Monthly Archives: August 2010

Mission Accomplished? Live Blogging Obama’s PrimeTime Address

President Obama is scheduled to give his second Oval Office address in a bit less than an hour.  Ostensibly, the purpose of the speech is to mark the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq.  But make no mistake: this speech has a clear political goal.  At this point, two months before the midterms, the “fundamentals” about which you have heard me discuss  on so many occasions are – if not yet set in concrete – rapidly drying.  And that is bad news for Obama and his fellow Democrats.  They will go into the midterms with a jobless rate hovering above 9%, anemic economic growth, and with Obama’s approval ratings in the low-to-mid 40% range.  The latest Gallup generic ballot, meanwhile, has Republicans up by 10% – a historically huge margin.  Collectively, these are all indications of significant Republican gains come November.  Obama can do almost nothing to change these fundamentals during the next 60 days.

This leaves him with one strategy: to remind voters about what he inherited when he took office, what he has accomplished so far, and to preach patience.  Critics suggest that by trumpeting the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, he risks replicating Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment when he announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq.  But those critics forget that Bush’s 2003 speech preceded his 2004 reelection and was viewed rather favorably at the time.  In any case, Obama has very little to lose here – he needs to take advantage of any victory he can.

In addition to reminding voters that he has kept a campaign promise, look for Obama to portray the economic benefits likely to accrue from the drawdown of U.S. combat troops, and to use it to signal a renewed focus on the economy more generally.

I’ve commented before about the difficulty in making speeches from the Oval Office. It requires an entirely different skill set from giving a campaign speech before a live audience. The trick to making an effective Oval Office speech is to convince the viewer that you are talking to her, in her home, one on one. Obama was notably unsuccessful at pulling this off during his first primetime Oval Office address dealing with the Gulf Oil Spill. He seemed visibly nervous, uncomfortable and decidedly unpresidential.  Let’s see how he does tonight.

I’ll try to live blog the speech on this specific post.  As always, feel free to join in with comments.

8 p.m.  As always, we are watching the NBC feed since it’s the only non-French speaking station we get here.

Note that it never hurts as President to wrap yourself in the flag, especially as commander in chief.

He’s on.  Looks like a different backdrop than I saw during his last Oval Office speech.  Is that right?  Have they redecorated?

Here comes the praise for troops…this is a nonpartisan, that is, bipartisan tactic.

Mission Accomplished!

And campaign promise fulfilled!  Good stuff.  Now he has to hope Iraq doesn’t implode.  Hard to see how he can promise to remain committed to Iraq without leaving some flexibility regarding renewed military support if it goes to hell in a hand basket.  This will open him up to criticism, but it’s criticism that he’s willing to incur.  Still, he’s trying to walk a very fine line here.

Wow – mentioning Bush in a positive light.  Again, trying to step above the partisan fray.  Smart politics.

(Jeff notes that the Oval Office has indeed undergone a makeover- thanks Jeff.)

This is really an interesting address so far.  He has apparently decided that emphasizing the commander-in-chief aspect of the job may strike a non-partisan chord among voters; they will view him as chief executive more than Democrat politician.  I really expected him to pivot more quickly to address the economy.

Ah, here it comes.  Linking security abroad to economic security at home.  By preceding it with the foreign policy discussion, he’s hoping, I think, to make the economy a nonpartisan issue as well.  Interesting tactic.  The unspoken message here: Republican opposition to his economic  policies is unpatriotic.

In many respects, this speech is very Reaganesque – big on symbols, optimism, waving the flag.

And now back to veterans.  Very interesting effort here to weave government spending into the larger theme of supporting the troops.   Again, the idea here is to discuss the economy in non-partisan terms.

He seems much more comfortable giving this speech than he did with the Gulf speech.  But he still has trouble reading the teleprompter in a way that makes it appear he is speaking from memory.

8:21. And it’s over, at about 20 minutes, by my count.

Interesting speech.  Deliberately pitched at a higher level, focusing on the end of combat operations and thus cuing his commander in chief functions, while staying away from partisan issues and from any substantive discussion of the economy.

Obviously, critics are going to jump on the inconsistency implicit in the pledge to stand by Iraq while also “turning the page” – can we have it both ways?  Politically, however, I don’t see much support for renewing combat operations in Iraq even if it does begin to disintegrate so, at least for now, it was probably the right tactic.

Was it a game changer?  Not by a long shot.  But he has limited options at this point as the midterms loom.  Given the state of the fundamentals,  the decision to play this as a straight, above-the-fray, no politics, bipartisan (see the reference to his call to Bush!) speech celebrating the end of combat operations probably makes good political sense.

Of course, the first thing pundits will look  at in the next few days is whether the speech produces a boost in his approval ratings.   I suspect it  might, but if so it will  have little effect on the more fundamental issues that will drive the midterm  election.

One other thing to keep in mind: audiences for these addresses tend to be skewed toward the President’s supporters, regardless of party.  This means that among viewers the speech is likely to get high ratings, but we shouldn’t extrapolate from this to assume it will be equally well received by the public at large.

I’m on the road for much of tomorrow, but if I get a chance I’ll try to assess the post-mortems.  But in the meantime, let me know what you thought.  Good speech?  Game changer?  Something else?

Predictions, Predictions: Congress and the Courts

How reliable is the generic ballot survey question in helping forecast the size of the Democratic losses that will occur in November?  As we move closer to November 2, a growing proportion of my blog posts will undoubtedly focus on the midterm elections.    Many of these posts will likely mention the generic ballot question that is asked by a number of polling firms.  As most of you know, this question typically take some version of the following form: “Looking ahead to the Congressional elections in November, which party do you plan to vote for if the election were being held today?”  The survey results, as many of you have heard me say, are actually a useful indicator of the likely outcome of the November midterm election.

But how useful? In a recent blog post, Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com raised important questions about the utility of the generic ballot question results. Silver writes: “It might be the case that the generic ballot is fairly stable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all that useful an indicator. In addition to the fact that the consensus of polls (however careful we are about calibrating it) might be off in one or the other direction, there’s also the fact that the thing which the generic ballot is ostensibly trying to predict — the national House popular vote — is relatively irrelevant to the disposition of the chamber, or the number of seats that each party earns.”

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz, (via Brendan Nyhan) takes issue with Silver’s comments, calling portions of them “pretty silly.”  I wouldn’t characterize Silver’s comments as silly, but I certainly disagree with portions of his post, particularly his claim that the national House popular vote is “relatively irrelevant to the …number of seats each party earns.”  Although it is not a perfectly precise indicator of how many seats a particular party will win (or lose) come November, it does provide a useful approximation.  Similarly, the generic ballot question does help us predict, within a margin of error, what the likely popular vote will be come November. To be sure, in some midterms it has proved more useful than others.  But it is not irrelevant.

The bottom line, then, is that the generic ballot results, properly understood, helps us predict the November midterm results. To see why, it helps to understand how political scientists factor the results of this question into their midterm forecast model.

When a generic ballot survey comes back with results showing, as the most recent Gallup survey poll does, that Republicans are favored over Democrats by 7%,  50%-43%, that doesn’t necessarily mean Republicans will win 7% more congressional seats.

Indeed, as Silver correctly points out, the generic ballot result can’t even tell us how many overall votes each party will get in the midterm, never mind how they will do in each of the 435 districts.  But political scientists understand this.  As it turns out, they don’t necessarily have to perform a district-by-district level analysis to get a decent handle on the total number of seats each party will win.  Instead political scientists can use the generic ballot results as one factor in statistical models that also take into account the existing political context as well as “structural” attributes associated with a midterm election.  So, for example, Abramowitz’s midterm forecast model uses only four variables to predict the midterm outcome, as measured by seats lost/gained:  the results of the generic ballot question, presidential popularity (as measured by the Gallup poll), the number of seats held by Republicans going into the midterm election, and a simple indicator variable that signals this is a midterm election, rather than a presidential one.  (This last variable is important because the president’s party typically loses seats in the midterm election.)

How do we know that the Abramowitz model (or others like it) is reliable?  Because it is constructed using previous midterm election results.  In effect, by looking at previous midterms, Abramowitz can build an overall “generic” statistical model that says, on average, how important each of these four variables is in determining the midterm election results.  Then, by plugging the current values for each variable into the existing model, he comes up with a forecast.  Political scientists have constructed different forecast models, but they typically all include some mix of variables that measure voters’ partisan sentiment, structural attributes associated with the midterm, and some indicator of the environment (political and otherwise) in which the election is being held.

Now, these models aren’t completely foolproof.   They are predicated on the assumption that the factors influencing the current midterm will behave pretty much as they have in the past. Say something unexpected happens – terrorists attack the World Trade Center, for example.  That may unexpectedly distort the relative importance of some variables, thus throwing the forecasts slightly off.  Moreover, even without unexpected events, there is always some uncertainty involved with these forecasts – some unexplained variance for which the model cannot account.

But it would be wrong to suggest, as Silver does, that the generic ballot question is “irrelevant.”  In fact, it is a highly relevant and useful predictor of the midterm outcome – as long as it is evaluated within an overall understanding of the factors that drive midterm elections.  And right now, it favors the Republicans by 7% – not a good sign for Democrats at all.

I will have much more to say about the generic ballot in the next several posts.  Before doing so, however, there’s another prediction that I need to discuss: Elena Kagan’s Senate confirmation vote to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Long-time readers will recall that in an earlier post I set the over/under for the Kagan no votes at 35.  In a sign that my predictive powers may be slipping (remember that I nailed Sotomayor’s exact confirmation vote) Kagan was confirmed with 37 votes in opposition, so I was two votes off.  (If you must know, it was Nelson and Brown). Will Loubier, on the other hand, hit the final vote margin squarely on the head, thus winning a Presidential Power “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid!” t-shirt.   Here’s Will, looking justly proud of his prognosticative abilities:

For the envious among you, note that I’ll be giving away another t-shirt in the “predict the midterm outcome” sweepstakes.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday’s Results: Good News for Obama and Democrats?

I’ve been on deadline with a conference paper, so am commenting somewhat belatedly on last Tuesday’s election results, focusing on the highly publicized Senate primary races in Colorado and Connecticut.  As you know, in Colorado, incumbent Democrat Michael (“One T”) Bennet defeated challenger Andrew Romanoff by a relatively comfortable 54%-46%, a margin somewhat larger than what many pre-election forecasts suggested.  You will recall that Bennet was appointed to the Senate in 2009 to fill the seat of Ken Salazar, who became Obama’s Secretary of the Interior.  In the Republican primary, local District Attorney Ken (“One Tea Party”) Buck topped former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, 52-48.  Buck has Tea Party backing, while Norton was viewed more favorably by the Republican “establishment”.

In Connecticut, meanwhile, former WWE wrestling executive Linda McMahon won the Republican Senate primary over Representative Rob Simmons and the Tea Party candidate Peter Schiff.   McMahon now faces Democratic Attorney General Dick “I might have fought in Vietnam” Blumenthal in November to fill the seat of retiring Senator Chris Dodd.  Despite some biography-related gaffes, Blumenthal is up by double digits over McMahon in early polls, although his lead is shrinking.

For the most part, the mainstream media painted this as a good night for Democrats, and for President Obama – indeed that was the exact Politico headline in their coverage of the results: “Primary Night Yields Good News for President Obama and Democrats”.  A bit more cautiously, the New York Times headline reads, “Incumbent Backed by Obama Wins Colorado Primary” thus associating Obama with the outcome without necessarily crediting him for it.

Each story went on to suggest that the results indicated that the prevailing narrative, which shows Republicans making great gains come November, might need to be reconsidered. In Politico, John Harris writes, “Republicans, meanwhile, were left with several new reasons to wonder whether all the favorable national trends showing in the polls are enough to overcome local candidates who are inspiring little confidence about their readiness for the general election 12 weeks from now.” In the Times’ coverage of the results,  Kirk Johnson writes, “The predictions of doom for incumbents and establishment candidates this campaign season are proving to be more complex in the real world.”

Well, yes and no.  It is true that leading Democrats, most notably President Obama, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and others, campaigned heavily on Bennet’s behalf.  Had Bennet lost, the prevailing media narrative almost certainly would have been that still another candidate backed by Obama went down to defeat.  So, given the alternative, the Colorado outcome certainly was good news for Obama.  However, do the results “complicate” our understanding of midterm elections?  Do they potentially herald a strengthening of Democrat support heading into November?

No. In fact, the Colorado and Connecticut Senate primary outcomes do nothing to change my belief that the underlying electoral fundamentals are still pointing to strong Republican gains come November. Let’s start with Colorado.  Keep in mind that it highly unusual for candidate challenging an incumbent in a primary to win 46% of the vote.  This despite the fact that Bennet spent about $1.9 million on advertising to Romanoff’s roughly $757,000, much of it in a ten-day advertising blitz near the end of the campaign when polls indicated Romanoff might pull off the upset. All told, Bennet spent almost $6 million on the primary campaign, compared to less than $2 million for Romanoff.  Bennet officials admitted that they had not anticipated the need to spend this much on advertising but they took no chances when polling suggested they were in a tight race.  In fact, total spending in these Colorado primaries broke the state record.

Note also that Bennet is not running like a typical incumbent; despite his backing from the Democrat establishment in the primary, in his victory speech he immediately pivoted to portray himself as a political outsider not yet tainted by Washington politics.  When asked, he made no commitment to having the President come to Colorado to campaign for him in the general election. This despite that fact that polling data has Bennet in a dead heat with the Republican Buck.

Note also that although turnout was up in both party primaries, due to the contested races, it was up more in the Republican primary, where 45% of registered Republicans voted compared to about 40% of registered Democrats. According to state records, there are 802,000 registered Democrats in Colorado, 830,000 Republicans, and 730,000 independents.  Bottom line: it’s not clear to me that Bennet has a markedly better chance than did Romanoff to beat Buck.  Polls showed both Democrats in a dead heat with the Republican.

In Connecticut, meanwhile, analysts pointed to the fact that McMahon won less than 50% of the vote in a three-way race as evidence that she’s not a strong candidate.  While Blumenthal must certainly be considered the front-runner in this Democrat-leaning state, I would be cautious about adopting the interpretation that Tuesday’s results signify McMahon’s weakness.  First, in contrast to the Colorado races, turnout in the Connecticut Republican primary was quite low, in part because it was vacation time and also because McMahon already had the backing of the party establishment coming out of the Republican convention earlier this year.  Second, keep in mind that independents don’t vote in the Connecticut primary, and they constitute about 43% of Connecticut voters.  How many of them will support McMahon over Blumenthal?  Third, how likely is it that Simmons’ and Schiff’s supporters are going to vote for Blumenthal over McMahon? Fourth, Democrats are pouncing on McMahon’s wrestling background as a sign that she’s not electable.  Jesse Ventura anyone? Finally, keep in mind that McMahon has very deep pockets.  Given all these factors, I expect this race to tighten come November.

In short, you should not let the headlines from Tuesday’s races fool you into thinking the underlying electoral fundamentals suddenly shifted. I’ve just begun crunching some of the forecast numbers and will have much more to say about them in the coming months.  But the bottom line is that, unless these midterm Senate races are driven by an entirely different set of dynamics than previous midterms, the situation is still not good for Democrats.

As evidence, some of you may remember my warning about the recent results of Gallup’s generic ballot question which asks voters whether they will support the Republican or Democrat congressional candidate come November.  After weeks of favoring the Republicans, the results flipped during a two-week period in mid-July to put Democrats in the lead. Progressive bloggers hoped it heralded a reversal of political fortunes. In contrast, I cautioned (along with others like Mark Blumenthal) that the change might simply reflect the typical random variation associated with public opinion sampling.  Here’s the most recent Gallup results:

As you can see, Republicans are back in the lead, and by the largest margin (tied) held by either party since Gallup began tracking the generic ballot in March.  This does not mean that voters have suddenly switched back to supporting Republicans.  Instead, it is more likely that the underlying voting dynamics have remained remarkably stable and that July’s results were, as I suggested, simply random variation due to sampling.  Since March Republicans have been tied or ahead of Democrats in almost every poll except for that two-week period in July, and they continue to maintain an “enthusiasm” advantage in terms of their likelihood to vote in November.

Bottom line? Tuesday’s “good news” headlines notwithstanding, the election results in Colorado and Connecticut do not complicate or even change the political science narrative at all:  the fundamentals are no more favorable to Democrats or Obama today than they were last week.

Why Agencies Fail: Revisiting the Oil Spill and the MMS

This past Saturday the New York Times printed a fascinating interview with  Chris Oynes, the former director of the gulf office of the Mineral Management Service (MMS), the agency responsible for issuing permits for off-shore drilling, including the BP/Deep Horizon drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  In it Oynes confirms many of the points I made in my earlier post in which I argued that, contrary to the prevailing media narrative, the MMS was in fact not primarily to blame for the Gulf oil spill.  Instead, in expediting the permit process that allowed BP to drill at the Deep Horizon site, it was doing precisely what congressional representatives from the Gulf region were expecting it to do.

The article makes four essential points that bear repeating. First, the MMS was part of a classic iron triangle involving the oil industry that dominated the Gulf Coast economy, the elected representatives from that region who understand how many jobs the oil industry provide to local residents, and the MMS which, as with most public bureaucracies, proved acutely responsive to political incentives.  In particular, MMS officials in the Gulf office felt pressure from local officials to expedite the off-shore drilling permit process and from members of Congress who sought to maximize the revenues the government received from leasing offshore drilling rights. The key point is that MMS defined the public interest in terms of sustaining the oil-based economy of the Gulf region. As the Times article puts it, “In some states, drilling has been seen as a threat to native cultures. In Cajun country, it opened a door to the middle class — even as a typical offshore schedule (two weeks on, two weeks off) let workers still fish, hunt and farm. ‘The industry didn’t destroy the old culture — it saved it,’ said Diane Austin, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona.”

That definition of the public welfare shaped the MMS’ well-defined sense of mission: to promote off-shore drilling in order to maximize government revenues.  By mission, I mean a widely-shared belief among MMS members regarding what its critical task should be. In this case, MMS’s bureaucrats agreed that their primary task was to expedite off-shore drilling.  They did so because Congress – which controlled MMS funding – signaled that this was what the MMS was supposed to do. “’We have 20,000 oil wells off the coast of Louisiana, and we have been drilling out there for a quarter of a century,’ Senator J. Bennett Johnston, a Democrat, said on the Senate floor. ‘The so-called danger from oil spills has simply not been proved. Not only has it not been proved, it has been disproved, and we need to get on with that drilling.’”  Contrary to what some media outlets have suggested, the MMS was not a rogue agency corrupted by oil money.  In fact, it was an agency that was very effective at doing what Congress wanted it to do, a point that Oynes makes repeatedly. MMS bureaucrats understood that, as the Times puts it, “[T]the agency’s Washington bosses cared more about leasing — where to do it and how much money it would bring? — than they did about the challenges of getting the oil from the sea. That was true, Mr. Oynes said, under Republican and Democratic administrations. ‘It’s almost a given with a director that they don’t know anything about drilling,’ Mr. Oynes said. “We would turn to each other and say, ‘Headquarters isn’t paying attention.’ ”

In theory, of course, the MMS was supposed to balance the economic concerns with environmental ones in considering whether to issue a permit. But most government agencies find it difficult to embrace two, somewhat contradictory missions. The MMS was no exception. The Times reports: “Both sides knew which division held the power. The law gave the head of field operations — the lead engineer — the authority to approve exploration and drilling plans. To win changes, the environmental scientists had to work through him.”   Why did engineers dominate the permitting process? Because Congress’ enabling legislation essentially insured that would be the case. The authorizing legislation that defined the MMS’s mission stipulated goals that were somewhat in tension:  As the Times’ article notes, “One passage calls for the ‘expeditious and orderly development’ of offshore gas and oil. The next adds a codicil: ‘subject to environmental safeguards.’” Oynes said he gave the mandates equal weight.  But the reality is that the MMS was rewarded by Congress for focusing on the development of off-shore drilling – and penalized when it failed to do so.  Protecting the environment was simply not very high on Congress’ priorities, at least as signaled to the MMS.  According to the Times, Oynes recalled, “We would issue standard notices to environmental groups, and they would never even come to a meeting… Arguing against oil and gas isn’t going to get them anywhere.”

The reality is that MMS employees were rewarded for bringing in revenue – not for protecting the environment.  In 1998 Oynes won a presidential award for leasing a record number of drilling tracts that brought in $824 million in revenue. In another case,  Oynes alerted federal prosecutors when he discovered that Shell was burning natural gas rather than bringing it to shore, thus cheating the government of royalties.  Shell was prosecuted and the government won $49 million in additional revenue.  Given these political signals, it is not surprising that MMS bureaucrats tended to define their mission in term of permits processed, not environmental regulations enforced.

The third point is that government agencies today operate under increasing contextual constraints that are imposed by Congress with little regard for their impact on how well an agency carries out its primary mission.  The MMS was no exception.  It was charged with processing up to 1,000 drilling permits annually, each requiring an environmental impact statement (EIS) that could take months, or even years, to conduct.  Whenever an agency is forced to address contextual constraints that impede its ability to carry out its primary mission, agency bureaucrats will devise ways to minimize the impact of fulfilling the contextual constraints.  In this case, according to the NY Times, the MMS processed the EIS “in wholesale fashion, before conducting the annual lease sales.”  On the other hand, the pace of technology, including the increasing depth at which drills were sunk, outran Congress’ ability to issue new environmental and safety regulations, even had it been inclined to do so.  According to the Times, “One internal problem [the MMS] faced was a feeling among many staff members that swift action was impossible. One regulation had famously taken nine years to get through Washington.”  In lieu of updated regulations, the MMS worked informally to police the drilling industry with the realization that without formal backing they were vulnerable to a legal challenge from the oil companies.

The fourth point is that public bureaucracies are incredibly sensitive to congressional inquiries that hint at scandal.  In my earlier post I noted that there had been multiple investigations into the MMS’ operating culture – but almost none of them focused on lax environmental standards.  Instead, they were driven by congressional concern that the MMS wasn’t charging enough to allow oil companies to drill in federal waters. The New York Times’ story picks up on this point.  It recounts how Oynes was forced to testify before Congress regarding why his office had issued two years of contracts that essentially allowed the oil companies to avoid paying the required royalties on deep-water tracts.  “The incident has trailed Mr. Oynes ever since, but most accounts omit the coda. Congress drafted the law so poorly that the federal courts invalidated the thresholds for the entire five-year program, at a cost of up to $60 billion. Congress had derided Mr. Oynes while committing the greater mistake.”

What is missing from this story?  Any mention of Obama, or of any of his presidential predecessors.   The reality is that presidents were only peripheral players in this policy area.  Despite their constitutional charge to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed,” presidents often lack the tools to fulfill this mandate.  This is particularly the case in issue areas dominated by an industry with close ties to Congress.

When government agencies fail, it is customary for the media to search for signs of corruption or malfeasance. The MMS story was no exception.  Early coverage was dominated by charges of an ethically-challenged agency, its members in the hip-pocket of the oil industry.  But outright corruption or ethical lapses are rarely the cause of bureaucratic failure. Instead, its roots usually run much deeper, into the mix of political and institutional incentives that determine how an agency defines its mission, and how it carries it out.  To its credit the New York Times finally got this story right. When an agency is faced with contextual goals that run contrary to its primary mission, and when it becomes politically vulnerable for failing to fulfill its primary mission, it will tend to minimize or avoid fulfilling those contextual goals.  In the aftermath of the Deep Horizon explosion, the MMS was abolished, and its permitting process separated from its environmental and leasing duties.  The primary fault underlying the Gulf spill, however, lies not with the MMS.  It lies with Congress.

Petey, We Hardly Knew Ye! Putting Orszag’s Tenure in Historical Context

And now, some fun with numbers! In response to my last post regarding Peter Orszag’s resignation as Obama’s OMB director – a resignation I speculated was driven by policy differences with other members of Obama’s administration – both Bob and Jonathan caution that this might instead simply be a case in which an aide resigns for purely personal reasons that have nothing to do with clashing policy views.  Jonathan notes that OMB directors typically have a short shelf life, a point that Jackie Calmes also made in the New York Times when she wrote about Orszag’s resignation: “Mr. Orszag, an economist who previously spent nearly two years as director of the Congressional Budget Office, somewhat reluctantly accepted Mr. Obama’s invitation to join the Cabinet after the 2008 election and never planned to stay more than two years. Typically, budget directors do not.”

Rather than taking Calmes word for it, I decided to look at the numbers. Do budget directors typically serve no more than two years?  And how does Orszag’s stint as OMB director compare to the average tenure of an OMB director?   (Note to those who don’t think I have better things to do than calculate the average time in office for an OMB director: I’m currently writing a book on the history of the OMB with Andy Rudalevige, and thought this data might actually be useful!)  Here’s a table listing all 38 individuals who have headed the BoB/OMB since its creation in 1921. The boldfaced names are those, like Orszag, who took office at the start of a president’s first term.

# Name Dates served President
38 Jacob Lew Nominated July 13, 2010 - Barack Obama
37 *Peter Orszag January 20, 2009 –July 30, 2010 Barack Obama
36 Jim Nussle September 4, 2007 – January 20, 2009 George W. Bush
35 Rob Portman May 26, 2006 – 19 June 2007 George W. Bush
34 Josh Bolten June 26, 2003 – April 15, 2006 George W. Bush
33 *Mitch Daniels January 23, 2001 – June 6, 2003 George W. Bush
32 Jacob Lew May 21, 1998 – January 19, 2001 Bill Clinton
31 Franklin Raines September 13, 1996 – May 21, 1998 Bill Clinton
30 Alice M. Rivlin October 17, 1994 – April 26, 1996 Bill Clinton
29 *Leon Panetta January 21, 1993 – October 1994 Bill Clinton
28 *Richard Darman January 25, 1989 – January 20, 1993 George H. W. Bush
27 Joseph R. Wright, Jr. October 16, 1988 – January 20, 1989 Ronald Reagan
26 James C. Miller III October 8, 1985 – October 15, 1988 Ronald Reagan
25 *David A. Stockman January 21, 1981 – August 1, 1985 Ronald Reagan
24 James T. McIntyre September 24, 1977 – January 20, 1981 Jimmy Carter
23 *Bert Lance January 21, 1977 – September 23, 1977 Jimmy Carter
22 James T. Lynn February 10, 1975 – January 20, 1977 Gerald Ford
21 Roy Ash February 2, 1973 – February 3, 1975 Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford
20 Caspar Weinberger June 12, 1972 – February 1, 1973 Richard Nixon
19 George P. Shultz July 1, 1970 – June 11, 1972 Richard Nixon
18 *Robert Mayo January 22, 1969 – June 30, 1970 Richard Nixon
17 Charles Zwick January 29, 1968 – January 21, 1969 Lyndon B. Johnson
16 Charles Schultze June 1, 1965 – January 28, 1968 Lyndon B. Johnson
15 Kermit Gordon December 28, 1962 – June 1, 1965 John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson
14 *David E. Bell January 22, 1961 – December 20, 1962 John F. Kennedy
13 Maurice H. Stans March 18, 1958 – January 21, 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower
12 Percival Brundage April 2, 1956 – March 17, 1958 Dwight D. Eisenhower
11 Rowland Hughes April 16, 1954 – April 1, 1956 Dwight D. Eisenhower
10 *Joseph Dodge January 22, 1953 – April 15, 1954 Dwight D. Eisenhower
9 Frederick Lawton April 13, 1950 – January 21, 1953 Harry S. Truman
8 Frank Pace February 1, 1949 – April 12, 1950 Harry S. Truman
7 James E. Webb July 13, 1946 – January 27, 1949 Harry S. Truman
6 Harold D. Smith April 15, 1939 – June 19, 1946 Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman
5 Daniel W. Bell September 1, 1934- April 14, 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt
4 *Lewis W. Douglas March 7, 1933 – August 31, 1934 Franklin D. Roosevelt
3 J. Clawson Roop August 15, 1929 – March 3, 1933 Herbert Hoover
2 Herbert M. Lord July 1, 1922 – May 31, 1929 Warren G. Harding
1 Charles E. Dawes June 23, 1921 – June 30, 1922 Warren G. Harding

By my calculations, based on this data, Orszag left office after serving 556 days, or about 1.5 years. The average tenure of the other 37 BoB/OMB directors is 873 days, or about 2 years, 4 months.  So Orszag falls short of the average tenure by about 10 months. (All calculations based on data from the OMB website.)

If we order the 37 directors by time served, longest to shortest, we see that Orszag falls near the bottom of the rankings, at number 26.

Name President Tenure days
Jacob Lew Barack Obama .0
1. Harold D. Smith Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman 2622.00
2. Herbert M. Lord Warren G. Harding 2526.00
3. Daniel W. Bell Franklin D. Roosevelt 1686.00
4. *David A. Stockman Ronald Reagan 1653.00
5. *Richard Darman George H. W. Bush 1456.00
6. J. Clawson Roop Herbert Hoover 1296.00
7. James T. McIntyre Jimmy Carter 1214.00
8. James C. Miller III Ronald Reagan 1103.00
9. Maurice H. Stans Dwight D. Eisenhower 1040.00
10. Josh Bolten George W. Bush 1023.00
11.Frederick Lawton Harry S. Truman 1014.00
12. Jacob Lew Bill Clinton 974.00
13. Charles Schultze Lyndon B. Johnson 971.00
14. James E. Webb Harry S. Truman 929.00
15. Kermit Gordon John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson 886.00
16. *Mitch Daniels George W. Bush 864.00
17. Roy Ash Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford 731.00
18. Rowland Hughes Dwight D. Eisenhower 716.00
19. Percival Brundage Dwight D. Eisenhower 714.00
20. George P. Shultz Richard Nixon 711.00
21. James T. Lynn Gerald Ford 710.00
22. *David E. Bell John F. Kennedy 697.00
23. *Leon Panetta Bill Clinton 618.00
24. Franklin Raines Bill Clinton 615.00
25. Alice M. Rivlin Bill Clinton 557.00
26. *Peter Orszag Barack Obama 556.00
27. Lewis W. Douglas Franklin D. Roosevelt 542.00
28. *Robert Mayo Richard Nixon 524.00
29. Jim Nussle George W. Bush 485.00
30. *Joseph Dodge Dwight D. Eisenhower 448.00
31. Frank Pace Harry S. Truman 435.00
32. Rob Portman George W. Bush 389.00
33. Charles E. Dawes Warren G. Harding 372.00
34. Charles Zwick Lyndon B. Johnson 358.00
35. *Bert Lance Jimmy Carter 245.00
36. Caspar Weinberger Richard Nixon 234.00
37. Joseph R. Wright, Jr. Ronald Reagan 73.00

Of course, these averages are potentially misleading because they include all OMB directors, regardless of when they took the position.  For example, George W. Bush’s last OMB director, Jim Nussle, took office in September, 2007. He wasn’t going to serve longer than 15 months no matter what his policy views.  So perhaps the better comparison is between Orszag and the 10 other budget directors who took office at the start of a presidential administration.  It turns out that, as a group, they actually serve slightly less than average, at about 742 days, or about 2 years.  Among these 11, Orszag has the 4rth shortest tenure, just a few days longer than Robert Mayo’s under Nixon.

Keep in mind that there are extenuating circumstances underlying some of these individual’s short tenures. The shortest, at 8 months, was Bert Lance’s; he resigned under pressure due to allegations that he had committed financial improprieties while heading a bank in Georgia. The second shortest, at one year three months, is Joseph Dodge’s.  But Dodge moved on from the BoB to chair Eisenhower’s newly-created Council on Foreign Economic Policy in 1954.  Similarly, Leon Panetta left the OMB after only one year, 9 months as director to become Clinton’s chief of staff.   David Bell served just less than two years under Kennedy before taking a position as head of the Agency for International Development. Only Robert Mayo, Nixon’s BoB director, left government entirely (although he went to a branch of the Federal Reserve). In short, with the exception of Lance and Mayo, all the other directors who took office with the president and who served less than two years left for other positions within the same administration.  So not only did Orzsag not serve very long as director – he wasn’t promoted to another position within the administration.   His career trajectory, then, is unusual for BoB/OMB directors who come in with the President.

One might also object to this attempt to measure the average tenure because it includes the BoB directors who served prior to 1939, when the BoB was moved from the Treasury Department into the newly-created Executive Office of the President.  The pre-1939 directors operated in a decidedly different political context.  If we restrict our analysis to the post-1939 period, directors serve on average about 800 days, or a bit more than two years.  Note, however, that the average tenure has decreased since the start of the Clinton presidency; the nine budget directors serving since 1993 lasted, on average, only 675 days, or about one year, 10 months.  That’s dropping closer to Orszag’s time in office. This higher turnover took place, moreover, despite the fact that both Clinton and Bush served two full terms.

Why the relatively shorter tenures (I won’t even call it a trend)?  My guess – and it’s only a guess – is that it has something to do with the increased competition the OMB director faces from other presidential advisers.  At one time, the BoB/OMB director was the primary staff source of budgetary advice to the president.  But that primacy has been challenged, beginning with the establishment of the CEA (Council of Economics Advisers) in 1946 and, most importantly, the creation in 1993 of the National Economic Council (NEC), headed by a White House-based economic adviser with her own White House staff.  The person occupying the NEC position (currently Larry Summers) has by virtue of proximity to the President a golden opportunity to shape economic policy.  Moreover, this White House economic adviser is, unlike the OMB director, not burdened by any institutional loyalties and thus can focus solely on serving the President’s interests.  Historically, BoB/OMB directors must be, at least in part, focused on holding down government spending – this is part of the OMB portfolio.   The NEC adviser is not burdened by any institutional expectations.

This is all speculation based on back-of-the-envelope calculations more fitting for a blog post than for an academic journal.  But that’s why I blog – it’s a chance to try out new ideas (and see you shoot them down!).

What have we learned from this little historical excursion?  The bottom line: we can’t be sure why Orszag resigned.  But his tenure was unusually short by historical standards – although not that short when compared to the time served by more recent directors.  That is consistent with, but doesn’t come close to proving, a story in which Orszag – like many recent OMB directors  – found his influence circumscribed and decided to step down.   On the other hand, the data may signal nothing at all beyond the fact that each director has his own story to tell, and that no two stories are alike!

Isn’t political science fun?