Monthly Archives: February 2009

Some Thoughts on the Stimulus Bill

Make no mistake: the $787 billion economic stimulus measure that Obama will sign into law on Monday is an historic piece of legislation. Whether it is a good piece of legislation, economically speaking, is another matter – only time will tell.  I don’t pretend to know the answer, and I doubt anyone else knows either. Politically, however, one cannot help but feel that with the bill’s passage, Obama lost his first and best opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise to change the tone of Washington politics.  Because for all the media fawning, fueled by the understandable crowing by Obama’s aides about how quickly this bill passed, (see “analysis” here) the simple fact is some type of stimulus legislation was going to go through Congress in this period.  The real question is whose bill would it be?  In the end, the stimulus package didn’t attract a single Republican vote in the House, and only three in the Senate.  In his first major legislative test, then, Obama was unable to bring change, in the form of bipartisanship, to Washington. The simple fact is his legislative strategy in Congress proved every bit as polarizing as Bush’s and Clinton’s before him – more so, if you compare their early legislative efforts.

As a political scientist, of course, the fact that the legislative process played out in predictable fashion, with Obama relying on the Democratic majority in the House to fashion the initial stimulus bill, and then moving toward the center by making only enough concessions as needed to attract the necessary votes in the Senate, is reassuring to me.  It shows that we understand legislative politics.  Given the electoral and institutional forces influencing congressional behavior, there’s no reason to believe Democrats and Republican legislators would act any differently in 2009 than they have for the previous eight years – unless someone made them change.  No one did.  The result was polarized party politics redux. .

As a partisan of the presidency, however – as someone who believes that strong presidential leadership is crucial to the American political system – the results can’t help but be disappointing. Remember, Obama’s electoral “mandate” – if it is to be said that he has any mandate at all – was to change the tone of Washington politics by ending partisan polarization.  It was a mandate Obama readily embraced.  And yet, when given the opportunity to bring that change to fruition – he wouldn’t, or couldn’t do it.

Why not?  The easy response is to say that Obama couldn’t possibly have crafted a bill that attracted broad Republican support without repudiating the Pelosi wing of his own Democratic party.  But how else was he to achieve bipartisanship?  Rhetoric alone isn’t going to magically produce a kinder, gentler Washington, unless all Obama really meant by bipartisanship was making disagreement more civil. Leadership is about making hard choices, and having the political will to enforce those choices. If Obama truly believed he won election because voters wanted the type of change he preached, it would have meant using a combination of carrots and sticks, particularly his veto threat, to craft a more bipartisan stimulus bill. I’m not saying this would have been easy. Democrats in the House would have howled, raged and threatened to pass a bill much like the one that eventually did pass.  But Obama held some trump cards.  It is not beyond reason to suggest that by holding firm in support of a bill that attracted a few more Republicans, and making the House understand that any Obama veto would have easily been sustained in the Senate, Obama might have forced Democrats’ hand in the House.  In this way he might have crafted a bill that attracted greater Republican support.  There’s no reason for Congress to change its way unless Obama makes them change.

The issue here is not whether he could, or should, have crafted a more bipartisan bill – it’s that there is there no evidence that he understood what it took to do so.  Early in the process, when Republicans laid out the changes they wanted, Obama rebuffed them, saying “I won.” Well, yes he did – but he has been arguing that his win signifies a desire by voters for a less polarized politics.  So what will it be – polarization as usual or change?

The president’s job in the American political system is to provide leadership that addresses the national interest.  That’s not leadership that Congress, with its geographically local representation and distributive tendencies, can provide.  When presidents don’t exercise that leadership, legislation becomes defined by the interests of legislators – which is precisely what happened with the stimulus bill. Rather than provide legislative direction, the evidence (see here and here) suggests that, in his rush to get a stimulus bill passed, Obama was willing to acquiesce to the interests of legislators, even if it meant occasionally getting whipsawed by members of both parties.

Now, if Obama has decided to govern in a parliamentary style by relying solely on his own party – in effect repudiating bipartisanship – his decision to acquiesce to Pelosi’s wishes in putting together the stimulus package is an understandable strategy.  However, it goes against everything I know about Obama’s past commitment to pragmatism dating back to his days in law school, and it directly repudiates his own promise to change the tone of Washington politics.  And history suggests – see the Democrats in 1993-94, or the congressional Republicans under Newt Gingrich in 1994-95 – that governing through a single-party coalition rarely lasts because it runs against the more centrist tendencies of the public, and it is difficult to sustain in a governing system of shared powers..

I think Obama sincerely desires to change the nature of Washington politics. I don’t believe he wanted to start his presidency off in such a partisan manner.  Of course, it will be easy to blame the Republicans, or House Democrats under Nancy Pelosi, for the partisan manner in which this bill was passed.  But I see no evidence in news account so far that Obama understood the price necessary to pay, or the leadership required, to achieve bipartisanship. His actions belied his rhetoric. It is still early in his presidency, of course. And, in his defense, he felt tremendous pressure to get a stimulus bill through Congress as quickly as possible.  But to date he has proved every bit as incapable or unwilling to end polarization as his predecessor.

A final thought: the last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter in 1977 and Bill Clinton in 1993, both took office promising an end to the failed ideologies of the past.  Competence, not partisanship, was their watchword – they, too, promised a government not of the left or the right, but one that works. The great risk in pursuing the “politics of competence”, however, is that without a fixed governing philosophy to guide decisions, you leave yourself open to being defined by others. Carter’s “passionless” presidency was rejected by voters after one term.  Clinton won reelection, but only after learning to define himself in terms of his opposition to the Republican “Contract with America.”  If the stimulus bill is any evidence, Obama risks reprising these earlier Democratic mistakes.  One searches the bill in vain for any clue regarding what he believes in as a matter of public policy.  Rather than establish principles by which to guide debate, as Reagan did in 1981 with his package of tax and spending cuts, Obama seemed willing to accept a stimulus bill crafted in a way designed to insure the quickest possible passage through Congress. “Whatever it takes” is not a governing philosophy.

It is still very early in Obama’s presidency. But if change no longer means “bipartisanship” and the end to the Clinton-Bush politics of polarization, what does it mean?  Obama won election by telling voters who he wasn’t.  Now he needs to say who he is. .

Obama, Your Britches are Showing

Once again, the stimulus bill passes the House without a single Republican in the House voting for it. (There were also 7 Democratic defectors, making the final vote for passage 246-183). The bill is likely to pass the Senate tonight as well without much, if any, Republican support before it goes to the White House for Obama’s signature. So what’s going on here? Didn’t Republicans get the message? Obama won the election.  He even reminded them of that fact when House Republicans sought to revise provisions in the stimulus bill regarding tax credits for low-income workers (story here).  And this wasn’t a squeaker of an election – he won a national mandate. Time magazine said so (see here). So did CBS (here). And the LA Times (here).  These aren’t the views of the Loony Left, or the netroots – these are mainstream publications who called the 2008 presidential election a mandate for Obama.

So why aren’t the Republicans listening?  The fashionable response is to say the Republicans are committed to derailing the Obama presidency at all costs, regardless of the impact on the economy or the country.  Their hope is to watch the economy go down in flames in time to blame the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, thereby setting them up to retake the presidency in 2012.   Like most conventional wisdom, this is a woefully simplistic analysis that reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the fundamentals driving congressional and presidential behavior in the American political system.  Let’s start with the basic premise: did Obama win the election?

Not for most members of Congress elected in 2008.  Let’s look at the Senate election returns in 2008 (I’m still calculating House district returns but expect the results to be similar.).  Remember the Obama election “mandate”?  One way political scientists measure the strength of a president’s mandate, or “coattails”, is to see how far ahead of Senators and Representatives he runs in terms of votes received.  In 2008, there were 33 Senate races.  In what percentage of those Senate races did Obama get more votes than the winning Senate candidate?  Remember, Obama won a mandate.  So did he finish ahead in 90% of the races?  75%?  60%?  Try 15%.  That’s right: “Mandate” Obama finished ahead of the winning Senate candidate in only 5 of 33 Senate races in 2008 (The five states in which Obama polled more votes than the winning Senate candidate are: Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Oregon – I’m assuming the Democrat Al Franken will get the Minnesota Senate seat.)  Put another way, he ran behind 28 of the 33 Senators who won election in 2008. This includes – drum roll please – every winning Republican Senator.

The most difficult point for my presidency students to grasp each year – particularly international students who grew up in countries using parliamentary-style governments in which the prime minister is a member of the legislative body – is that the Congress and the President respond to different electoral incentives.  It is an easy point to forget when respected news outlets proclaim the president has won a “mandate.”  Really?  Do you think South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham could give a gnat’s behind that Obama won 53% of the popular vote nationally when Obama got crushed in Graham’s home state? Ditto for each of the 13 winning Republican senators – and the 15 Democratic senators who finished ahead of Obama as well.  This is why you aren’t seeing Democratic Senators rushing to the center to bridge the ideological gap with Republicans in order to promote bipartisanship any more than you are seeing Republicans do so.  Neither party has much to fear from Obama.

When a president, as Obama does, enters office having finished behind most Senators who won election at the same time, he (someday she) doesn’t have much bargaining leverage.  This is why Obama’s efforts to pressure the Senate by taking his case on the road in a speaking campaign have had almost no effect on that chamber’s deliberations.  Senators can count votes, and they are acutely sensitive to constituent sentiment.  That’s why they get reelected at rates of 80% or better.   And with six-year Senate terms, and an average time in office for senators approaching 12 years, there’s a good chance that Obama will leave office before most of these senators do.  Given these basic facts, Obama simply doesn’t have much leverage in the Senate, unless he wants to employ a veto (I’ll talk about that strategy in a later post).

The bottom line, which you will read here again and again, is this: except in time of extraordinary crisis, the presidency is a weak office. Obama is no exception to that rule. If you want to dance the bipartisan dance, you better be willing fork over a decent amount of political capital. Otherwise you take what the Congress gives you, and on their terms.

When I finish gathering the numbers, I’ll present the data regarding Obama’s leverage in the House.  But my point should be clear: when it comes to presidential coattails, Obama’s britches are showing.

The Real Significance of Gregg’s Withdrawal

The announcement by New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg that he is withdrawing his nomination to be Secretary of Commerce has set off another round of accusations that the Obama administration has mismanaged the cabinet appointment process. Tonight on the CBS News, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer said the turnabout undoubtedly hurt Obama’s “credibility” as president.  Other critics on both the Left (“This is a huge defeat and embarrassment for the Obama administration” said Democratic pollster Doug Schoen (see further comments here“) and the Right ( “The first however-many days of Barack Obama’s presidency have been a study in amateurism,” according to conservative columnist Kathleen Parker (see source here) are openly questioning the administration’s competence.

I will leave it to the pundits to debate how deeply Obama’s professional reputation will be damaged by this latest Cabinet imbroglio. Suffice to say, I don’t think these nomination controversies will have much political legs. As I argued in an earlier post,  appointment snafus are common to all incoming administrations during the post-Watergate era, where every nominee must navigate the obstacle course created by tax disclosures, conflict of interest requirements and FBI background checks. Keep in mind that in addition to the 15 top-level cabinet positions, presidents are responsible for appointing close to 700 more people at the subcabinet positions of deputy secretary, undersecretary, assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary (and their equivalents).  And this doesn’t include the more than 1,000 appointments he is ostensibly responsible for in the lower levels of the federal bureaucracy.  It’s a wonder more appointees aren’t tripped up or withdraw from the process.  It’s all part of the growing pains for any incoming administration, and I find it amusing that so many pundits apparently believed the Obama administration would be less prone to making these mistakes.  Keep in mind that Obama has almost no executive experience and very little political experience at the national level and as a result faces a steeper learning curve than most presidents. (In a later post I hope to provide an analysis comparing Obama’s executive experience at the national level to that of the other modern presidents.)

This is not to say the Gregg withdrawal is not significant. It is, but not for what is says about the competence – or lack thereof – of the Obama vetting machine.  Instead, it is still another reminder that despite Obama’s pledge to bring a new era of bipartisanship to Washington, his election did very little to remove the primary source of partisan polarization that has dominated political proceedings since at least the Reagan era.  In an earlier post I showed a graph documenting the growing divide between the two parties’ ideological leanings in the Senate and the House. That graph is based on an ongoing study by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal of congressional voting dating back to the first Congress in 1789.  Poole and Rosenthal have found that the single most consistent predictor of a partisan divide in Congress is legislators’ views on the role of the government in managing the economy.  That difference is on vivid display now, in the dispute between Republicans and Democrats regarding the composition of the stimulus package.  And it the source (along with control over the 2010 census) that is reportedly at the heart of Gregg’s decision to withdraw his nomination.  In the end, he had a basic ideological difference with Obama on how best to restore economic prosperity.

If the Obama camp is to be faulted, it is for failing to anticipate just how deep the divide is between Republicans and Democrats in Congress regarding what role, if any, the government should play in restoring economic prosperity.  In hindsight, it is easy to see that Gregg would find it difficult to reconcile his own Republican beliefs with the Democratic approach to fixing the economy.  Consider the following table. It lists from most liberal to least liberal all 100 Senators (actually 102 – mid-term Senate replacements were made in Wyoming and Mississippi) serving in the 2007-09, 110th , Congress.  (All data based on Poole-Rosenthal voting records – see source here).  Notice where Obama is located (see bold italicized name) 13 spaces down from the top. This means his Senate voting record for the last congressional session made him the 13th most liberal member of the Senate – and this in a two-year period where he deliberately moved to the ideological middle in order to increase his chances of winning the presidency.  Now scroll down to find Judd Gregg (name bold and italicized) – he’s the 86 th most liberal, or 14th most conservative Senator in the 110th Congress. This means a full 73% of the Senate lies between them, ideologically speaking. You might as well ask a New York Yankee fan to join the Red Sox booster club.

 110 49309 25  WISCONS D FEINGOLD      1.000
 110 29147  6  VERMONT I SANDERS       2.000
 110 14213  1  CONNECT D DODD          3.000
 110 15011 71  CALIFOR D BOXER         4.000
 110 10808  3  MASSACH D KENNEDY  ED   5.500
 110 40704  5  RHODE I D WHITEHOUSE    5.500
 110 14920  3  MASSACH D KERRY  JOHN   7.000
 110  1366 56  WEST VI D BYRD  ROBER   8.000
 110 29389 24  OHIO    D BROWN         9.000
 110 14101 11  DELAWAR D BIDEN         10.000
 110 29373 12  NEW JER D MENENDEZ      11.500
 110 29142  5  RHODE I D REED          11.500
 110 40502 21  ILLINOI D OBAMA         13.500
 110 14914 12  NEW JER D LAUTENBERG    13.500
 110 15021 21  ILLINOI D DURBIN        15.000
 110 14858 13  NEW YOR D SCHUMER       16.000
 110 14230 31  IOWA    D HARKIN        17.000
 110 40105 13  NEW YOR D CLINTON       18.000
 110 14307  6  VERMONT D LEAHY         19.000
 110 15054 65  NEVADA  D REID          21.000
 110 40700 33  MINNESO D KLOBUCHAR     21.000
110 29732 23  MICHIGA D STABENOW      21.000
 110 14400 82  HAWAII  D AKAKA         23.000
110 39310 73  WASHING D CANTWELL      25.000
 110 49308 73  WASHING D MURRAY        25.000
 110 14871 72  OREGON  D WYDEN         25.000
 110 14912 66  NEW MEX D BINGAMAN      27.500
 110 14709 23  MICHIGA D LEVIN  CARL   27.500
 110 15408 52  MARYLAN D CARDIN        29.000
110 15703 25  WISCONS D KOHL          30.000
 110 49300 71  CALIFOR D FEINSTEIN     31.000
 110  4812 82  HAWAII  D INOUYE        32.000
 110 14440 52  MARYLAN D MIKULSKI      33.000
110 14651 43  FLORIDA D NELSON        34.500
 110 15704  1  CONNECT D LIEBERMAN     34.500
 110 40703 14  PENNSYL D CASEY         36.000
 110 40706 40  VIRGINI D WEBB          37.000
 110 14922 56  WEST VI D ROCKEFELLER   38.000
 110 15502 36  NORTH D D CONRAD        39.000
 110 14812 36  NORTH D D DORGAN        40.000
 110 40701 34  MISSOUR D MCCASKILL     41.000
 110 14203 64  MONTANA D BAUCUS        42.500
 110 40702 64  MONTANA D TESTER        42.500
 110 40500 62  COLORAD D SALAZAR       44.000
 110 29305 42  ARKANSA D LINCOLN       45.000
 110 15425 37  SOUTH D D JOHNSON       46.000
 110 40301 42  ARKANSA D PRYOR         47.000
 110 15015 11  DELAWAR D CARPER        48.000
 110 49702 45  LOUISIA D LANDRIEU      49.000
 110 40103 35  NEBRASK D NELSON  BEN   50.000
 110 49901 22  INDIANA D BAYH          51.000
 110 14661  2  MAINE   R SNOWE         52.000
 110 49703  2  MAINE   R COLLINS       53.000
 110 49705 72  OREGON  R SMITH  GORD   54.000
 110 40302 33  MINNESO R COLEMAN       55.000
 110 14910 14  PENNSYL R SPECTER       56.000
 110 14506 22  INDIANA R LUGAR         57.000
 110 49903 24  OHIO    R VOINOVICH     58.000
 110 40300 81  ALASKA  R MURKOWSKI     59.000
 110 12109 81  ALASKA  R STEVENS       60.000
 110 14712 40  VIRGINI R WARNER        61.000
 110 14103 66  NEW MEX R DOMENICI      62.000
 110 14226 31  IOWA    R GRASSLEY      63.000
 110 14852 32  KANSAS  R ROBERTS       64.000
 110 14503 67  UTAH    R HATCH         65.000
 110 49704 35  NEBRASK R HAGEL         66.000
 110 14009 46  MISSISS R COCHRAN       67.000
 110 49307 67  UTAH    R BENNETT       68.000
 110 40501 43  FLORIDA R MARTINEZ      69.000
110 15501 34  MISSOUR R BOND          70.000
 110 40304 54  TENNESS R ALEXANDER     71.000
 110 40705 54  TENNESS R CORKER        72.000
 110 49306 49  TEXAS   R HUTCHISON     73.000
 110 29534 46  MISSISS R WICKER        74.000
 110 29740  4  NEW HAM R SUNUNU        75.000
 110 94659 41  ALABAMA R SHELBY        76.000
110 40303 47  NORTH C R DOLE          77.000
 110 29523 32  KANSAS  R BROWNBACK     78.000
 110 29754 37  SOUTH D R THUNE         79.000
 110 29512 44  GEORGIA R CHAMBLISS     80.000
 110 29909 44  GEORGIA R ISAKSON       81.000
 110 14809 63  IDAHO   R CRAIG         82.000
 110 29345 63  IDAHO   R CRAPO         83.000
 110 14031 46  MISSISS R LOTT          84.000
 110 14921 51  KENTUCK R MCCONNELL     85.000
 110 14826  4  NEW HAM R GREGG         86.000
 110 49700 41  ALABAMA R SESSIONS      87.000
 110 29566 48  SOUTH C R GRAHAM        88.000
 110 40305 49  TEXAS   R CORNYN        89.000
 110 15039 61  ARIZONA R MCCAIN        90.000
110 29918 45  LOUISIA R VITTER        91.000
 110 15406 51  KENTUCK R BUNNING       92.000
 110 29108 62  COLORAD R ALLARD        93.000
 110 15633 68  WYOMING R THOMAS        94.000
 110 29548 47  NORTH C R BURR          95.000
 110 49706 68  WYOMING R ENZI          96.000
 110 40707 68  WYOMING R BARASSO       97.000
 110 29537 65  NEVADA  R ENSIGN        98.000
 110 15429 61  ARIZONA R KYL           99.000
 110 15424 53  OKLAHOM R INHOFE        100.000
110 29555 53  OKLAHOM R COBURN        101.000
 110 29936 48  SOUTH C R DEMINT        102.000

Now keep in mind that in 2008 the Republicans lost 7 Senate seats. The losses included defeats to five incumbents, all of them from the more moderate half of their party wing, including Gordon Humphrey, Norm Coleman (we think!), Ted Stevens, Elizabeth Dole and John Sununu.  In short, the current 111th Senate is likely even more polarized than the previous Senate – and the previous Senate, according to Poole and Rosenthal, was the most ideologically polarized Senate since Reconstruction. Think about it. The last time we had a Senate this polarized, we were coming off a Civil War!

The lesson is clear.  Obama took office proclaiming that change, in the form of bipartisanship, was coming to Washington.  Despite evidence to the contrary, he continues to talk the talk of bipartisanship. He claims that by extending a hand across the partisan divide, he will foster a more cooperative relationship between the parties in the future.  But unless he is willing to walk the walk in the form of adopting Republican policy stances, his efforts at bipartisanship will be just that: words.  And the more he moves to the ideological middle, the more likely the left wing of his party, backed by the netroots, will rise up in fury to attack Obama’s overtures to Republicans.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating because so many Obama supporters are still struggling to break free from the kool-aid induced euphoria that led them to believe Obama’s election meant an end to party bickering.  In their defense, Obama may have believed it as well. But when it comes to legislative politics, Obama’s election did nothing to remove the sources of partisan division in Congress.  In fact, the ideological schism has likely widened as a result of Republican losses. As a result, expect presidential-congressional relations to be the mirror image of what we saw under Bush: rather than a less polarized Congress we are more likely to see a Democratic president working primarily with his own party in the House, and moderating that ideological stance in the Senate only as needed to put together a winning coalition.  It is exactly how Bush legislated.

Did Obama’s election change the congressional landscape?  Dream on, teen queen.

A Primer on Presidential Press Conferences

The presidential press conference dates at least back to Woodrow Wilson’s presidency in 1913, although the modern incarnation is of more recent vintage; beginning in 1961, JFK was the first president to hold live, televised conferences.  Every president has followed JFK’s lead, but with diminishing returns for both president and the viewing public.  In theory, press conferences serve a useful purpose; they allow presidents to explain their policy decisions to the public, and they provide the press, working on behalf of the public, the opportunity to hold the president accountable for those decisions.  In truth, press conferences rarely live up to that promise. Reporters try to devise questions that will elicit a newsworthy response, preferably the one that will lead the media coverage and generate ratings.  Presidents respond by staying on script in an effort to drive home their preferred talking point.  In this elaborate game, reporters have to be careful, because if they go over the edge and appear to be overly hostile to the president, they may not get called on in the next press conference. On the other hand, reporters realize that press conferences are increasingly rare events, and with only about a dozen reporters called on at any one session, they must capitalize on their moment in the sun.

In studying press conferences, there are two trends to keep in mind.  Historically, the number of press conferences is declining, as presidents find them an increasingly less useful tool for getting their message out to the public. (Eisenhower reportedly began one press conference by stating, “I will mount the usual weekly cross and let you drive the nails.”) Within any single presidency, the number of press conferences held tends to decline as well, and for the same reason.  Before showing you some data on the frequency of press conferences, however, we would do well to define the term. What constitutes a press conference? Consider that before holding his evening press conferences, Barack Obama visited a town in Indiana and took questions there. Is that also a press conference?  No, not by the traditional definition.  Most scholars tabulate press conferences according to the following criteria:

1. It is a public event in which reporters accredited to cover the president are free to ask any question they desire – if the president calls on them.

2. The proceedings must be on-the-record, with an official transcript of questions and answers available to the public.

3. The press conference should be scheduled and announced in advance, including the location, to provide the press an opportunity to prepare questions.  (White House-based press conferences aren’t always held in the East Room; FDR held his in the Oval Office, but that became impossible as the size of the press corps expanded. Some presidents still prefer the White House Briefing Room).

Using these criteria, Martha Kumar calculated the following frequencies for presidential press conferences (source here). (This data is through the second year of George W. Bush’s presidency).


Months in Office

Total Press Conferences

Avg. per Year

Avg. per Month


























George H.W. Bush










George W. Bush (first two years)





Matthew Eshbaugh Soha, in a political science journal article dating from 2003, extends Kumar’s data back to the second Truman term.  Although the numbers are hard to read, what I want you to see is the huge drop in the frequency of press conferences from roughly the tail end of LBJ’s presidency through Reagan’s presidency.

Yearly Press Conferences, 1948-96

As we can see, the advent of the televised press conferences beginning with JFK has contributed to the decline in the overall number of press conferences; Truman averaged about 40 press conferences per year and Eisenhower about 29. That number has declined to roughly 25 per year under Clinton and about 20 for Bush, and much lower than that under Nixon through Reagan.

Is there a way to make the press conference a useful tool of information exchange that both benefits presidents and the public? I have long argued that presidents ought to negotiate an agreement with the media to reinstitute a form of the exchange used with such great success by FDR during his presidency. Roosevelt held almost 1,000 press conferences, all under guidelines laid out in his first press conference in March, 1933. They are worth repeating here:

Excerpt from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Press Conference


Press Conference #1

At the White House, Executive Offices

March 8, 1933, 10:10 A.M.

(Mr. Young introduced the members of the Press to the President.)

THE PRESIDENT: It is very good to see you all and my hope is that these conferences are going to be merely enlarged editions of the kind of very delightful family conferences I have been holding in Albany for the last four years.

I am told that what I am about to do will become impossible, but I am going to try it. We are not going to have any more written questions and of course while I cannot answer seventy-five or a hundred questions because I simply haven’t got the physical time, I see no reason why I should not talk to you ladies and gentlemen off the record just the way I have been doing in Albany and the way I used to do it in the Navy Department down here. Quite a number of you, I am glad to see, date back to the days of the previous existence which I led in Washington.

(Interruption – “These two boys are off for Arizona.” [FDR’s sons] John and Franklin Roosevelt saying “good-bye”.)

And so I think we will discontinue the practice of compelling the submitting of questions in writing before the conference in order to get an answer. There will be many questions, of course, that I won’t answer, either because they are “if” questions – and I never answer them – and Brother Stephenson will tell you what an “if” question is –

MR. STEPHENSON: I ask forty of them a day.

THE PRESIDENT: And the others, of course, are the questions which for various reasons I don’t want to discuss or I am not ready to discuss or I don’t know anything about. There will be a great many questions you will ask about that I don’t know enough about to answer. Then, in regard to news announcements, Steve [Early] and I thought that it was best that street news for use of here should always be without direct quotations. In other words, I don’t want to be directly quoted, with the exception that direct quotations will be given out by Steve in writing. Of course that makes that perfectly clear.

Then there are two other matters we will talk about: The first is “background information”, which means material which can be used by all of you on your own authority and responsibility and must not be attributed to the White House . . . . Then the second thing is the “off the record” information which means, of course, confidential information which is given only to those who attend the [press] conference. Now there is one thing I want to say right now on which I think you will go along with me. I want to ask you not to repeat this “off the record” confidential information either to your own editors or associates who are not here because there is always the danger that while you people might not violate the rule, somebody may forget to say, “This is off the record and confidential”, and the other party may use it in a story. That is to say, it is not to be used and not to be told to those fellows who happen not to come around to the conference. In other words, this is only for those present.

Now, as to news, I don’t think there is any. (Laughter).”

Roosevelt used this system to great effect. Because reporters did not quote him directly unless otherwise authorized, Roosevelt felt comfortable speaking much more candidly than do presidents today whose every word is immediately transmitted live to a vast audience. At the same time, reporters benefited because they received “hard news” rather than the “message du jour” that dominates most presidential responses today. Of course, the advent of the electronic media, and the vast increase in the size of the press corps would necessitate some changes to the Roosevelt “closed” system. But it’s hard to believe that the current system of press conferences can’t be improved.  For instance, can you imagine a president today, in a live news conference, saying “I don’t know the answer to that question”?  He would get skewered!  Under the Roosevelt system, on the other hand, FDR routinely acknowledged when he didn’t have the information, or referred an answer to an aide.  How refreshing that would be today!  But it’s simply not possible in the modern era, where every verbal gaffe or acknowledgment of ignorance by the President becomes a weapon to be utilized by the political opposition.  It’s hard to see how the public interest is served under this system of press conferences.

With this overview, I will next look more closely at the substance of Obama’s first press conference and how it was reported by the media.  By way of advance notice, however, let me say that the one thing that stood out was his ability to filibuster by giving lengthy responses. Particularly at the start of the Q&A, Obama gave elaborate, lengthy answers to questions.  I thought this served two useful purposes: it ate up a lot of time, preventing other reporters from getting questions in.  And – with luck – it meant that his core message would be more likely to lead the media coverage of the conference. I’m not sure how well these long answers played with the viewing audience.  On the other hand, press conferences tend not to be widely viewed.  I’ll see if I can get the numbers on total viewers on this one and compare it to the audiences for past press conferences.

Live Blogging the Press Conference….

Sorry about the lack of advance notice on this, but I forgot Obama was holding a press conference tonight.  Some background info: George W. Bush held 19 “press conferences” in his first year, although most of them weren’t full-fledged White House-based conferences like tonight’s.  Bush held only 4 of these latter type, with another one in Crawford, I believe, in his first year, but I’ll need to check this data.

First question out of the box is the stimulus bill.  He shouldn’t be surprised.

Chip Reid raises the lack of bipartisanship in the stimulus debate.  I hope Obama doesn’t really believe that gestures that don’t go beyond symbolism are going to change the culture of Washington.  I think he might actually believe he can reach across the aisle with making real policy concessions.

Does Obama know this is a press conference?   These are extraordinarily long and detailed answers.  The worry is that he will lose his audience. We are almost 1/2 hour in and he’s taken 4 questions..doesn’t he know 24 is supposed to be on?

Three questions on the economy, one on foreign policy.

Two more economic questions. Finally – a question on Afghanistan but it deals with transparency.  Nice response by Obama to acknowledge the recent deaths of US soldiers.  Ironically, the response is almost word for word what Bush said regarding the most difficult part of being president.

This is an extraordinarily gentle set of questions so far.  The honeymoon with the press is certainly not over.  The sharpest questions seem to be oriented toward establishing some metric for determining whether the TARP payments, or the stimulus legislation (if it passes) is actually working.  Otherwise a very docile group of journalists.

I think Joe Biden just got dissed!

A question about A-Roid and steroids….a complete waste of a press conference question.  Obama looks relieved to get a fastball down the middle..

Ok, a sign of the times: a question from the HuffingtonPost on trials for the Bush advisers.  Here’s a chance for Obama to mollify the netroots.  Let’s see how he does…and he basically says he’s not interested in prosecuting Bush officials. Let’s see how the netroots react after the speech…

Back to the lack of bipartisanship… .to his credit (or perhaps not) he is persisting in claiming that he believes in the possibility of bipartisanship.  He is either naive, or idealistic, or he knows something I don’t.

It is somewhat troubling that he seems to believe that because economists say something is so, people should – in effect – ignore the politics involved.  The reality is that politics will determine the shape of the stimulus bill, not economic theories.   I’ve seen this before with the Clintons (particularly Hillary when she first entered the presidency and tried to pass health care)  – smart people with legal training often overestimate their ability to sell policies on the basis of abstract reasoning.  He will learn how important politics is to shaping the details of policy.

All in all, no damage done.  It took him a while to cut his answers down to sound-bite size, but eventually he got there.  It’s not as easy as it looks and eventually, if history is any guide, he will learn that these types of press conferences serve primarily as an opportunity for the media to play “gotcha” and he will gradually reduce his accessibility to the national press in these types of forums.

There were some interesting parallels with George W. Bush’s first press conference that I’ll develop in a longer discussion of press conferences tomorrow.  But to refresh your memory, Bush held his first press conference on Feb. 22, but it was held in the afternoon (beginning at 2:40).  He began the conference with an opening statement which included this:

“One of my missions has been to change the tone here in the Nation’s Capital to encourage civil discourse. I think we’re making pretty good progress. I want to thank the Democrats and the Republicans who have been coming up to the White House to hear me make my case. I appreciate their responsiveness. I just hope they vote for my agenda that I’ll be submitting next week in a budget address to the Congress.”

Eight years later we hear Bush’s successor promising to lead us down the same bipartisan garden path…

There were lots of other parallels  between the two press conferences, including the Helen Thomas “weird question” of the day.  What is striking is just how similar the topics under discussion were – not much has changed in eight years!

But I’m eager to hear your reactions….