Monthly Archives: February 2010

Hillary in 2012? Resurrecting the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits

You knew it would happen. One year into the Obama presidency, with health care legislation stymied and the economy still shedding jobs, albeit at a slower pace, and with Obama’s approval/disapproval ratings hovering near the break-even mark, some political pundit was going to raise the inevitable question: should Hillary challenge Obama in 2012?  And so it has, with pundits here and here openly speculating about whether Hillary will take the plunge in 2012.

If Hillary does decide to throw her pantsuits back into the ring, the trigger, according to this columnist will be clear evidence that Iran has acquired nuclear weapons and/or another terrorist attack on U.S. soil following the failed Christmas Day crotch-bombing and the Fort Hood massacre.  Clinton will cite these events, and Obama’s unwillingness to take a harder line against Iran, as her justification for resigning as Secretary of State, thus freeing her to challenge Obama in the 2012 nomination race.  Quoting the familiar “Washington insiders” (and who are they?  Bill Clinton?), the columnist argues that Hillary feels marginalized as Secretary of State and – quoting statistics from my blog – points out that only about half of the secretaries of state serving in the post-World War II era have lasted a full term.  He writes:

“The same, seemingly in-the-know sources say Mrs. Clinton will also resign — and run for president — if there is another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland, such as the Fort Hood massacre by a Muslim fundamentalist Army major, or the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. passenger jet by a Nigerian Islamist, and Mr. Obama does not respond by scrapping his soft approach to terrorism, which includes treating alien enemy combatants as common criminals entitled to civilian court trials, lawyers, and plea bargains.”

Does some significant portion of the public that supported Obama in 2008 now feel buyer’s remorse?  Undoubtedly.  Does Clinton feel marginalized as Secretary of State?  Almost certainly yes.  Did she campaign in part on the argument that she was better prepared than Obama to prosecute the war on terror and to conduct foreign policy more generally (remember that early morning phone call?)  Yes she did.  And does it appear that she has taken a harder line on several key foreign policy issues than Obama?   Well, yes, if leaks regarding her views on Iran and the war in Afghanistan can be believed.

Will all this be enough to trigger a primary challenge?  I doubt it.  To begin, the odds of wresting the party nomination from a sitting president are not good.  The last two serious challenges occurred in 1992, when Pat Buchanan challenged President George Bush the Elder for the Republican nomination, and in 1980, when Ted Kennedy ran against President Jimmy Carter.  Both challenges were triggered by perceptions that the incumbent presidents were vulnerable – perceptions confirmed when both Carter and Bush went on to lose in the general election.  But neither Buchanan nor Kennedy came close to unseating the president, although Kennedy took his fight to the Convention.  And both were later accused, unfairly in my view, for weakening the incumbent in his general election fight.  It takes a pretty hefty ego to think one can buck those odds, or risk the huge backlash if the effort fails and Obama then goes on to lose the general election in 2012.

There is a second reason why I don’t think Clinton will challenge Obama – it strikes me as out of character for her.  I don’t sense that she possesses the all-consuming “fire in the belly” that is necessary to take up a challenge that will be sure to trigger all the animosity toward her that we saw in the 2008 race: the feeling that she has a sense of entitlement, the resentment toward Bill, and the latent gender issues that invariably will bubble up during the campaign.

For what it is worth (and I don’t think it is worth anything) she has denied any interest in running for President again, ever. If Hillary still harbors presidential ambitions, however, it makes more sense, I think, to wait until 2016.   If she is planning on challenging Obama in 2012, however, a triggering event might be a Republican tsunami in the 2010 midterms.  If the Democrats lose control of the Senate, and a significant number – say, 40 or more – seats in the House, and if the economy continues to shed jobs, and there is no health care legislation AND Obama’s approval ratings hover in the lower 40% range, Clinton might yet summon the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits once again, arguing that she is compelled to do so to rescue the Democrat Party.  Her slogan?  “This time vote for real change!”

P.S.  In my initial post on Hillary as Secretary of State, I set the over-under on her tenure at four years, and asked you to predict when she would resign.  Several of you cited Obama’s first State of the Union as the date of departure – sorry! No t-shirt for you!



Bye-Bye, Bayh – But Why? Explaining Senate Retirements Before 2010

Why did Indiana Democrat Senator Evan Bayh decide not to seek reelection, and does it foreshadow a coming Republican wave in the 2010 midterm elections? In Bayh’s case, it is not clear that his decision was driven by a sense that he was electorally vulnerable; although he potentially faced a strong opposition candidate, his poll numbers were strong and he had raised plenty of money. Rather than electoral considerations, Bayh said he was stepping down because he could no longer tolerate the partisan bickering and policy gridlock in the Senate.

Skeptics, however, suggest that Bayh’s decision was motivated more by fear of the coming Republican electoral wave in 2010 than by any dissatisfaction with life in the Senate.  Political scientists have long argued that members of Congress (MC’s) act strategically when it comes to running for office, with more incumbents tending to forego a reelection run when they calculate that they are most vulnerable to defeat.  The decision not to run often reflects the realization that vulnerable incumbents tend to attract the strongest – that is, the most experienced and well funded – challengers.  And Bayh, by my unofficial count, is the 10th incumbent Senator who has decided not to seek reelection.  Is that an unusually high number? And, if so, what if anything does it tell us about 2010?

In fact, it is an unusually high number of retirements. Keeping in mind that in a typical election cycle, 33 or 34 Senate races are contested, the table below shows the average number of Senators who seek reelection during the last five decades (I don’t include data for the most recent decade) and the results:

Decade Number Seeking Reelection Lost Primary Lost General Election Percent Elected
1950’s 30 1 6 77.3%
1960’s 32 2 4 80.8%
1970’s 27 2 6 67.7%
1980’s 29 0 3 88.0%
1990’s 26 0 3 87.4%
50-year average 27 1 3 85.2%

On average, then, the number of Senate incumbents across five decades from 1950 through 2000 who do not seek reelection is about six.  Already, almost twice that number have announced that they will not run in 2010.  Also consistent with the strategic politician theory, we see that reelection rates go up in years when fewer incumbents run, which supports the notion that the weaker incumbents are choosing not to run when they are most vulnerable to defeat.

Of course, these are averages. It might be more revealing to look at specific “wave” years, such as 1994, when Republicans swept into power in both the Senate and the House for the first time in four decades.  Was that election preceded by an unusually high number of Senate retirements?   Here’s the Senate data for 1992-1996:

Year Number Seeking Reelection Lost Primary Lost General Election Percent Elected
1992 28 1 2 82%
1994 26 0 1 92%
1996 21 1 3 90%

So we see that in the two election cycles, 1992 and 1994, in which you might think Senators acted strategically, retirement rates were about par for the course.  Interestingly, it was after the Republican takeover that we see a huge jump, to 12 in 1996, in the number of Senators not seeking reelection.  One explanation for this may be that Democratic Senators no longer wanted to serve in a chamber dominated by the opposition party.  This may in part have been a reaction, much like Bayh’s, to a more partisan political environment more than to electoral vulnerability.

One way to untangle what’s happening in the current cycle is to look more closely at which Senators are stepping down.  According to the GreenPapers website, there are 34 Senate seats up for election in 2010, with 18 currently held by Republicans and 16 by Democrats. Here’s the partisan breakdown of the 10 that I have identified who to date have announced that they are not running for reelection:

Democrats

Bayh (IN)

Burris (IL)

Dodd (CT)

Dorgan (ND)

Republicans

Bond (MO)

Brownback (KS)

Bunning (KY)

Gregg (NH)

LeMieux (FL)

Voinovich (OH)

Rather than a majority of vulnerable Democrats, we see that most of the incumbents choosing not to run are Republicans.  Among the four Democrats, it is true that three faced tough reelection battles with both Dodd and Burris especially vulnerable. But what about the Republicans? Bunning was certainly vulnerable. LeMieux was a placeholder, appointed by Governor Crist with no expectation that he would run again. But what about the other four?  All would likely have won reelection, although some, like Gregg, faced the likelihood of strong opposition.  Brownback is running for Governor. Both Bond and Voinovich are getting up in years and wanted to spend time with family.

Of far more interest, I think, is their Senate voting record. Based on the latest Senate ideological rankings by Simon Jackman here, Bayh was the second most moderate Democrat in the Senate and Dorgan the 11th.  Voinovich was the 3rd most moderate  Republican, Bond the 5th most, Gregg the 10th and Brownback – who is running for another office – the 18th.

In short, what we see here is that most of the retirements that don’t seem driven by electoral considerations are by members who are from the more moderate wings of the two parties. It is possible, of course, that they would have faced primary challengers from their ideological flanks on the far Left and Right.  But the data is also consistent with the story that Bayh tells when explaining his decision not to seek reelection: that in an increasingly polarized Senate, those in the middle who seek moderate policies and bipartisanship are feeling increasingly frustrated and isolated.  By choosing not to run, of course, they make it possible that they will be replaced by more ideologically extreme Senators, thus widening the current Senate divide between Democrats and Republicans.  But apparently this is not enough to persuade them to run again.

The bottom line?  Senators are strategic.  But sometimes that strategy turns more on policy considerations than on electoral ones.   Yes, they are continually calculating whether they can win reelection.  But as Richard Fenno argued long ago, Senators also want to govern, by passing bills that achieve their goals.  Apparently that is becoming harder to do for Senate moderates in both parties.

If I get a chance, I’ll run the House numbers.

In Honor of Presidents Day

As I have done ever since I began this blog in the late 1950′s, I post my traditional column commemorating President’s Day by remembering 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 of both parties and their aides, and distilled these experiences in the form of several influential books on presidential leadership and decisionmaking.  Perhaps his biggest influence, however, came from the scores of students (including Al Gore) he mentored at Columbia and Harvard, many of whom went on to careers in public service.  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 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 at Harvard (working from Washington), 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 came out two years ago). 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 political and personal 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 an adviser to presidents. 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!  (Which reminds me: if you need lessons about leading during an economic depression, President Obama, I’d recommend this book. Don’t forget to get photographed while reading it!)

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 help establish 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 Amazon.com 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.

Here’s to you,  Dick!

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How to Achieve Greatness? Obama and the One-Term Promise

Is Obama the worst president in the post-World War II era?

Not quite.  That distinction, according to a Harris Poll taken this past January, goes to Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.  (The poll includes FDR, who died during World War II, but never mind.)   Obama, however, is running second to Bush as the worst modern president, largely because of the judgments of Republicans and independents.  Here’s a chart summarizing the results of Harris poll:

WORST PRESIDENT SINCE WORLD WAR II

“Looking at the list of presidents since World War II, which one do you think was the worst president?”

PRESIDENT % SAYING WORST % OF REPUBLICAN % OF DEMOCRAT % OF INDEPENDENT
George W. Bush

31

9

53

28

Obama

15

31

3

17

Carter

10

19

2

13

Nixon

10

8

11

8

Clinton

6

10

6

7

Reagan

3

4

5

4

George H. W. Bush

3

3

5

2

Kennedy

3

1

3

4

Johnson

2

4

2

2

Roosevelt

1

2

*

1

Eisenhower

1

1

*

1

Ford

1

2

1

1

Truman

1

1

*

1

Not Sure

10

6

8

11

Note: Totals may not add to 100% because of rounding.

Note: * indicates less than 0.5%

What are we to make of these results?  First, note that this is an online interactive poll of  2,576 adults.  Although Harris claims to have weighted the sample to match most major demographic variables of the population at large (age, gender, race, partisan i.d.) it remains the case that this is not truly a random sample of the adult population.  So, we need to keep the imprecise nature of these results in mind. As further evidence that these results may not be reliable, note that the poll also asked respondents to name the greatest president of all time.  Here it appears that the online respondents weren’t provided a list of names, so they had to come up with a president on their own.  Among those rated the greatest president,  Obama finished 7th – just behind Bill Clinton’s 6th place finish, but four spots ahead of Bush the Younger who came in as the 11th greatest president. (The top four greatest presidents were Lincoln, Reagan, FDR and Washington.)  One suspects that when asked to name presidents on their own, the online population’s collective knowledge of the pre-Reagan presidents drops off precipitously once they get beyond the big three of Lincoln, Washington and FDR.  So those in recent memory received the most votes.

But even if we somehow take these results at face value – that we believe Obama is the 7th greatest president but also the second worst in the modern era – it’s not clear what they signify. As I have said repeatedly – most recently on my VPR gig – it’s far too early to assess Obama’s historical ranking.  Indeed, I think it’s too early to evaluate Bush’s presidency – where he ends up in the historical rankings will depend heavily on the outcome of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and assessments of the war on terror more generally. (To provoke my more liberal friends, I often lay out a not entirely implausible scenario in which Iraq becomes a stable, oil producing democracy amid a growing appreciation for Bush’s anti-terrorism campaign, with the result that Bush goes down as one of the five greatest presidents of all time.  It is fun to watch their heads explode.)  My point is that any effort to “rank” Obama this early is an interesting parlor game, but not much more.

Then why cite these results?  For two reasons.  To begin, this is the first effort I have seen in which the population is asked to compare Obama with other presidents, as opposed to simply asking whether one approves of Obama’s job as president.  Second, unlike most previous efforts to rank presidents, these results are based on the public’s evaluations, as opposed to rankings made by presidential historians and other “experts”.  Why does this matter?  Because Obama made an interesting statement in an interview with Diane Sawyer two days before his State of the Union address (as reported in the NY Times):  “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president …I don’t want to look back on my time here and say to myself all I was interested in was nurturing my own popularity.” His made this point in response to Sawyer’s question about his falling poll numbers.

One is tempted, at first glance, to applaud Obama’s evident willingness to stand on principle – to make the hard decisions – even if it costs him popularity and, eventually, a second term in office.  We can argue, of course, whether in fact Obama has exercised this kind of leadership, or whether he has been all too sensitive to public opinion and unwilling to make unpopular decisions.  We might also remember that this “polls be damned” leadership style was precisely what his predecessor, George W. Bush, was criticized for exercising when he escalated the U.S. military presence in Iraq despite falling polling numbers and growing popular opposition to that war.  Of course, Bush embraced the surge after winning reelection.

But should Obama be applauded for his apparent willingness to risk reelection in order to do what’s “right”? I want to suggest here that Obama’s statement (assuming we take him at his word) betrays a fundamental misreading of what it means to exercise presidential leadership in the American political system. He seems to suggest that presidents face a choice: they can do what’s “right”, or they can pander to popular opinion in order to win reelection.  But upon closer inspection, that statement seems to suggest that the public is not capable of rewarding a president for making the “hard choices.”  For better or for worse, we operate under a political system in which ultimate authority is exercised by the people through regular elections.  This is the means by which they signal support for, or opposition to, a president and his policies.  It is not foolproof – the public can make mistakes – but that is the price we pay for embracing a republican form of government.  Under this system, the ultimate test of presidential effectiveness is whether they win reelection.  If one looks online at the Harris Poll cited above, the top 12 presidents on the list of  “greatest presidents” all won reelection.  But one need not agree with the Harris Poll  to know that there are almost no one-term presidents who are considered “great” or even near great.  This is not, I would argue, because greatness is bestowed on those who win reelection – it is because presidents who are great, or at least effective in the eyes of the public, are almost always rewarded with a second term in office.

As we celebrate President’s Day, it would do well for Obama to remember that the greatest presidents – Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Reagan (at least based on the Harris Poll!) were all fundamentally great politicians who never lost sight of the fact that their ability to lead depended on maintaining the support of The People.  That support came not because of presidents’ artifice or pandering, but because they pursued policies that were consistent with American ideals and that attracted broad popular support.

Obama may yet end up a one-term president.  But if he does, he likely won’t also be considered “great”.  Instead, it is far more likely that he will be viewed as mediocre – or worse.

VPR, “Gotcha” Journalism and Grading Obama One Year In

At the very end of yesterday’s radio segment on VPR, Jane Lindholm sprung a surprise question on me: what grade would I give President Obama after a year in office? (I know, on a radio segment devoted to evaluating the first year of the Obama presidency, why would anyone expect this question?   That’s why Jane is so deviously clever!)

She prefaced her question by noting that I gave my students grades all the time, and presumably they were based on more than opinion, and in fact reflected students’ actual performance.  She also noted that Obama had given himself a B+.

At this late point in the program – there was time for one last question – I had yet to bump the table holding the microphone, burped, coughed or insulted any of the callers – all behaviors characterizing my previous radio appearances – and was feeling pretty darn good.  Then Jane exercised her mild-mannered VPR version of “gotcha journalism” and put me on the spot.

Upon reflection I think there were two mistaken assumptions implicit in Jane’s question:  that my evaluation of students rests on more than mere opinion (hah!) and that it is possible to accurately grade a president while he is still in office, before we can know the outcome of most of his decisions.  Think, for instance, about how “history” will judge George W. Bush’s presidency?  I would think the judgment may differ if two decades from now we see a functioning democracy in Iraq, stability in the Mideast, and oil reserves flowing into the U.S.

And so my initial reaction – the one that played out in my head – was to answer Jane by saying, “No, I won’t give Obama a grade. It’s far too early to do so.  We won’t know the aftermath of some of his major policy decisions, such as escalating the troop presence in Afghanistan, or passing the stimulus bill, or the tactics used to push health care through Congress, for many years.  Moreover, before giving a grade, we need to discuss the criteria by which we should evaluate a president, and that is worth a separate program.  Rather than do a disservice to your listening audience, Jane, and present some simplistic answer, I refuse to answer the question.  Nothing you can say will change my mind.”

Sigh. Of course, that’s not what actually came out. Instead, I uttered a mild protest, gave Obama a grade, and followed that with a lame explanation of the basis on which I arrived at that grade.  It was a pretty simplistic analytic exercise – you can hear the whole sorry mess, including the grade I gave Obama,  here.

However, Jane’s question has inspired me to do better – I’m going to devote an entire post to evaluating Obama’s presidency to date.  As a prelude to that, however, I’m curious to hear what you think.  What grade would you give Obama one year into his presidency, and why? For what it’s worth, I’ve played this exercise with several people, almost all staunch Obama supporters during the 2008 election, and they have been almost uniformly critical of him.  A local Democratic activist game him a “D+”.  Another supporter said he had surveyed his friends – all Obama supporters – and the average grade was a C+.  A third said she’d grade him between a B- and C+.  In fact, of more than a dozen people I’ve questioned – all Obama supporters in 2008 – not one gave him a grade above B-.  These are all people who pay close attention to politics at the national level.

On the other hand, the callers and those who emailed comments to Jane’s show were almost universally positive in their assessments of the Obama presidency to date.  So maybe these disparate reactions are more indicative of differences in the people I hang out with (pessimists all) and those who listen to VPR (those people who live on another, happier, planet.)

Anyway, what’s your take on the Obama presidency? A simple grade will do but it would be nice if you gave a sentence or two by way of explanation. (As always, your comments can be anonymous – no need to provide your name if you don’t want!)

Best answer, as judged by the same grading standards I use with my students (throwing the essays down the stairwell), gets an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid!” t-shirt.