Monthly Archives: July 2010

What Orszag’s Resignation Really Signifies

In a significant development that mostly flew under the media radar yesterday, Peter Orszag officially stepped down as the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  Orszag had announced his intention to do so this past June, citing exhaustion after serving four years in two high-profile government positions, first as director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and then as Obama’s OMB director starting in January, 2009.  Orszag also cited his desire to focus on his upcoming wedding.  It was the first significant resignation from Obama’s inner staff – one that in my view highlights an important policy debate taking place within his presidency – one that Orszag lost, at least in this round.

Note that I don’t doubt that personal reasons factored into Orszag’s decision.  But I think  the single biggest contributing factor to his resignation is likely to be policy differences between Orszag and other key administration officials, including National Economic Council director Larry Summers, regarding how to deal with the unprecedented budget deficit that has developed on Obama’s watch. Last fiscal year the deficit was $1.4 trillion.  By the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30, it is projected to be closer to $1.5 trillion- a record in the post-World War II era.   At nearly 10 percent of the gross domestic product, it is a deficit level (as measured by the percentage of the economy) that has not been seen since World War Two, and which most economists say is unsustainable in the long run.

The crux of the debate centers on how to balance the short-term need to stimulate the economy in the midst of a deep recession versus the long-term goal of reducing this budget deficit. Those, like Summers, who emphasize jobs creation pushed for increased deficit spending, as reflected in the initial $787 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress early in Obama’s presidency.  Orszag, by most accounts, while supporting short-term deficit spending, wanted the Obama administration to begin looking to bring down the budget deficit in the out years, a step which will send a positive signal to the bond markets and capital traders regarding the long-term stability of the American economy.

The complicating factor here is Obama’s campaign pledge not to raise taxes on any households earning less than $250,000 a year – a category that covers more than 98 per cent of Americans.   Unless this pledge is broken, however, deep and lasting deficit reduction is unlikely to occur since the remaining options are to raise the marginal tax rates on high-income earners to very high and probably political untenable levels, or draconian spending cuts – also politically unrealistic.

Orszag, if media sources are to be believed, pushed for Obama to break the pledge and include higher taxes on some portion of middle-class Americans as part of an overall strategy to reduce the deficit.  Note that, traditionally, the OMB’s primary role has always been to hold down government spending with an eye toward minimizing budget deficits.  Indeed, Congress created the Bureau of the Budget (now OMB) in 1921 to serve a budgetary clearance role in order to maintain a balanced budget. To do so, the BoB/OMB is responsible for aggregating the individual budget requests from the various government department and agencies into one presidential budget, which it then submits on the president’s behalf to Congress.  This green eyeshade-mentality has largely dominated the OMB’s institutional perspective, regardless of director, for most of its history.  Orszag’s concern to reduce the deficit, then, partly reflects his institutional vantage point.

Obama’s political advisers, however, are resisting breaking the no-tax pledge and that resistance, I’m guessing, contributed to Orszag’s decision to quietly resign.  Note that this debate is not new – it took place under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  In both instances the president broke his campaign promise and embraced tax increases in the name of budget deficit reduction.  Both paid a huge political price, with the Bush tax hike likely costing him reelection in 1992 and the Clinton tax increase contributing to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.  On the other hand, economists cite those decisions as key factors, along with sustained economic growth, that led to the end of structural budget deficits by the last two years of Clinton’s presidency – deficits that had existed from the first years of the Reagan presidency.

Obama faces a reprise of that decision, but under economic conditions that are far more severe than either Bush I or Clinton faced.  The economic downturn is deeper, and the budget deficit far bigger.  Hence Orszag’s belief that some type of middle-class tax hike is necessary if deficit reduction is to take place.  Under similar situations, both Bush and Clinton bit the political bullet, and chose budget reduction over upholding the campaign pledge. So far, it appears that Obama – perhaps prodded by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who was working for Clinton when he opted to break his middle class no tax pledge – is resisting efforts to get him to reverse his campaign pledge, although he did  embrace a three-year government spending freeze.  Without commenting on the merits of this position against raising taxes on some portion of the middle-class (I’m not  an economist, and don’t even play one in the movies) I can’t say that I’m surprised that Obama is pursuing the politically pragmatic position (note that he also appears to be resisting pressure from some on the Left to embrace a second round of stimulus spending as well, citing a lack of political support).  This is entirely consistent with his political persona and leadership style to date.  This may well be the best strategy – politically and substantively – to take.  The worry, however – one I’ve voiced before – is that by failing to choose, Obama risks having his options defined by others, and by larger economic forces.

Orszag, to his credit, did what public servants are supposed to do when their boss pursues a policy with which they cannot agree: he resigned, without a fuss.  Interestingly, the NY Times Matt Bai framed Orszag’s resignation in terms of a perceived attempt by Orszag, with Obama’s blessing, to seize policymaking control from Congress.  As evidence, Bai cites Obama’s decision to create a bipartisan debt commission and to incorporate an outside commission of 15 appointees (the Independent Payment Advisory Board) who will, beginning in 2014, be charged with identifying cuts to Medicare if the plan exceeds a preset rate for growth. Those cuts must still be approved by Congress, or legislators must propose alternative ways of reducing costs.  The creation of these commissions, Bai concludes, is a signal “that an administration populated from the top down by Capitol Hill alumni is intent on altering the balance of power between the branches of government.”

Really?  The idea that members of Congress would prefer to incur the political costs involved in balancing the budget or cutting Medicare themselves rather than farming these decisions out to an independent commission is, in my view, dubious.  (Not surprisingly, Bai doesn’t actually quote a single member of Congress lamenting the creation of the debt commission or payment advisory board!)  Indeed, rather than a power grab, the creation of independent commissions or boards to tackle tough issues is a time-honored method by both Congress and presidents to avoid having to tackle those issues themselves. Bai, in my view, gets this story completely wrong.  The commissions are created because of the political risks likely to accrue to any elected officials who make the hard choices associated with bringing down the deficit.

It was the failure to make those choices, I argue, that prompted Orszag’s resignation. It remains to be seen whether his successor, Jacob Lew, will reprise the traditional role of the OMB director as deficit hawk and protector of the purse and, if so, how much influence he will have on Obama.

Palin for President? “Refudiating” Her Critics Once More

I just received James Carville’s latest fundraising letter on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (don’t worry, I get them from the Republicans too – it’s my job.)  Featured prominently on the envelope is a not very flattering picture of Sarah Palin, in full snarl.  She looks like she just saw Katie Couric move in next door. Inside, in bold type, Carville warns me that “Palin’s summer of lies road trip is in full swing”, and that she’s “already campaigned for more than a dozen tea party lunatics running for Congress” and has plans to stump for many more.

The fundraising letter reminds me just how formidable a political figure Palin has become. It was little more than a year ago that critics sounded her political obituary in the wake of her decision to quit her position as Governor of Alaska.  Now, if Carville is to be believed, she has become the de facto face of the Tea Party, and a leading figure in the Republican Party, one whose political endorsement is perceived to carry great weight.  How did she manage to escape the political oblivion to which her critics consigned her?

In retrospect, the decision to quit the governor’s position looks like a stroke of pure genius – whether or not she actually plans to run for President. To begin, it freed her to raise money much more easily than she could have done if she remained in Alaska.  Consider the latest fundraising totals for SarahPAC – her leadership PAC – as reported to the FEC.  It is her best showing to date, and she trails only Romney among potential Republican presidential candidates in fundraising in the 2010 electoral cycle. (Note that at the time this chart was created it did not include Pawlenty’s totals for the 2nd quarter 2012.)

This money is important for three reasons.  First, as the Carville fundraising letter notes, Palin is piling up political IOU’s through judicious use of campaign contributions.  Second, it serves as important “seed” money with which to build the infrastructure of an effective fundraising organization – a necessity if she’s going to be a serious presidential contender.  Note that to date most of her money has been raised through social networking sites, like Facebook.  This is in stark contrast to Romney, who has a full-fledged fundraising infrastructure already in place from his 2008 presidential run.  (Palin’s 2008 fundraising was controlled by McCain).   Finally, and not least, the media uses fundraising to measure candidate viability in the “invisible primary” that precedes the actually nominating process.  Because the media is not very good at juggling multiple candidate story lines, however, it is crucial that Palin create the perception that she is one of the top-tier candidates. Moreover, she is touting her ability to attract “small” donations – those less than $200 which formed a significant portion of her latest fundraising totals. About 50% of those who contributed money during the second quarter gave less than $200. That compares with the first three months of 2010, when SarahPAC earned about $400,000, with small donors making up only 25% of contributors. (Recall that this is precisely how Obama’s candidacy was deemed credible by the media – all those “small donations” [which turned out not to be so small!] propelled him into the top tier of prospective presidential candidates.)  In terms of media perceptions, Palin will pass that viability threshold if her fundraising total continues to rank among the top 2-3 candidates. As these news stories make clear, the media is beginning to portray her as a serious candidate, as opposed to the previous narrative in which she was portrayed as Governor Quitter.

The second criterion by which the media assesses candidate viability during the invisible primary is trial heat and other polling results.  Here again, Palin may yet confound the critics; the latest PPP survey of “American Voters” has her in a dead heat with Obama.

Q8 If the candidates for President next time were Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, who would you vote for?

Sarah Palin …………………………………………….. 46%

Barack Obama………………………………………… 46%

Not Sure…………………………………………………. 9%

In assessing this poll, however, keep in mind that Obama was tied with or behind almost any Republican candidate with whom he was matched in a hypothetical vote.  So this says less about voters’ attitudes toward Palin than it does their feelings about Obama.  Moreover, other polls taken earlier this month have Palin trailing Obama by significant amounts. I can’t believe she’s closed the gap that much in a matter of days. In any case, it is far too early to take these trial heat polls for 2012 matchups very seriously.

My point is simply that far from being finished, Palin is by any measure a significant player in American politics today.  The question becomes: how did she pull this off?  One clue comes by viewing her latest fundraiser video.  In it, she comes closer to capturing the spirit animating the Tea Party movement than does any other Republican candidate I’ve seen so far. And the video goes a long way toward illustrating the strengths – and the weaknesses – of a potential Palin presidential candidacy.

To begin, the video tries to do something that is not easy: to both register anger at the direction the country is going, but also to strike an uplifting tone, suggesting better times are ahead. The target audience is clearly one that is crucial to any Republican hoping to recapture the White House in 2012: women.  The video is, at its core, about women and directed toward women – almost all the faces are female, mostly white, across a range of ages.

Note that the video is almost devoid of any policy references, beyond a mild jab at the recently pass health care plan.  Instead, it tries to capture the sense of unease that is driving the tea party movement by focusing on enduring values that Palin suggests we are in danger of losing.

The video is a reminder that Palin’s candidacy is fueled by discontent more than a set of political principles, and that she is marketing a personal image more than a clearly honed political philosophy.  Consider the very name of her leadership PAC – SarahPAC – it is focused on her.  Her rivals, in contrast, have named their PACs for political ideals – see Romney’s FreeStrongAmerica PAC, or Pawlenty’s FreedomFirst PAC (The exception is Huckabee’s HuckPAC.)

Why, then, do I suggest the video also indicates her weakness as a candidate?  Despite the uplifting tone, it possesses an underlying edge.  The Mama Grizzly isn’t nurturing her cubs – she’s rearing up on her hind legs to defend them.  The pink elephants?  Ready to stampede Washington in 2010.  That effort to play both nurturing and avenging mother proved very polarizing during the 2008 campaign, I argued then, and the evidence suggests it continues to do so today.  Palin the person remains immensely attractive to a significant portion of the population.  But another portion dislikes her intensely.  Not surprisingly her favorability ratings have if anything dropped during the last year, to just under 40%, while a bit more than half of those surveyed now view her unfavorably.

It is not clear to me that it will be possible for Palin to reverse these numbers and broaden her political support.  Her biggest advantage, I think, is that liberal pundits continue to dismiss her as an intellectual lightweight who can’t think and put on lipstick at the same time.  That sentiment feeds the populist sentiment that is driving both her undeclared candidacy and the Tea Party movement more generally – that there is a Washington, DC-centered “elite” that is out of touch with the concerns of “ordinary” Americans.  If Palin can successfully position herself as the face of this movement – something the Carville letter suggests she is doing – she may yet “refudiate” her critics one more time.

Addendum:  Brendan Nyhan has an interesting post comparing Palin’s polarized support with Hillary Clinton’s, and suggesting how Palin might learn from Clinton regarding how to reduce that polarization.

The Latest Gallup Poll: Are Democrats Gaining Momentum?

Another nice teaching moment, this one courtesy of Jay Cost at the Horserace blog and Mark Blumenthal at Gallup released their latest generic ballot results under the headlines “Democrats Jump Into Six Point Lead on the Generic Ballot”.  

As the following table shows, this jump comes after many months of polling data in which Democrats either trailed or were tied (within the poll’s margin of errors) with Republicans in the generic question.

As I’ve blogged about before, the generic ballot question is a useful predictor of the number of House seats won by each party in midterm elections, so people pay attention to these results.   (Note, however, that Gallup is not yet using their likely voter screen – when they do, history suggests Republicans will gain about 5% over the results of their polling of registered voters.)

Not surprisingly, progressive bloggers like Tom Schaller at and Andrew Sullivan – while issuing the usual caveats (it’s only one data point, it could be an outlier, etc.)  – jumped on these latest results as a possible sign that Democrats were regaining support among voters. Sullivan opined: “It is unwise to discount the intelligence of the American people – a trait more endemic among liberals than conservatives. The latest Gallup generic poll is striking – because it suggests that voters in the end may vote on substance not spin and ideology.”

But what substantive issue explains the reversal in voter sentiment– was it the financial legislation that just passed Congress?  Voter backlash to the Republican handling (see Joe Barton) of the Gulf oil spill?  Belated recognition that the health care legislation is a good thing? Growing disgust with Republicans as the “party of  no”?

How about none of the above?  Yes, the six-point Democrat advantage lies outside the poll’s margin of error.  But as Blumenthal reminds us, Gallup’s results are based on probability sampling – remember, each Gallup poll is followed by some version of this methodological blurb:  “one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points”.

What does this mean?  Essentially, if Gallup repeatedly sampled the population of registered voters, approximately 95% of the time the sample results would fall within 3 percentage points (plus or minus)  of the actual proportion of Democrat and Republicans supporters in the generic ballot question.  Put another way, 5% of the time the Gallup poll results might fall more than 3 percentage points from the actual proportion of Republican and Democrat supporters.  That means we can expect, very rarely, a result that lies outside the margin of error even if there’s been no actual opinion change.

Now, we can’t know what that actual  number of Republican and Democrat supporters is  – Gallup can only estimate it by taking a random sample of all registered voters.  Let’s assume, however, that the actual support for the Democrat on the generic ballot question is pretty close to the average Democratic support among registered voters, as polled by Gallup for the last 20 weeks.  That average number is 45.6%.  In that 20-week period, Blumenthal finds only one poll that lies more than 3% (plus or minus) from this average – and that is the most recent poll showing 49% support for Democrats in the generic ballot.   Note that this most recent result lies is just barely (.4%) outside the margin of error.

Bottom line?  I can understand why Sullivan equates wisdom with support for liberal policies, and why his world view might color his interpretation of the polling results.  But, as always, we need to separate our personal preferences from our analysis of the facts.  It’s possible Democrats are picking up support among voters as we move closer to the midterm.  It’s also possible, however, that this is a perfectly predictable statistical fluctuation associated with polling based on random sampling, and that there’s been no real change in voter sentiment at all.  We won’t know for certain until several more polls are in.  But I would be cautious about discarding 20 weeks of results on the basis of a single poll.

In the meantime, skepticism rather than certitude should be your watchword.

Addendum: I’ve tweaked the wording of my original post in order to better describe the meaning of the phrase “margin of error” in the context of probability sampling.  The substance of the post – that we can’t be sure this most recent result indicates a real shift in voter sentiment – hasn’t changed.

The Perils of Government By Remote Control

The Washington Post has issued parts 2 and 3 of its series titled Top Secret America.  Part two examines the role of private contractors. Jonathan Bernstein’s recent blog posting, cross-listed here at Salon, discussing the first part of the WaPo series is well worth reading, not least for the vitriol it elicited from some progressive bloggers because Bernstein had the temerity to suggest presidents do not control the national security apparatus.  That pushback is indicative of a widespread misunderstanding, I think, of just what the federal government does, and how it does it.

Consider part two of the WaPo series, which deals with the role of private contractors in government.  (This also gives me an opportunity to plug the work  of two of my colleagues,  Kateri Carmola and Allison Stanger, both of whom have written books about private contracting – see here and here)

There are two points to keep in mind when reading this portion of the WaPo series. First, the outsourcing of services to private contractors did not start with the War on Terror, and it isn’t restricted to the national security realm.  Second, we should probably avoid blanket generalizations in assessing this practice.  Any effort to do so needs to weigh the tradeoffs involved – the gain (or loss!) in efficiency versus loss of accountability, for instance – a calculus that I’ve no doubt differs across different policies areas and transactions.

The contracting of services to private firms, however, helps reinforce the larger point I’ve made regarding the misconceptions of presidents’ ability to control the bureacracy – misconceptions evident in some of the comments to Bernstein’s post.  The following table, based on data gathered by Matt D’Auria for an article I just finished on this topic, shows the increase in private contracting just since 2000 (which is as far back as Matt could find data):

The trend toward greater reliance on private contractors, however, is simply a small slice of a larger movement dating back decades in which much of what government does is outsource functions to third parties.   Consider the following table that shows the annual percentage increase in the government spending and regulations compared to the number of employees since 1940:

It shows that federal employment has grown incrementally since the end of World War II, whereas the growth rate in the size of the federal budget, and the number of federal regulations issued, has skyrocketed. What explains these different trends?  It reflects what Hugh Heclo first identified in the 1970’s as a movement toward “government by remote control.”  Simply put, most of what the federal government does is cut checks, either to pay for services provided elsewhere or for income maintenance programs (social security, Medicare, unemployment, etc.)   In other words, the government is not in the widget-making business – increasingly it’s in the outsourcing business

Note that not all of this outsourcing goes to private entities; there’s been a steady increase in federal aid to state and local governments as well, as this chart indicates:

Now, this federal money comes with strings attached – that’s Congress’ means of holding recipients accountable.  Look again at the chart above (Figure 2) showing the explosion in the number of pages of the federal register, which lists government rules and regulations.  That’s the cost of doing business via third parties.  Some might call this needless red tape, but that judgment can’t be made in the abstract – one needs to weigh any gain in efficiency with outsourcing via the cost of maintaining accountability through rules and regulations.

What does this mean for the President?  Consider the Gulf oil spill.  Clearly the MMS proved lax in its efforts to regulate the oil industry.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that cozy relationship was implicitly encouraged by members of Congress who were mostly focused on the revenues generated by off-shore drilling.  When the Deepwater Horizon explosion occurred, however, the public didn’t hold Congress primarily accountable – they looked to the President for explanations.  That includes not just understanding the faulty permitting process conducted by the MMS, but also responsibility for plugging the leak, and for the Gulf cleanup.  And where does Obama turn to accomplish these last two goals? Toward a private company – BP -  still another manifestation of government by remote control, with an emphasis on remote rather than control.

Many of my political science colleagues, as well as those who criticized Bernstein for his post on this topic, think that because the president is a single actor, he can exercise dominant influence over the executive branch. The reality, however, is that a system of government by third party does not lend itself to presidential control – but the unitary nature of the executive office does make it easier to blame the President when bureaucracies fail.  In this respect, presidents get the worst of both worlds.  The very diffusion of responsibility that accompanies a government exercised by remote control increases the tendency for people to want to hold someone accountable when things go wrong.   That someone is usually the President.

Ranking the Presidents: Will Obama Make It To Mt. Rushmore?

Where does Obama rank among the presidents? Is he destined for Mt. Rushmore (move over, TR)?  Or will he be placed with Andrew Johnson, Buchanan, Pierce, Harding and George W. Bush at the bottom of the list?  Or somewhere in between?  Siena College recently came out with their fifth ranking of the presidents but their first to include Obama. The rankings are based on evaluations by 238 “presidential scholars”, who rated each president in 20 categories, ranging from executive ability to handling of various policies to “luck”.

According to these experts, Obama now stands as the 15th greatest president, primarily on the basis of his imagination (6th best), communications skills (7th) and intelligence (8th). This is none too shabby, as progressives on several websites (see here, for example were quick to point out. (Much of their glee, I suspect, is because Obama is rated much higher than his predecessor, George W. Bush!)   What prevented Obama from ranking even higher, apparently, were concerns about his “background”, which evidently refers to education, experience and family history.

What are we to make of these rankings?  I have no qualms with attempts take the measure of a president – it is a quintessentially American endeavor, right up there with choosing the all time baseball team. Indeed, Richard Neustadt begins his classic work on the American Presidency by writing, “In the United States we like to ‘rate’ a President. We measure him as ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ and call what we are measuring his ‘leadership’.”

Nor do I necessarily think it premature to rate Obama; as Neustadt notes, “We do not wait until a man is dead; we rate him from the moment he takes office. We are quite right to do so.”  Every four years that ranking takes on particular importance.

Of course, it is quite possible that Obama’s current ranking might change considerably in the next two-to-six years.  Think back to Lincoln two years into his presidency.  The South was winning the war in part because Lincoln’s generals were incompetent, his own party was split over his leadership, his assertion of strong wartime powers probably violated the Constitution and his public support was at low ebb.  It is likely he would have ranked at this time near the bottom of the list of presidents, behind his predecessor Buchanan.  Or, to take a more recent example, recall Bill Clinton’s presidency two years in, when he felt the need to assert that his role was “still relevant” after failing to pass health care and watching the Republicans come to power in the 1994 midterm elections.

Note that we need not engage only in hypotheticals when discussing how presidential rankings can change. Siena actually rated George W. Bush one year into his presidency – the same Bush who is now often called one of the worst presidents in history, and who stands 39th (of 44 presidents) in the current Siena poll.  Where did he rank in 2002?  At number 23, placing him squarely in the average rankings.  How times – and rankings – have changed!

So while it may be premature to rate Obama, I am not against trying to do so as long as we remember these rankings are provisional.  Nonetheless, I do have a problem with the Siena rankings, and with most of the parallel efforts, dating back to the initial ratings of presidents sponsored by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. in 1948.   It’s the failure to rigorously conceptualize the criteria on which these evaluations are based.  That failure makes it difficult for me to judge whether presidents are rated based on their actual influence over events, or on the events themselves, or on some other criteria.

To see what I mean, consider some of the 20 categories included in the Siena rankings.  For example, Franklin Roosevelt ranks first among all presidents in his “handling of the economy”.   On what is this based?  The reality is that well into his second term, Roosevelt’s policies had failed to end the Great Depression – in fact, in 1937, the nation entered a mini-recession that wiped out a portion of the economic gains made during FDR’s first term.  In the end, it was the massive spending of a wartime economy that finally ended the Depression. Now, one can argue that FDR’s New Deal program helped lessen the severity of the Depression, and that some of his specific actions, such as declaring a banking holiday, saved entire industries from collapse. But I can’t help thinking that his rating is based more on the severity of the economic crisis he inherited than in his actions in ending it.  Indeed, is it even fair to evaluate presidents on the basis of their “handling of the economy”, considering just how little influence over economic processes presidents exercise?

Or, consider the ability to “avoid crucial mistakes.”  Lincoln was rated 2nd best in this category, just behind Washington.  Some might think, however, that Lincoln’s decision to resupply Ft. Sumter, which happened to trigger the Civil War, might fall in the category of “crucial mistake”.  Certainly Lincoln did not foresee the consequences of this initial act.

A second problem with the Siena rankings is the failure to differentiate the significance of different categories.  So, a president’s “luck” is apparently weighted equally with their “executive ability” or “communication ability” or “ability to handle the economy”.  And to what does luck refer, anyhow?  Lincoln – who was killed in office – was rated the 13th luckiest president.  Really?  Never mind the assassination – he took office only to see 13 states decide to secede.  I hate to see the fate of an “unlucky” president!  Clinton is rated the 10th luckiest – is that because he survived impeachment?  What about getting impeached in the first place?  How lucky was that?  One might argue that it was supremely unlucky for him that Monica Lewinsky held on to the stained dress!

And what about “integrity” – George W. Bush is rated only 39th in this category.  Why the low ranking?  It might be because people object to his stretching (breaking?) the constitutional limits of his authority.  But another president who pushed/broke his constitutional limits, Abraham Lincoln, is rated first in integrity.  Are people judging integrity on the degree to which they agree with the president’s policy objectives?

Bush is also only rated 36th in “background”.  Again, I have no clue why he is rated so low – he attended Yale, and Harvard Business School, served as Governor of one of the largest states in the Union, and his father was the President of the United States.  Perhaps he would have been better prepared graduating from Eureka College and working in the movies?  (In Reagan’s defense, he served two terms as California governor.  And Eureka College may be on par with Yale.)

There is also the problem of evaluating presidents who served in significantly different eras.  For example, how does one compare Lincoln’s “communication” ability (he ranks second) with FDR’s (he is rated first), given the differences in technology that governed their respective communication strategies?  For that matter, given the difference in the scope of their responsibilities, is it fair to compare a 19th century president with someone who serves in the 21st?

Now, it may be that the 238 presidential scholars were able to come to some agreement on what these categories mean, and on their relative importance.  One way to measure this agreement is to see the standard deviations in their rankings.   That is, how closely do the ratings cluster around the mean in each category?  A small standard deviation would suggest that there was basic agreement among the evaluators.  But Siena doesn’t provide this statistic, so we have no way of seeing how much agreement there was within and across categories.

In another post I’ll present my own criteria for evaluating presidents, and make some effort to explain the rankings made by others. For now, we are left with this question: will Obama make it to Mt. Rushmore?  I have no idea. My best guess, almost two years into his presidency, however, is that he has a better shot if he does what Mike Norris did: don a Presidential Power “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt and take a road trip.