Monthly Archives: December 2010

A New START to the Obama Presidency?

In the wake of a spate of recent legislative victories during the post-November 2 lame-duck session of the 111th Congress, including Senate ratification of START, the repeal of DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell), an extension of unemployment benefits and of the Bush-era tax cuts, pundits were quick to proclaim the rebirth of the Obama presidency. “A politically rejuvenated” president was said to be enjoying his holiday break, fresh off his legislative “wins”.

At the risk of sounding Scrooge-like during the holiday season, let me suggest that these “wins” signify no resurgence of the Obama presidency whatsoever. Instead they are a reminder of the limits on presidential power. Consider the Senate’s ratification of START, the strategic arms treaty with Russia that will lower the number of nuclear war heads both nations possess by a modest amount and, more importantly, will reinstate inspection procedures first implemented when the original START treaty was negotiated by President Reagan and signed by his successor President George H. W. Bush more than a decade ago.

Let’s be clear: this treaty was always going to pass the Senate for the simple reason that the alternative – allowing a lengthy lapse of inspections – was unacceptable to almost all parties. As we heard ad nauseum from leading Democrats for weeks, the treaty had the backing of every former Republican Secretary of State, arms control experts, military leaders and, not incidentally, my Mom (who knows a thing or two about unannounced inspections). The only question was on whose terms would ratification take place, and in which Senate session – the 111th or the 112th?  To be sure, historically there has always been a bloc of conservative Republicans who oppose negotiating with the Russians/Soviet Union in principle, and thus who will vote against almost all arms control treaties.  But they rarely have the votes to block arms control treaties, and certainly did not this time around.  Remember, for ratification to occur the Constitution mandates that treaties must get the votes of 2/3 of the senators present. This means that if all 58 current Senate Democrats (including Lieberman and Sanders) supported the treaty, ratification in the full Senate would still require 9 Republican aye votes. If we utilize a simple spatial model in which Senators are arrayed in a single ideological line, from Left (most liberal) to Right (most conservative), the 67th and most pivotal vote was likely to come from among a bloc of moderate Republicans, encompassing Dick Lugar, Kit Bond, Judd Gregg, Bob Bennett, Thad Cochran and Lamar Alexander.  (Although Mark Kirk falls within this ideological grouping, I don’t include him because of his sparse voting record since he joined the Senate last month).

That is, our simple spatial voting model would suggest that any resolution in support of ratification would have to address the interests of these pivotal senators.  And that is precisely what happened. The Senate ratified the treaty by a vote of 71-26. All Democrats voted in favor of the treaty, as did 13 Republicans, including five of the six “swing” Senators.  (Bond did not vote.) The other Republican supporters included Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Susan Collins of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.  Of these, Brown, Snowe, Murkowski and Collins are located to the ideological left of our pivotal group of six senators, and thus under our simple model were expected to support the treaty.  Voinovich, Bennett and Gregg, meanwhile, are stepping down after the end of this session and thus were free to vote their “conscience.”

This leaves Isakson, Corker, Alexander, Johanns, Lugar, and Cochran’s votes to explain. In looking more closely at the actual vote, we can see that almost all of them did, in fact, gain concessions in return for their support.  Most notably, the resolution in support of the treaty was largely drafted not by the majority Democrats, but instead by Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. And that resolution included language designed to win the support of wavering Republicans, including a provision stating that the treaty doesn’t infringe upon U.S. missile defense development and deployment.  Both Corker and Alexander voted in favor of the treaty after receiving assurance that additional money would be appropriated for the modernization of the nation’s nuclear weapons programs.  Not coincidentally, the Oak Ridge nuclear facility that would benefit from the additional money is located in Tennessee – the state Corker and Alexander represent. Johanns’ support came after several amendments he cosponsored were approved by the Senate, including provisions requiring an annual report certifying the implementation of a program designed to modernize the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile, and clarifying that the United States can withdraw from START if the modernization plan is not adequately funded. Several of these pivotal senators also sponsored an amendment certifying that development of a U.S. missile defense system would not be jeopardized by ratifying START.

My point here is not to argue that Obama and the Democrats fail to benefit by the START ratification – clearly they do. Look no further than the media spin! It is to claim however, that START ratification does not signal a resurgence in Obama’s “influence”, or his regaining political “momentum”.  Instead, it illustrates the reality of the political context that dominated congressional proceedings for most of the 111th Congress.  Simply put, Obama’s “success” in Congress was largely determined by Democrats’ ability to craft legislation that targeted the moderate legislators occupying the pivotal voting positions along the ideological spectrum, or by “pairing” legislation, as with the extension of unemployment legislation and the Bush tax cuts that I discussed in an earlier post.  When Obama would not or could not frame legislation in this way, it failed to pass.  Indeed,  stories heralding Obama’s resurgence overlook Democrats’ failure during the lameduck session to pass the DREAM immigration act, the inability of the Democratically-controlled Senate to confirm a number of Obama’s judicial nominees and, most notably, Congress’ failure to pass a new budget.

Did we just see the reboot of the Obama presidency along with a change in presidential-congressional dynamics?  Hardly.  Instead, what we saw was a reminder of the limits of presidential power. When presidents “succeed” in getting their legislation through Congress, it is usually not because they have changed legislators’ minds.  Instead, it is because they have framed legislation to appeal to the pivotal congressional members’ political interests, as determined primarily by these members’ constituency-driven electoral calculations.  The ratification of START is a clear reminder that a president’s “persuasive” power is largely conditioned by the interests of those with whom he is bargaining.

This Is Not Obama’s War

Sometime this week the White House is scheduled to release the summary findings of a senior-level classified review of the Afghanistan war strategy. That review was set in place a year ago, when Obama announced his decision to couple an increase in the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by some 30,000 troops, bringing the total U.S. military presence there to over 68,000, with a July 2011 deadline to begin drawing down that force and turning over responsibility for fighting the insurgency to Afghan security forces. In my assessment at the time of the process that led to Obama’s decision, I wrote:  “Reading between the lines of the NY Times story, then, we see a decision process in which the president’s early decision to remain in Afghanistan for fear of  ‘failure’ essentially closed off genuine debate about altering Afghanistan’s place in the War on Terror.  Thereafter, his options were largely dictated by one person – [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates – and shaped to achieve the widest possible consensus within the administration.  It was a pragmatic, lawyer-like decision process that in the end led to a continuation of the basic outlines of the War on Terror which Obama inherited from Bush, rather than exposing the president to a real debate on the substance of that War, as it pertained to Afghanistan, that may have produced genuine change.”

Subsequent to my analysis Bob Woodward published Obama’s War, an inside account of the process by which Obama arrived at his December, 2009 decision to couple a surge in troops with a drawdown date.  That account, I suggest, largely comports with my portrayal of a President who is essentially boxed in by his military advisers. Again and again, Woodward describes Obama pressing his military advisers – generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Gates and Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen – for options beyond their preferred request for 40,000 more troops, and again and again they come back to say, essentially, “there is no other option.”  Ultimately, Obama acquiesces to the military’s desire for a troop surge, albeit in a slightly scaled down version and with conditions, most notably the withdrawal deadline.

In Obama’s defense, there is a superficial logic underlying last year’s decision.  Rather than defeat the Taliban, Obama instead set the U.S. goal as “degrading” the Taliban insurgency in order to give the Afghan government time to develop sufficient capacity to maintain security without U.S. military support.  In short, he agreed to build up in order to be able to build down. As Woodward’s account makes clear, however, although Obama’s military advisers formally signed on to the December plan, they almost immediately begin interpreting the drawdown as conditional on circumstances on the ground.  And those conditions are not likely to be much improved, in large part because the troop surge does not address two key issues: the ability of the Taliban to use protected havens in Pakistan as secure staging grounds, and the inability of the Afghans to form a stable government with minimal corruption and broad popular support.  Lacking immediate solutions to either issue, Obama’s military advisers are likely to make the case for a longer military commitment, and in a larger form, than Obama would like.

Of course, having failed to fully come to grips with these issues in the first review, it is highly unlikely that they will be revisited in the latest go-around. Instead, it is almost certain that the results of the Obama administration’s internal review, to be released this week, will indicate that the Afghan policy is working. That is, it will report progress in training Afghan security forces and in regaining and holding territory once occupied by the Taliban. It will conclude by reiterating the general goals of the Afghan policy – degrading the Taliban – and restating the commitment to begin drawing down U.S. forces next July.  The description of progress might even be true.  But it says little about the long-term prognosis for Afghan stability. And it is almost equally certain that the military will continue to pressure Obama to minimize or even delay the troop drawdown, in order not to lose those gains, and that they will likely find a receptive audience in the Republican-controlled House and among some Republican Senators.

The real problem here is that, contrary to the title of Woodward’s book: this is not Obama’s war – it is Gates’ and Petraeus’.  To be sure, Obama will bear the consequences of the U.S. engagement there, but Woodward’s account makes it clear that in the end, Obama signed on to a strategy developed by Petraeus and backed by Gates not because Obama believed in it, but because he was provided with no other real options, beyond a proposal for a more limited counterterrorist strategy pushed by Vice President Biden that Obama appeared never to take seriously.  The inability to generate alternative options is partly the failure of Obama’s national security adviser Jim Jones, who seemed incapable of managing the NSC staff system. Woodward’s account portrays Jones as somewhat removed from day-to-day decisionmaking, with less than ideal access to Obama, and with the national security process really being driven by Jones’ nominal assistant Tom Donilon (who eventually replaced Jones as national security assistant.)

At a deeper level, however, I would argue that the failure to generate genuine options reflects Obama’s own unwillingness to exercise his commander-in-chief duties.  Reading Woodward’s account, one is struck by Obama’s reluctance to tell his generals what he really wants in Afghanistan, and to order them to develop a strategy for achieving it. Instead, he begins the review process by essentially asking them what they believe can be achieved in Afghanistan, and allows them to largely dictate the means for achieving it. If Obama genuinely believes that it is not in the U.S.’s long-term interest to be fighting a war in Afghanistan – and that is the impression one gets by reading Woodward’s book – it is his responsibility to tell his military commanders as much.  If they resist complying with that directive by giving him realistic options, it is Obama’s obligation to remove them, and to find generals who will support his goals.  Note that a president firing his key commanders is not without precedent – both Lincoln during the Civil War and FDR at the outset of World War II removed generals who appeared unwilling to follow their lead. Truman did as well, albeit belatedly, during the Korean conflict.  (Note that Obama’s decision to fire McChrystal was not driven by strategic disagreements – it was due to the public relations fallout resulting when McChrstal’s private conversations – which did not speak well of Obama or his aides – became public.)

To be sure, removing the architect of the “surge” strategy – the man who literally rewrote the Army manual on conducting counterinsurgency warfare – would generate a huge political firestorm. Gates would almost certainly step down as well (although he is scheduled to do so soon anyway.) Given this likelihood, one can understand Obama’s reluctance to take such an extreme step.  Politically speaking, it is far easier to give the generals what they want, at least initially.  But in so doing, Obama has merely postponed answering the hardest question, which is deciding what Afghanistan is worth in American lives and resources.  It is almost surely the case that, come July, he will be forced to revisit that issue once again.  The risk is that he will kick the can down the road, in the form of beginning a slow, lingering drawdown of troops.

Obama’s War?  Only in name – and in political repercussions.

Who Won the Bush Tax Cut Debate? Why That’s the Wrong Question

Who won the current round of negotiations regarding whether to extend the Bush tax cuts? That is the question currently being debated by the punditocracy. It is also the wrong question. Indeed, many of the assessments regarding the tax deal negotiated by President Obama and members of Congress earlier this week reveal a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the nature of presidential power as exercised in the legislative process.

At the center of debate is a Senate bill that would extend the so-called Bush tax rates for two years; extend unemployment insurance for 13 months, cut payroll taxes, reinstitute the estate tax at 35% (with a $5 million exemption) and offer several other tax breaks to individual tax payers and businesses.  The cumulative cost of this legislative package would be about $858 billion, with about $801 billion of that in the form of tax breaks.  This compares, for example, to the approximately $800 billion price tag of last year’s economic stimulus.

Predictably, liberals blasted the President for caving to Republicans and reneging on still another campaign pledge – this time his promise not to renew the tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000, and for accepting a lower estate tax rate and higher exemption level than what Democrats wanted. Much better, they argued, that the President draw a line in the sand and threaten to veto any bill that extended the Bush tax cuts, even if it meant no bill and a tax increase on all taxpayers beginning January 1.  Most likely, they argued, a veto threat would force Republicans back to the bargaining table to make more concessions.  Conservatives, including a leading Tea Party group, are similarly dismayed, but for the opposite reason: they argue that the bill is still another budget-buster that will increase an already historically high deficit while providing little actual economic stimulus.   Taken as a whole, they argue, this legislation is a very good deal for Obama and Democrats.

Try telling that to House Democrats; they promptly passed a nonbinding resolution calling on members to reject the Senate bill as currently drafted. In defending the deal during his press conference, Obama reiterated his opposition in principle to extending the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000.  But he also took time to criticize both “hostage-taking” Republicans and “sanctimonious” liberals. Party purists on both the ideological Left and the Right reacted by alternately questioning and bristling at Obama’s characterization, but in fact, the President had neither group in mind when he made those statements. Instead, those remarks were targeted at the independents that deserted Obama and the Democrats in droves during the most recent midterm – Obama was telling them that he understood what the midterm results meant.  Indeed, it was this electoral calculation – the need to win back those independent voters – which I believe lies at the heart of Obama’s decision to negotiate a deal with Republicans regarding extending the tax breaks.  In 2010, Democrats lost independents by roughly 57%-38%, a reversal of their support for Obama in 2008.  Obama needs to win back this group if he is to secure a second term. (Here are the exit polls results showing support the midterm vote broken down by Democrats, Republicans and Liberals.)

This electoral calculus is a useful reminder that, contrary to the spin of armchair pundits, negotiations between the President and Congress can rarely be evaluated on the basis of the immediate legislative outcome.  Pundits (and some political scientists) too often evaluate these interactions as if they are a one-time, zero-sum game, with clear-cut winners and losers. This is almost never the case. In this instance, Obama and Republicans both made sacrifices to achieve crucial policy objectives, and they did so knowing full well that this was not the end game.  All these choices must be evaluated in terms of what happens in 2012, and with the understanding that they will all be revisited shortly thereafter.

Of course pundits on both sides of the ideological aisle are free to urge their political leaders to stand on principle, consequences be damned.  They do not have to worry about the consequences if their calculations are wrong, or if no deal is struck.  Alas, those at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue do not have this luxury; they understand there will be significant repercussions from a failure to make a deal.  The risk of standing on principle is that nothing gets done, taxes go up, and unemployment benefits run out. Moreover, Republicans are going to be in an even stronger bargaining position come January, when the new Congress is sworn in.   These deadlines created an incentive to craft a deal – one in which there are no clear winners and losers, but in which everyone gives up something to get something else. And that is almost always the case when it comes to making difficult decisions – Congress does not act until the alternatives of not acting seem more costly.

Did Obama give up too much, too soon?  What were the alternatives and what were the risks associated with each? Presidential power, Richard Neustadt famously wrote, is the power to persuade. And persuasion means getting others to do what you want them to do by making them see that it is in their interest to do so.  That usually requires bargaining and compromise.  Neustadt’s words are frequently cited, but less frequently taken to heart by pundits and even political scientists. Bargaining between the President and Congress is a repeated game played out under conditions of limited information and uncertain outcomes, in which the choices one makes today must be evaluated in part on the impact they have on one’s ability to achieve objectives down the road.  No vote is made in isolation, and rarely are there obvious winners and losers.  This deal is no exception.  House Democrats may be able to tweak some of the details as laid out in the Senate version, such as changing the estate tax rates, but in the end this bill will pass in a form that will make party purists on both sides unhappy and which will have no clear winners or losers.  In so doing, it will also remind us once again of the difference between governing and “pundicating” – those in charge must deal with the consequences of their choices (or lack thereof), while pundits can move on to new punditry.

The Most Nationalized Midterm Election In At Least 56 Years

In previous posts (see here and here and here), I noted that the Republican pickup of 63 House seats (with one race still to be determined) was the largest midterm seat gain since 1938 – a gain that almost no political science forecast model really came close to predicting.  To be sure, this loss was caused in part by the large number of exposed seats controlled by Democrats.  However, as Brendan Nyhan points out (see figure below), even if we measure the Democrat’s loss as a percentage of seats that they controlled going into the 2010 midterm, this was still a “wave” election, with their percent of seats lost rivaled only by the percent the president’s party’s lost during the 1946, 1958 and 1974 midterms.  (The chart below shows the percent of the presidents’ party’s seats gained or lost in each midterm dating back to 1946).

In my day-after-the- election analysis, I suggested four reasons why the Republican gains/Democratic losses exceeded expectations: the unprecedented depth and duration of the current unemployment cycle; the impact of several highly publicized and very controversial votes, particularly those dealing with the bank bailout, the stimulus and health care; the increasing nationalization of elections, and the role of the Tea Party, particularly in candidate recruitment.

Today I want to look at the third of these four factors: the nationalization of congressional elections. Most of you are familiar with former House Speaker’s Tip O’Neill’s famous aphorism that “all politics is local.”  In fact, however, while that may once have been the case with congressional races, it is increasingly less so.  As I have pointed out in several previous posts, the relative influence of national factors in both presidential and midterm congressional elections has been on the rise for several decades.  This means that in recent elections the outcome in any single congressional district is more likely to be driven by factors outside of that district.

The question is: did the 2010 midterm continue the trend toward the nationalization of congressional elections?  To find out, I regressed the share of the Democratic vote in each congressional district in 2010 against both the Democratic share of the congressional vote and the vote for Obama in each district in 2008, while controlling for whether an incumbent was running and whether a Democrat had won the district in 2008.* (I dropped from my analysis any race in which a candidate ran unopposed.)  The idea here is to see how much of the 2010 vote in each congressional district can be “explained” by support for Obama in that district in 2008 – that’s the “national” coefficient – and how much is due to the district-level Democrat vote for the representative in 2008 – the “local” coefficient.  As the following chart indicates, the 2010 midterm was the most nationalized election in 54 years. (I don’t have district-level data going back before 1954)

Moreover, this is the second midterm election in a row in which national factors have outweighed local ones in influencing House races, and the fifth in a row if we included presidential election years.  (Figures for 2002 aren’t included because of the redrawing of district lines after the 2000 census.)   This after a more than 40-year period in which local forces dominated House races.  Clearly we are witnessing a significant restructuring of the nation’s electoral dynamics.

Of course, in light of my two previous posts, the fact that the 2010 midterm was the most nationalized in more than half a century should not surprise us.  The depth and duration of the current unemployment cycle and the high profile and exceedingly controversial pieces of legislation I cited above by themselves were likely to “nationalize” voters’ calculations.   As I’ve shown in previous posts, both worked against the Democrats as the party in power.  These immediate influences  augmented several long-term trends that have contributed to the nationalization of congressional elections, including changes in campaign finance regulations and the increasing polarization of Congress due to the loss of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.  The net impact of recent campaign finance reforms has encouraged congressional candidates to look outside their own districts for funding by tapping into more ideologically-oriented issue activists.  In the more polarized Congress, meanwhile, members’ ideology increasingly matches up with their party labels; the Republican Party in Congress is more uniformly conservative, and the Democrats more liberal. Seeing two ideologically extreme parties, the more moderate voters may – and I stress may – be exhibiting less patience with either party, and instead are more willing to throw the majority party out when things are not going well.

If my analysis is right, it suggests that political science forecast models predicated on past elections going back several decades may underestimate voter volatility in the current electoral era.  In a future post I’ll address whether the swing in House seats has become greater and more uniform in recent elections.  But it does raise interesting issues as we look toward the 2012 elections, particularly in trying to understand how increased voter volatility – if it exists – might affect Obama’s reelection chances.  I’ll take up this topic in a future post as well.

I should add, however, that in one respect the 2010 midterm results were actually quite familiar: they ushered in still another two-year period of divided government, in which at least one congressional chamber is not controlled by the president’s party.  Dating back to 1946, voters have divided power for 40 out of 66 years, or 61% of the time.  Since 1969, we have experienced unified control of the presidency and Congress for only a dozen years – a 30% rate of single-party control.  The real message from 2010, then, may be that in an increasingly polarized environment, voters – displeased with both parties – are once again hedging their bets by dividing governmental control.

*My thanks to Matt D’Auria, Sarah Pfander and Owen Witek for providing the district-level vote totals.