If Summers’ Gone, It Must Be Fall (Election Season, That Is!)

Last week Larry Summers announced that he would resign as director of President Obama’s National Economic Council (NEC) after the upcoming midterm elections. As the head of the NEC, Summers – working from his West Wing office – served as Obama’s primary economic adviser and was largely responsible for coordinating the administration’s economic policy process. As such, he played a key role in the major economic policy debates that led to the stimulus bill and legislation overhauling the nation’s financial system, among many issues. Following on the heels of the earlier resignations by Obama’s OMB director Peter Orszag and his CEA chair Christina Romer, Summers’ departure means that only Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner remains from the economic policy team with which Obama began his presidency (not counting the Fed chair, of course).

It is tempting to read Summers’ resignation as a sign that Obama is revamping his economic team and possibly his policies in the face of a stubbornly high unemployment rate and the more general economic listlessness.  Publicly, Summers’ decision to leave is being portrayed as a personal choice motivated by his desire to get back to Harvard. That may very well be true.  But the timing of the announcement almost certainly reflects Obama’s realization that the midterm results, now less than two months away, will turn largely on voters’ perceptions of Democrats’ handling of the economy.  And while Obama can do little to change the economy between now and November, he can signal to voters that he is open to new economic advice and ideas.

Both progressives and conservatives have been unhappy with Summers’ performance, albeit for different reasons.   Their dissatisfaction, however, is a reminder of just how complex – substantively and politically – the economic problems Obama inherited are, and how difficult it is to design policies that can entail even marginal economic improvements without incurring huge political costs.  Rather than as an opportunity to debate Obama’s economic policies, however, I want to use Summers’ resignation to illustrate another important point:  that turnover rates among the presidents’ senior policy staff have gone up in the last several decades, potentially making it more difficult for presidents to sustain politically-risky policy commitments.

The trend toward shorter staff tenures as illustrated in the almost complete turnover in Obama’s senior economic team, I believe, is rooted less in the personalities or policies of particular presidents and their advisers, and is due more to changes in national politics during the last several decades.  I first made this argument several years ago in two published research articles I co-authored with Professor Katie Dunn Tenpas.  Those articles documented a gradual but noticeable decline in retention rates among the presidents’ senior White House staff and leading cabinet officials during the period 1929-96 – a decline illustrated in the following graph. (Note that the lowest retention rates reflect the transition to new presidents.)

As you can see, there has been a decline in retention rates across the nearly seven-decade period, particularly since the 1960’s, punctuated by nearly complete staff turnover when a new president comes aboard. What explains this decline?   It is tempting to think that it is a function of the increased workload that modern presidential staffs take on, which leads senior advisers to burn out more quickly.  However, there is not much evidence that aides are worker harder or for longer hours today than they did back under FDR or Truman.  In my interviews and research with former White House aides, some dating back to the Truman presidency, the recurring story is the same: long hours at the office, with almost no time off.  For example, Ken Hechler, a former Truman junior White House aide, remembers how at the end of the day a group of junior-level White House staff would collapse into a single car and fall instantly asleep,  to be woken only when the car arrived at their respective residence. One by one they would be dropped off, only to start the process all over again early the next day.  Work at the White House, it appears, has always entailed long hours and little sleep.

If senior officials aren’t working longer or more arduously, then what explains the declining retention rates?  Tenpas and I hypothesize that it partly reflects the changing political environment within which presidential aides work. In particular we cite the change from a party-controlled election process to a candidate-centered one.  Increasingly, presidents are running their reelection campaigns from out of the White House, rather than entrusting this function to the party chair and his minions, as used to be the case.  Rather than oversee the reelection campaign, the party instead has been relegated to serving primarily as a fundraiser, while strategy and tactics are developed by the President’s personal staff, working out of the White House.  (Note that because by law purely electoral activities cannot be paid for from out of the White House operating budget, White House aides have to take care to separate the two functions).  At the same, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that the increasingly polarized nature of presidential politics makes service in the White House less enjoyable.  I don’t have systemic evidence to bring to bear on this issue, but more than one former White House adviser from recent presidencies has made this point to me.  Decisionmaking, they say, is increasingly driven by electoral concerns.

The change in the nature of presidential campaigns, and of the operating environment more generally, is probably best illustrated by the rise in the role of primaries during the nominating process, beginning particularly after 1968.  Why does this affect the president’s senior staff?  Because by essentially the end of the president’s second year in office, he must begin campaigning for reelection.  This is when the substantive policy types who are so important for governing begin to leave the White House.  To see this, in the next figure I’ve graphed retention rates as a function of the growth in the number of delegates selected through primaries.

Note that as the percent of delegates selected through primaries goes up, staff retention rates decline.  (The bars around each mean measure the uncertainty of the estimate).  Viewed historically, then, the resignation of Obama’s major economic advisers is neither unprecedented nor surprising.  On average, in the period 1972-1996, only about 75% of a president’s senior cabinet and White House advisers are retained from the first year of the president’s term into his second year, and only 64% of second-year staffers make it to the third year.  This compares to a roughly 85% retention rate for both presidential years during the pre-1972 era. I’ll try to update these figures through 2008 if I can, but I hope my point is clear:  life in the White House is a Hobbesian existence (and I don’t mean Calvin’s imaginary friend): nasty, brutish – and increasingly short.

7 comments

  1. I would be willing to bet that the 24-hour media cycle and an increase in scrutiny over the past few decades also plays a major role. Narratives emerge and change much more quickly, now, and the number of bloggers out there (who often get picked up as legitimate stories by the media) means that scandals or screw ups that would previously have gone unnoticed now dominate the news for the few hours until they’re replaced with the next bit of sensationalism

  2. While there might be a statistical correlation between staff retention and the increasing use of primaries, I think that it is in large part a false correlation. Larry Summers and Christina Rommer are not involved in campaigning (other than helping to shape the economic message of the White House). Why should Larry Summers resign from his post if all that is really needed of him is to change his economic tune to suit the mood of the nation’s voters? Even if Obama was using Summers as a victim for electoral slaughter, the need to tailor the presidential staff to the nation’s mood is exagerated in my view. Most voters could not name Larry Summers or Christina Rommer and voters further have no knowledge of either of the two’s economic viewpoints. This means that voters are not making their decisions based on staff members as your argument seems to imply.

    I think that your anecdotal argument makes much more sense: life in the polarized White House is not fun. Why would Larry Summers want to stay in a such an acrimonious environment such as modern politics?

  3. In this ever-changing political climate, where media plays a large role in elections, it is important that candidates remain relevant. Could it be that President Obama has seen these statistics himself and as a result–behind closed doors– requested for the resignations of his economic team? If so, he’d succeed in creating a media buzz worthy of appeasing the conservatives that would say, “Let’s try this stimulus plan again.” Okay, so this is stretch. All jokes aside, I believe this data is indicative of the polarization in our government and almost screams for longer terms. Lastly, in this particular instance, I see Lawrence Summers as an outlier because from what I’ve read there was a power struggle between him and White House staff considering his demotion from Secretary of Treasury.

  4. Matt,

    In statistical analyses such as your second graph does the appearance of a relationship prove causality, or does there have to be a statistical “smoking gun”? Otherwise how do you rule out coincidence? It seems to me there could be other graphs substituting global warming or population growth for example that would yield the same correlation as the increase in delegates selected in primaries.

    Or does it come down in the end to the judgment, or common sense, of the political scientist who is arguing that the relationship shown is indeed a causal one?

    Bob Johnson

  5. Lots of good comments in reaction to this post. Let me respond briefly to each. To begin, I agree with Zach that changing norms of media coverage may have contributed to the shortened lifespan of the senior presidential adviser. It’s not simply scandals, but the constant media coverage, the erosion of the boundary between public and private and the general sense that everything one does in the White House is fair game for public scrutiny. I think that has to wear down aides a bit more quickly than in the pre-media age.

    Michael doesn’t see the link between Summers’ resignation and the upcoming campaign, in part because Summer doesn’t play a campaign role, and because the public really doesn’t know who he is. The fact that Summers is policy wonk, however, is precisely my point – as a presidents turns from governing to campaigning, Summers expertise becomes less useful. And while it is true that not many people know who Summers is, the fact that Obama’s senior economic adviser is resigning certainly grabbed media attention. Moreover, it removes one potential point of controversy that will undoubtedly come up in November.

    I don’t doubt, as Evan suggests, that Obama and his senior aides certainly calculated the political impact of Summers’ resignation, although I won’t necessarily go so far to believe he orchestrated this and previous resignations for political purposes heading into the midterm. Still, presidents have jettisoned key aides before who have become political liabilities (see Rumsfeld under Bush II.) I don’t think Summers was necessarily viewed as a liability but his resignation does provide Obama with an opening to signal his intent to change policy directions.

    Finally, Bob raises a great question: when can we infer causation from correlation? The argument that Dunn Tenpas and I make is actually a bit more nuanced than the bare-bones presentation above, and relies on some qualitative evidence as well (we tell some stories about specific staff turnover during the Clinton presidency, for example). I don’t really do the argument full justice in this blog. But even so Bob raises a critical point. One response would be: can you suggest an alternative explanation for the correlation we present? Zach and Michael suggest a potential alternative: changing standards of media coverage that make serving in the White House less enjoyable. Dunn Tenpas and I link that changing media coverage to broader changes affecting how candidates run for office, so we don’t differ too much from their media-centered explanation. But let me turn it back to you Bob (and to other readers): what alternative explanation can you come up with?

  6. I like Zach & MIchael’s suggestions — they seem to have more relevance to White House staff tenure than the number of delegates selected in primaries. How one would quantify the increased media coverage and the poisonous atmosphere in Washington is above my pay grade, however.

    Bob Johnson

  7. If it exists, we can measure it! Note that the number of delegates selected in primaries is really a proxy measure for the rise of the candidate-centered, White House-controlled campaign. The idea is that in the current era, White House staffs have to switch from governing to campaigning, whereas before the campaigning was done somewhere else. It’s not simply an increase in delegates selected through primaries that is the key – the measure is really a stand-in for the more general movement toward a White House-run campaign.

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