Monthly Archives: February 2009

Obama, Iraq and the Withdrawal Pledge Revisited

Several of you have emailed to ask me to update to my earlier post regarding Obama’s likely approach to fulfilling his campaign pledge to remove all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of his election.  As most of you know by now, he is not going to fully honor this pledge, although he will draw down U.S. troop levels significantly, but not until three months after the campaign deadline, and even then he will keep up to 50,000 troops in Iraq for a period that might last until the 2011 deadline for removal of U.S. troops negotiated by the Bush administration.  Moreover, many of the troops that he has pledged to remove from Iraq will in fact be shifted to Afghanistan. Leaders of the Democratic party, including Nancy Pelosi, as well as the netroots, are not happy with this decision, suggesting that Obama has reneged on a campaign promise.   Because this is a complicated and important issue, I want to spend some time responding to Obama’s critics, but let me be clear here: I think that the criticism from the Left underestimates the constraints that Obama faces in fulfilling what has turned out to be a somewhat naive campaign pledge.  In fact, I want to suggest that his actions are not only predictable, they are also the mark of a president who has put the national interest above politics.  Unfortunately, since I am on deadline for finishing another article, I ask for your patience before I develop this argument in more detail.  To whet your appetite, however, let me suggest that the decision to modify his campaign pledge reflects not only the difference between campaigning and governing – it also is a reminder that presidents do not command the military – they bargain with them.

I appreciate your patience while I am on what I hope is a short hiatus until early next week to finish this article.

Bush, Obama and Speechifying: Evaluating the Public’s Response

Do you remember George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, where he said the following?:

“Our first goal is clear: We must have an economy that grows fast enough to employ every man and woman who seeks a job.

After recession, terrorist attacks, corporate scandals and stock market declines, our economy is recovering. Yet it is not growing fast enough, or strongly enough.

With unemployment rising, our nation needs more small businesses to open, more companies to invest and expand, more employers to put up the sign that says, “Help Wanted.”

Jobs are created when the economy grows; the economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest; and the best and fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place.

I am proposing that all the income tax reductions set for 2004 and 2006 be made permanent and effective this year.

And under my plan, as soon as I’ve signed the bill, this extra money will start showing up in workers’ paychecks.

Instead of gradually reducing the marriage penalty, we should do it now.

Instead of slowly raising the child credit to $1,000, we should send the checks to American families now.

This tax relief is for everyone who pays income taxes, and it will help our economy immediately. Ninety-two million Americans will keep this year an average of almost $1,100 more of their own money. A family of four with an income of $40,000 would see their federal income taxes fall from $1,178 to $45 per year.”

How do you think the public who watched his speech reacted to that?  Did they find his argument that taxes wouldn’t go up on his watch persuasive? Were they more inclined to support his economic policies as a result  of the speech?

Sure they were.  Here’s the CBS “snap poll” gauging the audience’s views on Bush’s tax and economic policies before and after viewing his speech.


Before Speech
Increase 54%

Decrease 15%

Stay the same 30%

After Speech
Increase 27%

Decrease 41%

Stay the same 31%

Notice the decrease in the number of people who, as a result of watching Bush’s speech, now believe their taxes will go up – it’s almost a 30% change.

We see a similar jump in support  in the number of viewers who believe Bush shares their priorities for the nation:


Before speech
Yes 54%

No 46%

After speech
Yes 81%

No 19

Now consider the viewing public’s views on Bush’s foreign policy. We see a similar reaction to his call to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, using force if necessary.  First, here’s what he said:

“Our nation and the world must learn the lessons of the Korean Peninsula and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq. A brutal dictator, with a history of reckless aggression, with ties to terrorism, with great potential wealth will not be permitted to dominate a vital region and threaten the United States.

Twelve years ago, Saddam Hussein faced the prospect of being the last casualty in a war he had started and lost. To spare himself, he agreed to disarm of all weapons of mass destruction.

For the next 12 years, he systematically violated that agreement. He pursued chemical, biological and nuclear weapons even while inspectors were in his country.

Nothing to date has restrained him from his pursuit of these weapons: not economic sanctions, not isolation from the civilized world, not even cruise missile strikes on his military facilities….

And tonight I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: Your enemy is not surrounding your country, your enemy is ruling your country.

And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.

The world has waited 12 years for Iraq to disarm. America will not accept a serious and mounting threat to our country and our friends and our allies.

The United States will ask the U.N. Security Council to convene on February the 5th to consider the facts of Iraq’s ongoing defiance of the world. Secretary of State Powell will present information and intelligence about Iraqi’s — Iraq’s illegal weapons programs, its attempts to hide those weapons from inspectors and its links to terrorist groups.

We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.”

And here’s the reaction:


Approve before speech 67%

Disapprove before speech 32%

Approve after speech 77%

Disapprove after speech 22%

Once again, among those who watched the speech, it elicited a jump in support – this time 10% –  in favor of Bush’s policy to remove Hussein by military force.

My point in revisiting the public reaction to Bush’s 2003 address to a joint session of Congress is not meant to justify Bush’s policy pronouncements on taxes, the economy or the use of military force to remove Hussein. Instead, I want to make two points that I think must be kept in mind as we assess the reaction among those who watched the Obama and Jindal speeches on Tuesday.  If you believe the chattering class, the polling data indicates that Jindal’s career is over, while the response to Obama’s speech reflects broad public support for his policies. There are two problems with this interpretation of the polling results.

First, the viewing audience for these speeches is not a random sample of Americans. Instead, it is almost always weighted more heavily toward the president’s partisans. In Bush’s case, his speech was watched by an audience that was 8% more Republican than the public as a whole.  Second, the pageantry and symbolism involved in a joint address to Congress can override, to a point, some of the viewing audience’s political predispositions, so that even those who are not naturally inclined to share the president’s political leanings may express support for his policies.  The viewers think, “Here is a speech by our president, standing in our Congress.”  A joint address, with all the pageantry and theatre, is a reminder of more enduring, less partisan symbols that define our nation.  Presidents know this, and play to those symbols.  Witness Obama’s use of “real people” stories to drive home his points, as well as references to the First Lady (who doesn’t like her?) and his signing autographs after the speech.  The idea in invoking these symbols is to make the occasion rise above partisan politics.

Now compare the backdrop to a State of the Union (or equivalent) address to where poor Bobby Jindal gave his speech. He looked like he was standing in the hallway of his house.  I fully expected Ms. Jindal to call him to take out the trash midway through the talk.  No one lined the hall to get his autograph!  (By the way, the use of a faux-Oval Office setting was one of the nice touches in Candidate Obama’s nationwide address shortly before the 2008 presidential election.)

I could have pulled out almost any State of the Union speech to make these points, but I thought the Bush speech provided the most dramatic impact because of what happened in Iraq and to the economy while he was president.  The lesson, I hope, is clear: you shouldn’t over interpret the public reactions, based on polling data, to major presidential addresses. They almost always elicit a short-term burst of approval for the president and the policies he enunciates, in part because of the sample bias inherent in the audience.  If you are predisposed to support the president, you are more likely to watch his speech, and to register approval for what he says afterward.  But it is also the case that even those in the viewing audience who are ideologically less inclined to support the president will tend nonetheless to suspend those inclinations and react favorably to a presidential address because of the symbolic aspect of the event.  Presidents aren’t just political figures – they are also, in part, the embodiment of national sovereignty.  That symbolic or affective aspect of their role is often what gets captured in respondents’ answers to polling questions.

By the way – do you remember who gave the Democratic response to Bush’s 2003 speech, and how it was received?  Of course you don’t.

It was Washington Governor Gary Locke – and his speech, as with Jindal’s, did not convince a majority of his audience to prefer the Democratic alternative economic plan that he laid out (but note the partisan split):


Presented a clear alternative
All 46%

Republicans 21%

Democrats 73%

Would do a better job stimulating the economy
All 42%

Republicans 10%

Democrats 71%

Locke, as most of you know, is now in line to become the next Secretary of Commerce.  Take heart, Jindal!

Live blogging the speech

We’re watching the NBC feed – where’s Tim Russert when you need him?

Note that Jim Bunning is paying particularly close attention to how well Justice Ginsburg navigates her entrance.

9:06  Hillary has made the slowest entrance for a cabinet member I’ve ever seen.  She needs her camera time…

9:10  Does Nancy look a bit happier standing next to Joe Biden?

One of the most impressive speeches I ever saw in this chamber occurred when Bill Clinton stood behind the podium only to see the wrong speech on the teleprompter. He never missed a beat….

Lots of talk by the NBC commentators about how Obama is up in the polls – historically, he’s not actually up that much.  If I get a chance, I’ll try to get the average gallup poll approval ratings. But in the last gallup poll I saw, it looked like Obama had lost about 10% since taking office.   This is expected, and historically about par for the course…..

Obama misses his mark, and steps on Nancy toes – he’s eager to start!

First applause line – (my over/under is six).  He’s taken Bill Clinton’s advice and a page out of the Reagan playbook – emphasize the American spirit.

Tough love – will this play in middle America?  I’m not sure he wants to go here…

The first partisan split!  Republicans aren’t applauding the American Recovery act…. (Nancy is giddy!)

THere’s John McCain (What?  Me? Skeptical?)

No one messes with Joe?!  Tell that to Jill…

Geez Louise – they’re even applauding the cut off credit in America.  this is an applause happy crowd.

HIllary is on the brink of dozing off – jet lag has hit!

Joe Lieberman is not all that excited about blaming banks for not spending money

Uh oh – here comes the totally bogus attack on CEO perks…easy applause line but a stupid issue. Playing the populist card.

obama’s speechmaking strength really isn’t in these types of intimate settings – he seems just a bit off his game here – stumbling over words, mistiming the applause lines.  He’s going for the soaring applause lines that dont’ work in congressional chambers.

I can’t believe he using building the railroads as a reminder of what government can do!

9:40 – this seems to be the theme of the speech – that government can be a catalyst to spur the private sector.

I think he just hit the over/under on standing O’s….

Lots of generic themes here that get applause but it’s not immediately obvious that he’s really addressing the real tradeoffs that must be made to, for example, make the automotive industry competitive.  HOw do you do that without rewarding their past mistakes?

Health care reform?  Sure it’s time – but what do you have in mind?  (SChip – red meat for the Dem’s). Electronic recordkeeping?  Seeking a cure for cancer?  Quality healthcare for all Americans?  Sure, tell us how to do it.  (Applause…)

Nancy is jumping to her feet before Joe realizes it’s time to applaud.

I’m beginning to wonder whether this speech is beginning to lose focus – he’s drifting far beyond the economy and laying out an ambitious agenda for his entire presidency.

Nice touch in remembering Ted Kennedy, but it does come across a bit like an early eulogy.

And now he’s become “Father-in-Chief” lecturing us on childrearing!

And now the Republicans finally get a chance to cheer – eliminating deficits (but “inherited”!).  Republicans aren’t buying any of this….

Nancy is becoming a distraction back there… . who is she pointing at?

In case there was any doubt, bipartisanship in Congress on budgetary issues is dead (if it ever was alive…)

Lots and lots of applause lines, but not much policy specific.  I’m really beginning to wonder what he’s trying to do with this speech..

did you see our Guvenator, Jim Douglas, take advantage of his camera time?  Very smartly done Governor!

Lots of balance here, as in “we’ll leave Iraq, but beat terrorists”.  He’s playing to both sides, at the risk of appearing not to have his own set of principles. That’s the difficulty of charting a center path….

And now the obligatory rhetorical upswing – hope!  inspiration! Ordinary Americans!

And here comes the human interest stories…Reagan pioneered these and few did it better than he did.

Still pushing the bipartisanship rock up the hill

Spirit – all my words are in, just under the wire!

I’m interested in how these speech is received. I think he was trying to set a tone here, rather than deal in specifics. At times, he seemed to be channeling FDR in trying to explain why and how the credit crunch was affecting them.  But there wasn’t very much of this, and it certainly was much longer and much more detailed than an FDR fireside chat.  If that was his intent, I’m not sure he really accomplished it.

He’s laid out a huge agenda, but without much in the way of specifics of achieving it.  He gave Americans  a bit of tongue lashing, but also tried to harp on the can-do American spirit.  It was a difficult path to walk.  Rhetorically, he made use of the “this won’t happen again” or “this stops now” device repeatedly.

Ok – let’s hear the Republican response from Bobby Jindal (and is anyone still listening?)

Is he already running for president?  I thought he was supposed to make the Republican case!

Ah!  Nice twist on Katrina! – don’t expect the federal government to bail you out!  Very nicely done…

Spirit! bingo!  This is right out of the Reagan playbook – government won’t save you..but will that fly in this economy?

This is a familiar refrain from Republicans, but I’m not sure it will play in this climate…

He’s laying down the REpublican markers:

No government-run health care

REnewable energy – and more drilling for oil

School choice – education through either public or private schools

Ethics reform…  (there’s a real irony here that a Louisiana governor is talking ethics!)

Interesting twist on the Katrina story…

It’s clear what the Republicans are going to do: reject the Bush years as a betrayal of Republican values, and return to the Reagan values of smaller government, markets and emphasizing the “American spirit”.   This is a risky gambit.  When Reagan ran on this, he could point big government as the culprit.  It’s not clear that message will work as well today. Will voters buy it? I’m not sure the situation is ripe for a reprise of Reaganism.

some final thoughts: Technically, this wasn’t Obama’s best speech – not even close. And his policy proposals lacked specifics. Having said that, he swung for the fences, laying out an ambitious policy agenda for his presidency.  I have to think that Americans are willing to see if he can achieve even half of what he has laid out here.  If he’s successful, I think there’s a real possibility that he could entrench Democratic control of the major political institutions for the next generation.  I don’t think the Republican response is going to attract much support.  The ball is in Obama’s court – Americans are willing to see what he can do.  I think Obama is smart to lay out an ambitious agenda in the hope that Democrats can capitalize on this crisis to remind Americans that government can play a positive role in their lives.   For that reason, despite the lack of execution, I think this speech is probably going to be a net plus for Obama….I’ll be on tomorrow to assess reactions, but for now, I think Obama helped his cause.

So , what do you think?

We Can’t Handle the Truth!

If you are interested, here’s the link to today’s Vermont Edition discussion with Jane Lindholm of Senator Leahy’s proposal for a Truth Commission. (The link to VPR is here.)  When you get to the VPR webpage, click on the listen link. To get a sense of the depth of passions this issue raises, however, you should go to the emails below the introductory paragraph.  I think I recognize some of smarter comments as coming from contributors to this blog…

Obama’s speech starts at 9 tonight.  Look for Vermont’s Governor Douglas to be sitting in the presidential box – a sign that Obama hasn’t given up on symbols of bipartisanship.   Note also who is giving the Republican response – Louisiana Governor Bob Jindal.   It is a chance for him to get some national exposure and – possibly – compete with Sarah Palin as the media speculates who is next in line for the Republican presidential nomination.   Note that Jindal had a chance this weekend while on the talkshows to take himself out of the running for 2012.  He did not do so.

Obama is likely to offer a blizzard of policy proposals. The key point to take from his speech, however, is the tone: how does he balance conveying a sense of optimism in the country’s future with the need to educate the public regarding the problems ahead, particularly as they relate to the economy?   Reagan was a master at this – but Reagan was running against government. His mantra was “government is not the solution – it is the problem!”  Obama has the tougher sell – he needs to convince people that government will be part of the solution.

The other interesting issues will be whether he continues to make appeals for bipartisanship, and the anecdotes he uses to appeal to the “common man.”

I’ve set the over/under on applause lines at 6.    For standing applause by Democrats only, the line is 3.

For tonight’s word game, look for the following:


American spirit


Public Opinion and the Truth Commission

I wanted to comment briefly on a topic that came up during my appearance on VPR’s with Jane Lindholm this afternoon. At some point I referenced Gallup Poll data on Senator Leahy’s proposal to create a “Truth Commission” to investigate various facets of Bush’s handling of the war on terror.  I noted that the data showed Americans were divided over how to proceed.

Here’s the Gallup Poll data I referenced.

Jane (who was a very gracious and well-informed host) quite understandably suggested that the data also showed that most Americans supported some type of inquiry into Bush’s handling of the war and terror. But that is not the same as saying 60% of Americans support ANY type of investigation into  Bush’s handling of these issues. As longtime readers of this blog understand, polling data like this has to be interpreted with care. In particular, we need to be careful not to collapse answers into one category when they are providing different response options. In this case, we can’t infer that those who support Leahy’s “middle way” of investigation by an independent panel would automatically opt for a criminal investigation if the Leahy option was removed. It’s quite possible that, given a choice between a criminal investigation or no investigation at all, that at least some of these respondents would prefer no investigation at all.  And that’s why I think it is a mistake to suggest that some 60% of Americans support Leahy’s proposal, as some media outlets are suggesting. Given the time constraints, and the topic, I didn’t think it appropriate to clarify the polling data during the Vermont Edition segment. But you should be on guard for media outlets that interpret the data the way Leahy reports it in his own op-ed piece in Time magazine: “A recent USA Today/Gallup poll showed that more than 60% of Americans agree that investigating the failed national-security policies of the past eight years should be considered:”  In fact, the Gallup question said nothing about “failed policies”.  And the data could as easily be reported as 60% of Americans oppose criminal investigations into the Bush war on terror.  As a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to say more than the polling questions has asked for.

The broader point I tried to make today is that beginning a search for “truth” with the presumption that Bush and/or his appointees are guilty of crimes is probably not going to produce much agreement, never mind reconciliation.  This is not to say that Congress has no obligation to hold the executive branch accountable for past actions.  But my guess is that there won’t be much support in Congress for Leahy’s proposal, particularly since members of Congress,including Democrats, were briefed on various parts of the War on Terror.  Keep in mind that many of these issues have been already thoroughly debated, and others are currently subject to criminal proceedings and separate inquiries.

Careful listeners will note that Jane preempted my use of the word “cowbell” – clearly she peeked at the  blog and was determined to beat me to the punch. I should send her a “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt.  As it was, I was so flustered I forgot to talk about her show as a radio “juggernaut”, and of course completely missed the obvious “the truth commission has the faint aroma of a political ploy.”

I’ll be on later tonight with an attempt to live blog Obama’s speech.