Monthly Archives: February 2009

Vermont Edition: Do We Need Our Own Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

I’ll be on Vermont Edition with Jane Lindholm tomorrow (Tuesday)  to talk about Senator Leahy’s proposal to create a version of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate various activities of the Bush administration.  It’s a call-in program, running from 12:10 to about 12:40, so feel free to call in to explain how my blog has improved your powers of concentration and helps you sleep better at night.

Here’s the audio link:

And you can submit email questions ahead of time here:

I am going to try to use the following words in my on-air responses:  “aroma”,  “juggernaut” and “cowbell”.  You can keep score at home.

Also, I hope you have been following the developing debate re: whether to “nationalize” the banks – it ties directly to the comments on this blog regarding Americans’ historic reluctance to embrace “socialism”.    Should the government own the banks, even temporarily?  Republicans are opposed.  You should also be paying attention to the quiet effort by the Obama administration to tackle entitlement reform, using many of the same ideas floated unsuccessfully by the Bush administration.  Here, Obama is facing opposition from the Left Wing of the Democratic party.   Who said being president is easy?

Obama and FDR: Why No Socialism in the United States?

The responses to my blog on FDR and Obama prompts me to reconsider a question famously asked by the political theorist Louis Hartz in his classic work The Liberal Tradition in America: Why no socialism in the United States?  Hartz’ much debated answer, greatly simplified here, is that because American political development skipped a feudal period, our political culture lacks any sense of class consciousness.  Most of us consider ourselves to be the members of the broad, undefined middle class. (As evidence of this, I always ask students in my introductory American politics course how many come from middle class backgrounds. Invariably every hand goes up.)  As a result, our politics is dominated by an almost irrational commitment to Lockean liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights and limited government.  Hartz, like many political scientists, eventually went mad.  But his question remains relevant today, as the response to my last blog suggests.

Some of you will recall the fervent efforts by conservatives during the 2008 presidential campaign to unearth Obama’s “socialist” leanings (see here), and Obama’s equally fervent efforts to deny any ideological kinship with socialism. More recently, of course, critics of the proposal to rescue the banking industry by having the government buy up bank assets argue that it is a form of socialism – a charge proponents of the bank rescue plan deny.  These exchanges are a reminder that, unlike in most of the world, socialism remains a dirty word in American politics.

To explain the American aversion to socialism, political scientists usually point to two factors. One is the Hartzian notion that American’s commitment to liberalism – particularly individual rights – discourages the development of a strong central state.  A second explanation, however, points to American political institutions, particularly federalism and the sharing of powers at the national level between two chambers of Congress and the president. American federalism, in which authority is shared concurrently between states and the national government, made the development of a strong working class party rooted in national labor unions more difficult because political parties developed and are organized primarily at the state level. This makes coordinating political action more difficult.  So some states develop progressive parties, but others do not. And our system of shared powers, with a legislative body based on local representation, provides many points of access for intense minorities to intervene in the legislative process. In particular, this allows businesses with a vested economic interest in limited government to block efforts to pass legislation increasing the size of the social welfare state. Think back to the effort by small business and insurance companies to block health care reform during the Clinton presidency.

More broadly, this American aversion to socialism makes us an exception in the world.  Consider the following two charts. First, note that as a proportion of GDP, we spend much less than many nations on government programs.

%GDP on Government

And we spend much less on social welfare programs.

% GDP social welfare

Our political culture is also exceptional – we allow for much more individual expression, but we also retain a strong emphasis on traditional values, such as religion.  This makes us an outlier among most nations of the world, as the following chart suggests.  Notice the location of the United States as a function of expressive and traditional values:

All this is a long prelude to the issue raised by Liz in her response to my discussion of the Obama/FDR comparison.  She suggests that Obama might yet be an FDR-like “transformative” president if he is able to persuade Congress to pass social welfare policies that are now common in many industrialized nations.  I confess that, given the dire economic circumstances facing the country now, the focus of my critique of the FDR/Obama comparison was on the creation of jobs and the revitalization of the American economy.  But perhaps my focus is misplaced.  Perhaps, as Liz suggests, Obama may yet push the Democratic Congress to expand the social welfare state through the adoption of policies such as paid parental leave, a government-run, single-payer health care system, nationalized banking system and other statist policies.   If so, he might yet go down in history as one of the greater presidents.  In a later post I will give my thoughts on Liz’ suggestion, but I am curious to hear from you first.

What do you think?  Will Obama, working through the Democratically-controlled Congress, succeed in expanding the social welfare state?  And, if so, will he be the next FDR?

Is Obama the Next FDR? Let’s Hope Not!

Is Obama the next FDR? Among the several presidents Obama is supposed to be channeling, FDR has become the favorite historical archetype for many of his supporters. It is easy to understand why.  Roosevelt is typically rated among the three greatest presidents, and that ranking is based at least in part on his handling of the Great Depression. For his part, Obama has more than once argued that we are facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  It is natural, then, that some would want to compare the two presidents in terms of the magnitude of the crisis they faced.

I want to suggest here that the comparison, as it is usually discussed, is not particularly illuminating. In developing this argument, I also want to address the very useful questions “student” raised in the comments section to my last blog posting. By way of reminder, “student” suggests that Republican opposition to the stimulus bill is rooted at least in part to their greater belief in the efficacy of free markets.  S/he notes that most economists have been critical of the stimulus bill that Obama signed into law, and s/he suggests – referencing FDR’s New Deal – that government intervention in the fiscal crisis usually isn’t an effective short-term fix and in fact usually “resulted in serious long term problems.”  (S/he also wonders why so many of Obama’s nominees seem to have tax problems.  As I suggested in my interview with USAToday, I think the tax problems say less about the character of Obama’s appointees and more about the nature of the vetting in the post-Watergate era.  If I get the chance, however, I’ll run some comparisons with previous presidents to see if Obama’s appointees are any more “ethically-challenged” than appointees in previous administrations.)

“Student” raises an excellent question: did FDR’s “bold persistent experimentation” bring the U.S. out of the Great Depression or did it actually extend the economic crisis?  One of the benefits of the Obama-FDR comparison is that it has reacquainted the average American with the long-simmering debate between historians, economists and political scientists regarding just how effective FDR’s New Deal policies were in ending the economic crisis. That debate has reemerged in the context of the Obama stimulus package, leading to some heated debate (see here and here, for example) Obviously, I am not going to settle that debate in this blog.  But let’s take a look at three broad gauges of economic health during FDR’s time in office: unemployment, per capita income and growth in GDP.  What do the numbers show?

Here’s GDP

GDP in billions of current dollars



































Here’s Disposal Income (Constant dollars)

Year Per Capita Income

































And here’s unemployment (these last two charts are based on data from the United States Census Historical Tables.  The first one came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

Year %Labor Force Unemployed % Non-farm Unemployed
1946 3.9 5.5
1945 1.9 2.7
1944 1.2 1.7
1943 1.9 2.7
1942 4.7 6.8
1941 9.9 14.4
1940 14.6 21.3
1939 17.2 25.2
1938 19.1 27.9
1937 14.3 21.3
1936 17.0 25.4
1935 20.3 30.2
1934 22 32.6
1933 25.2 37.6
1931 24.1 36.3
1930 16.3 25.2
1929 8.9 14.2
1928 3.2 5.3
1927 4.2 6.9
1926 3.3 5.4
1925 1.8 2.9

So, at first glance, it appears that the economy improved, albeit unevenly, during the first two terms of FDR’s presidency but never really made it back to the pre-Depression levels until World War II, when the transition to a wartime economy finally ended the Great Depression. But these figures cannot tell us whether FDR’s programs are responsible for ending the crisis, or at least moderating it, or prolonging it.  Note that the fault line in this debate isn’t necessarily between liberal and conservative economists, with liberals arguing that FDR ended the Depression and conservatives saying he did not. In fact, many liberals argue that FDR was slow to appreciate the benefits of deficit spending, and as late as 1937 made the mistake of trying to balance the budget, thus precipitating another mini-depression. These are the same arguments that many liberal economists, like Paul Krugman, are making today regarding the Obama stimulus package: that it is too small to stimulate a lasting economic recovery.  Other economists, like Milton Friedman, argue that Roosevelt’s New Deal had little impact on the Great Depression because, at root, it was caused by a too-tight monetary policy under control of the Federal Reserve combined with excessive tariffs that led to a slowdown in trade. From the monetarists’ perspective, what ended the Depression was not deficit spending. Instead, it was the easy money policies that fueled economic expansion during World War II and an opening of trade barriers.

I’ll leave it to you to delve into the finer points of this debate, such as whether to count government “makework” jobs in the unemployment figures or not.  I want to make a different point: if I’m Obama, FDR is not the president that I want to be using for a historical reference. In fact, the less I mention FDR and the Great Depression, the better off I am.  Why?  For two reasons.  First, Roosevelt’s stature as one of the nation’s three greatest presidents is not because he is credited with getting us out of the Depression.  As you can see, there’s no agreement that he did so.  But there is agreement that his New Deal forever changed Americans’ expectations regarding whether government should provide a social welfare safety net to cushion the inevitable economic downturns associated with the business cycle.  The lasting New Deal legacy is not primarily the “make-work” programs run by the Works Progress Administration or the infrastructure created in terms of bridges and public buildings by the Public Works Agency. Instead, these programs are noteworthy because they signaled that the federal government was now responsible for ameliorating the impact of economic depression. This was a huge change in public expectations, despite the uncertainty regarding its efficacy in ending unemployment.

FDR’s greatness, then, is in establishing the expectation that the federal government will protect the poor and the elderly by establishing a social safety net. Consider the following New Deal legislation. The creation of Social Security in 1935 effectively ended widespread and persistent poverty among the elderly and is now considered sacrosanct, immune to political tinkering. That legislation also established a series of federal grants to the states for additional old-age assistance, aid to the blind, and aid to dependent children. It was under FDR that the government first took on broad responsibility for handing out checks to the unemployed, a function previously left entirely to states or not at all.  Other New Deal legislation include the Wagner Act that established collective bargaining rights for unions,  and the 1938 fair labor legislation that established federal minimum wage standards.  And there is a host of New Deal regulatory policy that I could cite as well.

So we see that FDR’s stature as one of our great presidents rests on two pillars: his war leadership, but also in changing public expectations regarding government’s responsibility for the social welfare of those who cannot help themselves.  If FDR didn’t end the Great Depression (and the debate rages on), his presidency certainly initiated a sea change in our expectations for what government should do to lessen the impact of that crisis on ordinary Americans.

And that’s why I think Obama would do well to downplay any talk about the stimulus bill and FDR’s efforts to end the Great Depression.  For starters, the economic crisis is no where near what FDR faced. Remember, unemployment is hovering at about 7-8% now.  Roosevelt took office when 25% of the workforce was unemployed. After two terms in office the rate was still 14.6%!  If we see a reprise of those numbers, Obama won’t have to worry about comparisons with FDR – he’ll be a one-term president and Republicans will control Congress for the foreseeable future.  By talking as if we are facing a reprise of the Great Depression, moreover, Obama isn’t doing much to bolster consumer confidence in an economic recovery.

Nor is Obama going to change our expectations regarding the need for the national government to protect the social welfare net. That expectation is ingrained in our public consciousness, thanks to FDR.   By citing FDR’s response to the Great Depression, Obama creates unrealistic expectations that he is somehow going to match FDR’s response in terms of the New Deal’s impact on the public psyche.  But the situation is not analogous, and it’s hard to see how Obama can have an equally transformative effect.

If I’m Obama, nothing good comes from channeling FDR. It merely resurrects the debate regarding the efficacy of FDR’s efforts to end the Great Depression – the same debate that divides Republicans and Democrats today, and which “student” raised in the comments s/he sent in.  And it provides an unrealistic and unnecessarily pessimistic (so far!) picture of the economic situation today.  If anything, the modern president who entered office facing similar economic conditions to today is Ronald Reagan.  In combating the stagflation of the Carter years, Reagan combined a perpetual sunny optimism with a strong dose of bipartisanship policymaking, the latter necessitated in part by Democratic control of the House.  Of course, Obama won’t share Reagan’s ideology.  But he might draw some useful lessons in putting together a bipartisan coalition. (I’ll talk more about this in a later post.)  If Obama is going to look for instructive historical comparisons from which to draw governing lessons, then, he’d do better to look at Reagan, or as I’ve suggested in a previous post, at Clinton. Even George W. Bush offers more useful lessons, especially in foreign affairs, than does FDR.

Is Obama the next FDR? For his sake, and ours, let’s hope not.

In Honor of President’s Day

In honor of President’s Day, I want to take a moment to step back and remember the late, great Richard E. Neustadt.  Until his death in 2003 at the age of 84, Neustadt was the nation’s foremost presidency scholar.  In his almost six decades of public service and in academia, Neustadt advised presidents and their aides, and distilled these experiences in the form of several influential books on presidents and presidential decisionmaking.  Perhaps his biggest influence, however, came from the scores of students he mentored at Columbia and Harvard, many of whom went on to careers in public service as well.  Others (like me!) opted for academia where they schooled subsequent generations of students in Neustadt’s teachings, and sometimes wrote blogs on the side.

Interestingly, Neustadt came to academia through a circuitous route that, unfortunately, is rarely used today. After a brief stint in FDR’s Office of Price Administration, followed by a tour in the military, he returned to government as a mid-level career bureaucrat working in President Harry Truman’s Bureau of the Budget (BoB) in 1946, gradually working his way up the ranks until he was brought into Truman’s White House in 1950 as a junior level political aide.  While working in the BoB, Neustadt took time to complete his doctoral dissertation, which analyzed the development of the president’s legislative program.  When Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952, Neustadt faced a career crossroads. With the doctorate in hand, he decided to try his hand at academia.

When he began working his way through the presidency literature to prepare to teach, however, he was struck by just how little these scholarly works had in common with his own experiences under Truman.  They described the presidency in terms of its formal powers, as laid out in the Constitution and subsequent statute.  To Neustadt, these formal powers – while not inconsequential – told only part of the story.  To fully understand what made presidents more or less effective, one had to dig deeper to uncover the sources of the president’s power. With this motivation, he set down to write Presidential Power, which was first published in 1960 and went on to become the best selling scholarly study of the presidency ever written.  Now in its 4rth edition, it continues to be assigned in college classrooms around the world (the Portuguese language edition reportedly came out last year). Neustadt’s argument in Presidential Power is distinctive and I certainly can’t do justice to it here.  But his essential point is that because presidents share power with other actors in the American political system, they can rarely get things done through command or unilateral action. Instead, they need to persuade others that what the President wants done is what they should want done as well, but for their own interests.  At the most fundamental level that means presidents must bargain. The most effective presidents, then, are those who understand the sources of their bargaining power, and take steps to nurture those sources.

At its core, Presidential Power is a handbook for presidents (and their advisers). It teaches them how to gain, nurture and exercise power. Beyond the subject matter, however, what makes Neustadt’s analysis so fascinating are the illustrations he brings to bear, many drawn from his own personal experiences as a presidential adviser.  Interestingly, the book might have languished on bookstore shelves if not for a fortuitous event: after his election to the presidency in 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked Neustadt to write transition memos to help prepare him for office. More importantly for the sale of Neustadt’s book, however, the president-elect was photographed disembarking from a plane with a copy of Presidential Power clearly visible in his jacket pocket.  Believe me, nothing boosts the sale of a book on the presidency more than a picture of the President reading that book!

Neustadt was subsequently asked to join Kennedy’s White House staff but – with two growing children whom had already endured his absences in his previous White House stint – he opted instead to stay in academia.  He went on to found Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote several more award-winning books, and continued to advise formally or informally every president through Clinton. After the death of Bert, his first wife, he married Shirley Williams, one of the founders of Britain’s Social Democrats Party (and now a Baroness in the House of Lords), which provided still another perspective on executive politics.  He also continued churning out graduate students (I was the last doctoral student whose dissertation committee Neustadt chaired at Harvard.). When I went back to Harvard in 1993 as an assistant professor, my education continued; I lured Neustadt out of retirement to co-teach a graduate seminar on the presidency – an experience that deepened my understanding of the office and taught me to appreciate good scotch.  It was the last course Neustadt taught in Harvard’s Government Department, but he remained active in public life even after retiring from teaching.  Shortly before his death he traveled to Brazil to advise that country’s newly-elected president Lula da Silva.

And so sometime today take time to hoist a glass of your favorite beverage in honor of Richard E. Neustadt, our own Guardian of the Presidency. If you are interested in learning more about him, there’s a wonderful (really!)  book available on edited by Neustadt’s daughter and that blogger guy from Middlebury College (see here). It contains contributions from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Gore, Ernie May, Graham Allison, Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harrison Wellford, Harvey Fineberg, Jonathan Alter, Chuck Jones, Eric Redman, Beth Neustadt and yours truly.  (See the-cover)


Here’s to you, Dick!

Obama, the Stimulus Bill and Viewer Mail

Because I’m on deadline on another article, and because each post typically takes a couple of hours of research, I want to save some time and instead use today’s post to respond to the several good questions that have come in via the blog site and by email during the last few days.   In no particular order:

In response to my reminder that Obama ran behind most Senate Democrats and Republicans in the 2008 elections, Jack Goodman wonders whether that is still relevant since Obama’s approval ratings are very high right now. I’ve touched on the topic of presidential approval ratings before, but a couple of points bear repeating: First, national approval ratings, although much hyped by the press as a barometer of presidential performance, actually are driven by factors that have almost nothing to do with the president’s performance.  I’ll elaborate on this in a more complete post, but as evidence, note that Obama is still experiencing the presidential honeymoon, the period in which approval ratings are artificially inflated.  All presidents go through this.  More importantly, however, the point of my post is to remind you that Senators don’t much care what Obama’s national approval ratings are – they care what the voters in their state think about him.  And in most of the 34 states that voted for a Senator in 2008, the Senate candidate was more popular than Obama. That’s why Republican Senators in particular feel little hesitation in voting against the stimulus bill.  The key point here is that national approval ratings are not a very good indicator of presidential strength in Congress, media reports to the contrary notwithstanding.  And we know that Obama’s rating will go down over time – not up.

Both Conor and Jack caution that it is very early in Obama’s term, and that there is still room for Obama to exercise bipartisanship on other issues.   Their points are a useful reminder that some significant pieces of legislation – think Clinton’s support of NAFTA, or Bush’s No Child Left Behind and prescription drug reform – have passed Congress with bipartisan support.   So we shouldn’t preclude any possibility of bipartisan action on other legislation that does not map onto the fault line separating Republicans and Democrats as neatly as the stimulus bill did.   Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that given the magnitude of the stimulus bill, and the fact that it was the first major piece of legislation to pass Congress, Obama missed a golden opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise to be an agent of change.  Of course, the political scientist in me has always been skeptical, given the composition of Congress, that Obama would be any more successful than Bush or Clinton at toning down the politics of polarization.  As a citizen, however, I am disappointed that he has started out as a “divider, not a uniter” (keeping in mind that we can’t blame the divisions in Congress solely on him.)

Regarding Senators staying in office longer than Obama – I’m not suggesting that Obama will be a one-term president.  But even if he serves out two terms, most Senators will outlast him in office, given that the average Senator serves about two terms, or 12 years, in office.

As for Frank Rich!  If I thought it would serve any useful purpose, someday I’d like to devote a post in which I take quotes from a particular columnist and use them to argue against that same columnist’s argument in another column.  In the case of the stimulus bill, it is deliciously ironic to hear columnists on the Left like Rich throwing a hissy fit over Republican opposition to the stimulus bill.  “It’s all about politics,”  they fume. “Republicans are willing to see the nation’s economy get wrecked just so Obama will be voted out of office.”  The problem, of course, is that many of these same columnists on the Left were urging the Democrats in Congress to block the bank bailout bill pushed by Bush (and later Obama) because it was a handout to the Wall St. fat cats!  If I paid any attention to pundits like Rich, I might be mildly offended by the blatant hypocrisy in accusing Republicans of rank partisan demagoguery when they oppose government efforts to help the economy while defending Democrats’ opposition to government efforts to bail out the economy as principled.  One could defend both positions on the merits of the argument, of course.  But I’m hardpressed to see how pundits on the Left like Rich are so certain about the sordid motives behind the Republican opposition.  It’s just a reminder of a point I’ve made often in previous posts regarding the Pundit’s Creed: “My motives are pure, my opponents are venal opportunists.”  It’s columns like Rich’s that help contribute to the polarized attmosphere that Obama is finding so difficult to change.  Of course as most of you know by reading my previous posts,  the punditocracy’s primary purpose for me is to serve as a foil so I can present political science research.  Otherwise I  wouldn’t read any of them – Left or Right. And neither should you if you actually want to understand politics.   They mostly make stuff up and call it an argument.  It’s useful only for the entertainment value – not as a source of insight into presidential politics.  For that, you come here!

I hope I answered most of your questions. Keep ’em coming!