube from the middle and left the toilet seat up/down?  So it is, inevitably, with presidents – the reality of the marriage can’t possibly live up to the unrealistic expectations nurtured during the honeymoon.  At some point, we will catch him in the political equivalent of passing wind at the dinner table, and the bloom will be off the rose.

There is a second problem with the honeymoon beyond the inevitable disillusionment. Because of these high honeymoon-induced approval ratings, and the media’s tendency to use the first 100 days as an initial measuring rod to gauge presidential success, presidents often feel pressured in this span to move quickly to pass their major legislative initiatives through Congress.  That impulse, and the use of the 100 Days yardstick, I will argue in a later post, is a mistake.  In 1993 it caused no little grief for the Clinton presidency when they promised to produce legislation for health care reform within the first 100 Days of their presidency, only to completely miss the deadline. It was the first sign that health care reform would not go well. Obama ought to downplay the 100 Day measuring rod at all costs .

More generally, we can expect Obama’s honeymoon to last 3 to 6 months, during which he may actually gain up to 5% in approval support before that number begins to erode. Indeed, if we pool prior presidencies to produce a “generic” presidential approval trend and use that to predict how Obama’s approval plays out, we would expect the following: his approval rating will remain high, in the 60% range, for at least the next three months or so, at which point it will begin eroding at a relatively constant rate through his first term.  Note that this rate of decline will mirror George W. Bush’s loss of support after 9-11, although Bush started from a higher approval point due to the rally round the flag impact of the terrorist strike. Expect Obama to lose between 10 to 20% approval support in his first two years in office. Somewhere in Obama’s 3rd year he will shift to reelection mode, at which point his approval will begin to climb a bit until the 2012 presidential election.

All this assumes, of course, that Obama’s support mimics in its broad outline the approval trends of previous presidents. But why would this be the case?  Isn’t each presidency unique, with its own approval dynamics?  Although there are unique (and unpredictable) aspects to each presidency – see 9-11! – there are also surprising similarities in opinion dynamics across presidencies. These similarities reflect systemic variables that affect all presidencies. In later posts, I’ll take you through the intricacies of presidential polling to see if we can understand the source of these numbers, and why all presidents almost without exception become less popular over time. I’ll also explain why the news media almost always misinterprets these numbers.

For now, however, Obama should enjoy the honeymoon. It won’t last forever.  And leave that toilet seat down!

Assessing Obama’s Inaugural Address

Evaluating Obama’s inaugural address is an inherently subjective process, of course, and no two people will necessarily render the same judgment. Moreover, as several of you pointed out in your very insightful comments to my most recent post, evaluations may change, depending on how the Obama presidency plays out.  Nonetheless, the chattering class has rendered their initial assessments, and the consensus seems to be that although it was an effective speech –  above “average” for these types of addresses – it did not quite rise to the level one might hope for given the quality of several of Obama’s previous speeches and the significance of this particular occasion (see, for example, here and here and here and here and here.)

If this is true, what might explain why Obama’s speech is not generating the type of acclaim associated with the first inaugural addresses of FDR, Reagan or JFK? One can cite a number of plausible explanations. To begin, it was a relatively lengthy address compared to its more celebrated counterparts; at 2,421 words, it was only slightly longer than Reagan’s first inaugural, but almost 30% longer than FDR’s, 80% longer than JFK’s, and 3 ½ times longer than Lincoln’s second inaugural. In part, this length made it harder to remember a single memorable line. Instead, the pundits cited different “takeaway lines”.  I thought the reference to his father’s facing racial discrimination was the most memorable line – “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall; and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”  But others have cited different lines. In short, there was no equivalent to “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country”.  Second, the speech read as if the author (and here I suspect the hand of Obama’s chief speechwriter, 27-year old Jon Favreau) had sought inspiration from some of the best inaugural addresses; I saw allusions to passages from inaugural addresses by FDR, JFK, LBJ,  Lincoln and – gasp – even a (non-inaugural) speech by Jimmy Carter.  (If you were in my presidency course, surely you blanched when Obama cited a “sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.”  Shades of Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech that claimed Americans suffered from “a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.”  For Carter’s critics, of course, the crisis was high gas prices and rising unemployment – not a flagging American spirit! Of course, Favreau wasn’t alive when Carter gave that speech…. .) More generally, because these previous speeches accentuated different themes, drawing on all of them obscured Obama’s message rather than clarifying it.

In the end, however, I believe the major reason why Obama’s speech missed the mark is because there was no central overarching principle around which the words could cohere.  Instead, the speech made two essential claims about Obama’s presidency: “we are not Bush” and “change is coming”.  But it avoided specifying the hard choices that will constitute that change. Instead, Obama split the differences; he reached out an unclenched hand to dictators AND threatened terrorists with destruction; promised to protect liberties AND maintain national security; to regulate the marketplace without endangering capitalism; to remind us what government can do while emphasizing our historic commitment to private volunteerism; emphasized the role of religion in our nation without forgetting a shout out to “nonbelievers”.  By appearing to embrace all things, then, the speech ultimately emphasized none.

This is in sharp contrast to the “great” inaugural addresses: all emphasized a single specific theme that translated into a clear course of action. Roosevelt challenged the Congress to attack the economic crisis, and threatened to act unilaterally with bold experimentation if Congress failed to do so. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s wordsmith, remembered that JFK eliminated almost any reference to domestic policy in order to focus on Americans’ need to sacrifice to win the Cold War.  For Reagan, of course, it was a direct attack on the New Deal and big government.  These speeches, then, told the American public what their presidency was about, and what to expect in the coming months and years.

In part, this lack of a single theme might reflect the contrasting messages Obama sought to convey. On the one hand, the inauguration celebrated the election of the first African-American president. On the other, it was a sober reminder that we live in perilous times.  It was hard to play to both emotions in a single speech.

But the lack of a central theme might also signify a potentially deeper problem with Obama’s presidency: as yet, he does not know what it will be about. Change, yes – but in what form?  We forget that until 9/11, the Bush presidency was still struggling to turn a vague commitment toward “compassionate conservatism” into a governing stance.  The terrorist attacks gave his presidency a much different overriding purpose.

It may be that this is unfair to Obama; that although pragmatism and moderation does not lend itself to great speechmaking, it is the ideal approach to governing, particularly in the highly polarized partisan setting. Nonetheless, I can’t help believing that ultimately, Obama will need to grasp the nettle and begin making the hard choices that will define his administration.  If he does, we may yet look back on Tuesday’s speech and find the as-yet unrecognized clues revealing the essence of the Obama presidency.  We might then view it as a truly memorable inaugural address.

What Makes For A Memorable Inaugural Address?

What makes a memorable inaugural address?  Consider the following: “We have been, and propose to be, more and more American. We believe that we can best serve our own country and most successfully discharge our obligations to humanity by continuing to be openly and candidly, intensely and scrupulously, American. If we have any heritage, it has been that. If we have any destiny, we have found it in that direction.”

Or: “Let us now join reason to faith and action to experience, to transform our unity of interest into a unity of purpose. For the hour and the day and the time are here to achieve progress without strife, to achieve change without hatred; not without difference of opinion but without the deep and abiding divisions which scar the union for generations.”

Now this: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

The first excerpt is from Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 inaugural address, the second from Lyndon Johnson’s in 1965, and the third, of course, is Lincoln’s second inaugural given in 1865, shortly before his assassination. It is probably the most famous presidential inaugural of all.  Almost all of us recognized Lincoln’s words, but I doubt very few of you recognized the other two passages. Why – what makes Lincoln’s speech so memorable?

Anyone reading through the 55 presidential inaugural addresses to date (and I’ve read them all!) will find that they follow a common pattern: an opening paean to the democratic ritual of a transition in power, often cloaked in an appeal to unity and to transcending partisanship power (“We are all Democrats. We are all Federalists”).  Sometimes this includes a statement of the theme to come – an introduction to the rest of the speech. This is then followed by a listing of the problems facing the country, and the world, and the difficulties in solving those problems. Part three then typically reaffirms American’s commitment and ability to solving those problems, if partisanship is put aside (“If we succeed it will not be because of what we have, but it will be because of what we are; not because of what we own, but rather because of what we believe” – LBJ 1965.)  Often there is reference to American institutions.  Finally, the president concludes with an appeal to a higher power – the Almighty, or God.

Since presidents rarely stray from this formula, what makes some addresses more noteworthy than others?  History suggests that stirring words alone are not enough to make an inaugural address memorable.  With the advent of nationally broadcast addresses, and the use of speechwriters, rhetorical flourishes are now the norm.  But some of the most powerful speeches are remembered for very simple declarative statements. Consider FDR’s: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” Or Reagan in 1981: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”  The power of these statements lies less in their literary construct than in their ability to isolate the transcendent issue of the day.

A memorable address, then, depends on the speaker’s ability to capture the essence of the moment in a way that resonates with most Americans.  There are two parts to this equation. First, extraordinary speeches require extraordinary times.  Consider the most frequently cited inaugural addresses: all occurred at a time of great national peril, beginning with Jefferson’s 1801 address, the first to take place after a change of political power in our nation. Lincoln’s second inaugural occurred in the middle of civil war. Roosevelt’s took place at a time of unprecedented economic depression; Kennedy’s clarion call to “bear any burden, pay any price” rang out during the heart of the Cold War, and Reagan’s when the nation was ready to reject the legacy of the New Deal and  embrace a new governing philosophy.

So the times bring forth great speeches. But a second required ingredient is the ability of the president (beginning with the speechwriters who, since at least FDR’s presidency, write the initial drafts) to capture the essence of the problem facing the nation, and to link that to a solution that embodies transcendent American values.

Are those ingredients in place today?  Certainly, we live in perilous times and all eyes are focused on the incoming administration to a degree not seen since Reagan took office in 1981. Expectations, then, are high.  But can Obama deliver?  Can he capture the essence of the problem – and a distinctly American solution – in a lasting phrase or declaration?

We’ll know in a few minutes.

Send me your reactions after the speech.