Monthly Archives: January 2011

Live Blogging The State of the Union

The White House has released a copy of the prepared remarks, and I’ll refer to that (courtesy of Olivier Knox from AFP, the French News Agency).

And here he comes….looking dapper and yet excited.

He’ll start the speech with a reminder of the Tucson tragedy, and use that to reemphasize the need to work across the partisan divide.   Look for the standing ovation  and a camera shot of the family that lost their daughter in the shooting. From there he’ll pivot to the economy, and jobs, which will be the focus of this speech, and of the reelection campaign.  The primary audience here is independents – those voters that the Democrats lost in the November midterm, and who are crucial if Obama is to win reelection.

Interesting seating arrangement tonight – if you haven’t heard, there’s been an effort by some to pair up with a member of the opposite party in the seating arrangements – again, a reaction to the Tucson shooting.

And, of course, instead of Nancy Pelosi chewing her mints, we get to see John The Tan Boehner behind the president. Let’s see if he acknowledges the new Speaker.  When George H. W. Bush was VP under Reagan, he and Tipper O’Neil used to go at it pretty well behind Reagan during these speeches.

Will John cry?  Yes he will…

After the somber opening, look for Obama to make this an uplifting speech, focus on progress, the American spirit, etc.  No malaise…Much of the speech will be designed to lay out a challenge to compete – compete globally, with China, India, etc., and emphasis the need to work together to meet this challenge .

After all, we just had an election (and we got our ass kicked!)

But where are the jobs??  We measure progress by….jobs!

Look for him to emphasize the U.S. competitive advantage: innovation, particularly in the “high tech” industry.  He’s going to compare this period to the post-Sputnik space race.

(Chris – I think using China/India as our competitors is a safe, nonpartisan approach – the enemy is overseas, not here!)

Facebook got some applause…

How often have we heard clean energy touted as the wave of the future, and how often have presidents laid out goals.

Education is a bipartisan issues – but Race to the top is not.  Democrat-leaning  teaching unions are not entirely on board with this program as yet. For the most part, however, he’s stayed away from purely partisan issues.   Note the Colorado reference – that’s a state that has experimented with  merit pay, something teacher unions have opposed.  Beyond unions, however, education reform sells well.

(Sorry about the delay in posting your comments – the network was acting up.)

Ok, I’m on a new computer – not Middlebury issue, so it should be working.

What did I miss?

Never mind – he’s making the case for health care.

(btw, high speed rail is a nonstarter – don’t know how that slipped in).

The spending freeze is going nowhere either, since it pleases neither the Left nor the Right and, frankly,  is mostly symbolic.  Look for the Republicans to pounce on this in the rebuttal.

Is he going to going to propose raising taxes?  No – he’s throwing it back on the Deficit Commission.

He’s ready to address social security – but again he’s going to pass the buck.  Appoint a bipartisan commission ….

simplifying the tax code – another perennial favorite.  So far, no hard choices.

Next up: government waste!  This is all pretty much pablum

Nothing here yet on foreign policy – look for that to come up next….

(When it was smoked, did he inhale?   Yes, that’s the point!)

Note his language on foreign policy – it is positively Bushesque “We will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you”

Look for him to praise the START treaty, and to remain committed to keeping Iran and North Korea bottled up….otherwise, however, this is the Bush foreign policy extended….

Look for him to slip in, very carefully, a reference to allowing gays in the military – big applause line coming up when he says it….it’s hidden in reference to diversity in the armed forces, and it’s paired with a plea to reestablish ROTC on college campuses…

(I’m resting easier knowing he’s visiting El Salvador!)

Chris – the soaring rhetoric comes at the close – he’ll do the obligatory paean to what our country stands for, but you are right – this suffers from the laundry list aspect that always drags down the State of the Union….

In case you  are wondering, the military are not allowed to applaud – that’s not necessarily a reflection of their views toward gays in the military.

OK, he’s finishing up.  Another pitch for bipartisanship, and a reminder that it’s allright to disagree.

Interesting pirouette here – he’s going to bring in the Chilean mine rescue!  Pulling out all the stops!

Here comes the water works!

And now on to Chile…..notice that they are always small business owners?  This guy’s is an oilman!  Why don’t we ever stand up and applaud Rockefeller and Standard Oil?  Anyone see the irony of bashing the oil companies, yet praising the drilling company?

Do you know who buys their drilling equipment?  big oil!

OK, roughly an hour long.   Struck some broad themes.  but no one yelled “You lie!”  so the partisan rancor might have been muted by the seating arrangement.  Time for the talking heads – thoughts?

Some early impressions: I think Chris was right – the middle part began dragging with the obligatory effort to touch on so many issues, but without really proposing hard choices.  Big on theme, short on answers.  This was Reaganesque in some ways – more a campaign election opening speech than a sober analysis of what was wrong and how to fix it. I can’t be sure how much was foisted on him by his advisers – one of the big myths of these speeches is that the spring solely from the President’s pen.  He’s under a lot of pressure to put in items pressed on the White House by other interests.  (High speed rail, for instance).

Is the seating getting some attention?  I think it wasn’t the seating – it was the avoidance of red meat issues.  The only controversial issues he mentioned were immigration and repealing health care.  I think more of this was also the post-Tucson effect rather than the seating.

Don’t go away – Michele Bachmann is coming up!  Can you spell TEA PARTY! (Paul Ryan first – he’s bland but darn smart).

A couple of things to remember about the State of the Union – on average, (and I’ve blogged about this before), they have almost no impact on a president’s approval ratings.  so don’t look for this to be a turning point as so many have suggested.

Tarsi – you are right. Nothing he said was realistic in terms of laying down a roadmap for reducing the deficit.  And health care is an easy call, because he has the veto.  No risk there.

Ryan is on.  Look for him to outdo Obama on the details of the budget, if not in the soaring rhetoric.  It will be interesting to see just how detailed his deficit reduction plan is – and will it propose tax increases?  No it will not.

Where do we begin? With the job-killing killing – health care bill.   what constitutes responsible budgeting – will he say?  Nope.  He just promises they will produce a budget – but where’s the beef?  He’s no more inclined to lay out hard choices than Obama was – instead, it’s all about principles.

Hmmmm….those Republican principles sound familiar…let’s think….thinking…thinking….the Constitution!   The Republicans believe in the Constitution! Otherwise, there’s nothing here.   Let’s bring on Michele.

uh oh – Greece, Ireland….we’re next!  So, what does limited government mean?   I guess it means not relying on Washington or Wall St.  I guess that leaves Main St.

Tarsi – I agree.  There’s nothing here beyond platitudes.  But that’s probably to be expected.  How’s it playing with the talking heads?

Chris – merit pay for teachers at Middlebury?  I can tell you I work for free, so yes – I’m all for merit pay!

David Plouffe is on NBC – he’s coming back to the White House.  Let’s see how he spins the speech…

Tarsi – Usually the media are given a copy of the speech shortly beforehand, so this isn’t that new.  I think the White HOuse was going to add some bells and whistles to the presentation on the White House website – did anyone check it out?  (I was busy trying to get my Middlebury College computer to stop overheating!)

Chris – I don’t do it for the money.  But I could use a new computer.  I missed close to 20 minutes of blogging time just trying to find a loaner.  this can’t continue – it’s time for you and other alumni to write the President and get me a new computer.

I don’t get the cable here, (as you all know) – is Michele already on?  I can’t tell if NBC  is going to cover her?

There seems to be some discussion regarding Obama’s failure to address gun control – but the better question is why he didn’t address mental health treatment in this country.

Ok, apparently Michele gave her response and I missed it. I’ll have to check up on the internets.   Meanwhile, I’ll be on tomorrow, if I can, to assess the post-speech reaction.

(Thanks Chris for the Michele summary – sorry I missed it.  She was just on NBC to knock down rumors that she was competing with Ryan.)

Goodnight all….

A Tale of Two Speeches

The post-Arizona shooting speeches by President Obama and Sarah Palin provide a useful window for viewing their strengths and weaknesses as presidential candidates in 2012.  Obama’s speech  (see here) was largely (and correctly in my view) praised for its content, tone and delivery (despite the sometime raucous audience reception that seemed somewhat inappropriate for the somber occasion). In contrast to the highly inflammatory finger pointing that occurred shortly after the Arizona shooting, Obama pointedly rejected efforts to blame the tragedy on anyone but the shooter. And by focusing on the personal stories of the victims, interspersed with liberal references to Scripture and to enduring political values, his speech transcended partisan divisions and spoke instead to what unites Americans.  It was a potent reminder of not just Obama’s rhetorical skills, but also of the latent power of the presidency. In times of tragedy, people are more likely to view this office, and its occupant, as a symbol of national sovereignty as opposed to a political position and figure.  This typically produces a rally-round-the president effect and a short-term bump in presidential approval ratings.  The President becomes, in effect, the Healer-in-Chief.  Recall Ronald Reagan’s national address after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, or George W. Bush’s moving speech at the National Cathedral after 9-11. Obama’s Tucson speech is just the latest manifestation of this phenomenon.

The positive reaction to Obama’s speech led some pundits to suggest that it might prove to be a turning point in his presidency, similar to what happened, they claim, when Bill Clinton gave a similarly powerful speech in April 1995 in the wake of another national tragedy – the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 Americans.  I don’t disagree that in the aftermath of the Arizona shooting, Obama’s speech will likely produce a short-term spike in his approval ratings; indeed, we are already seeing evidence that this may be occurring.  According to Gallup’s three-day rolling tracking poll, Obama’s approval/disapproval rating stands at 51-41 today, up from 48-46 in the Jan. 5-7 average from just before the Jan. 8 shooting, and 48-45 in the three days before his Tucson speech.  If I’m reading the data correctly, this marks the highest approval rating for Obama in Gallup’s three-day tracking poll since May, 2010. To be sure, the modest gain is within the poll’s margin of error, so we can’t be certain whether it signifies anything more than statistical fluctuation inherent in survey samples.  And there is evidence that Obama was already receiving a modest rise in approval ratings even before the shooting.  (I’ll address why this might have happened in a separate post.)

Whether or not Obama is benefitting from a post-speech bump, the argument that his presidency may experience a reprise of Clinton’s Oklahoma City “turning point” misreads the impact of that event on Clinton’s presidency. Although the Oklahoma speech did provide a brief uptake in Clinton’s approval ratings, that bump soon dissipated as the following chart indicates.

Thereafter, however, Clinton’s approval ratings began a gradual improvement that persisted, more or less, to the end of his presidency.  What explained this turnabout? Rather than a single speech, what salvaged Clinton’s presidency was a steady increase in job growth, combined with a political strategy that capitalized on the public backlash to Republican overreach. But it took the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 to convince Clinton to tack to the Right by adopting Republican policies in areas such as law enforcement and welfare reform while using his veto to block more extreme Republican policies.  Over time, that strategy, against a backdrop of steady job growth, did much more to rehabilitate Clinton’s presidency than did the Oklahoma City speech.

Clearly this lesson has not been lost on Obama – every move he has made since the November shellacking has essentially reprised Clinton’s strategy. In addition to repudiating his own party and extending the Bush tax cuts for all income brackets, he has appointed centrists from Clinton’s presidency to key advising posts, and has made a number of campaign stops – most recently in upstate New York – designed to signal his post-election focus on jobs, jobs and jobs.  Whether this will lead to his reelection hinges primarily on whether voters perceive that the economy – particularly job growth – is moving in the right direction.  By 2012, the impact of the Tucson speech, if any, will have long dissipated.  This was an effective speech, but it was no turning point.

A few days after the Arizona shooting Sarah Palin gave her own response in a shorter speech posted on her website.  Poised against the backdrop of the American flag, Palin also sought to use the tragedy to remind Americans of core values – free speech, American exceptionalism and other “foundational freedoms”, and to transcend the bitter partisanship that characterized the initial response to the tragedy. In its own way, her speech was quite statesmanlike – even presidential.  But the media response – particularly its effort to dissect her use of the phrase “blood libel” – is a reminder of just how polarizing she remains.  The media reaction was undoubtedly partly provoked by Palin’s pointed critique in her speech of the post-shooting media feeding frenzy that initially focused on whether Palin’s rhetoric had “caused” the shooting – a charge that Palin understandably rejects. But the reaction also reminds us of the different institutional vantage points occupied by Obama and Palin. Obama’s use of the presidency to eulogize the Arizona shooting victims and to derive important moral lessons was viewed by most as perfectly appropriate for the occasion. In the aftermath of a national tragedy, we expect the President to play a healing and unifying role. Lacking an equivalent vantage point, however, Palin’s words were interpreted differently, as the latest volley in a partisan skirmish in which she was a central combatant. Her remarks were viewed as self-serving, whereas Obama’s were not.

The two speeches, then, remind us of the limits faced by both candidates as they gear up for the 2012 election. Obama’s Tucson speech represents not a turning point, but instead a momentary opportunity to rise above partisan politics.  To his credit, he capitalized on this moment.  But it is an opportunity that is unlikely to be replicated in the months ahead, as he begins to campaign in earnest on issues that will prove more often than not quite divisive.  If his approval ratings rise, it will be because unemployment drops, and because increasingly voters will evaluate him not in isolation, but in a head-to-head comparison with potential Republican rivals.  Palin, on the other hand, had the more difficult task in her post-shooting speech.  She also tried to achieve the moral high ground by citing overarching American values, but to do so meant also criticizing those who blamed her, however recklessly, for inciting the Arizona murders. That she failed to accomplish this says less about her speech than it does about her lack of an equivalent vantage point from which to transcend – even momentarily – the politics of polarization that has become such a central part of her public persona.

It’s Time To Start A-Campaigning!

Matt D’Auria has updated the White House staff retention data beginning with Bill Clinton’s second term in 1997-1998 through the end the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009.  Here’s a graph of his findings. Note that that these are based on White House staff listings in the U.S. Government Manual, and include only senior-level White House aides and their immediate assistants. The data do not include lower-level White House clerical staff.  Nor, in contrast to the data I posted yesterday, does it include any cabinet members.

As you can see, the results are consistent with the post-1970 reform era retention patterns I discussed in yesterday’s post. Most noticeably, we see the familiar reduction in retention rates in the period 2003-04, as Bush begins to gear up for his reelection bid.  I’ve not yet had the chance to integrate Matt’s data with the data compiled for the period 1929-1997 by Katie Dunn Tenpas and me, but here are the side by side averages for each year of the presidents’ terms during the three time periods: 1929-1970, 1971-1997, and the latest figures. (Keep in mind that the figures aren’t strictly comparable since the first two retention columns include cabinet members while the most recent one does not, in addition to differences in the number of years covered and electoral contexts.)

Term Year Pre-Reform 1929-70 Post-Reform 1971-97 1998-2009
Year 1 .42 .28 .43. (.645 if 2000-01 and 2008-09 periods of complete turnover are excluded)
Year 2 .86 .75 .72
Year 3 .82 .64 .72
Year 4 .83 .71 .52

Again, the important point is that retention rates within the White House staff continues to lag from the levels recorded prior to 1970-71, indicating a continuation of the higher rate of staff turnover characteristic of recent years.  We see less of a dip from year 2 to 3 in the post-1997 data, but keep in mind that this includes retention rates from both Clinton’s and Bush’s second term, when neither president was gearing up for reelection.  On the other hand, retention rates in year four of the presidents’ terms in this most recent dataset are lower than in the previous time periods.  Although this partly reflects the exodus of Clinton’s aides in 1999-2000 and Bush’s in 2007-08 in anticipation of the end of both presidencies, it is also the case that the highest turnover in Bush’s White House staff occurred during the transition from his 3rd to 4rth year, as he moved into full reelection mode. (Reminder: the data indicate the percent of aides in the year listed who also served in the White House during the previous year. Note that because there’s a time lag between when the staff listings are submitted to the Government Printing Office and when the Manual comes out, and because the Manual spans calendar years, the demarcation in the data between yearly listings isn’t as neat as one might like. So, for example, the retention rate for 2002 below actually measures those in Bush’s White House staff as of sometime in late summer, 2002 who were also in the White House a year previous). With those caveats in mind, here are the retention rates for years 1-4 of Bush’s first term.

2001 0
2002 0.86
2003 0.625
2004 0.48

We see, then, that almost 40% of Bush’s White House staff serving in the late summer, 2002, were gone by the following year, and more than half of those working in the White House during the late summer, 2003 had left by the time the campaign was in full gear in 2004.

Several of you have wondered whether the higher turnover simply reflects increased levels of staff “burnout” in the modern era due to more stressful working conditions, rather than impact of reforms affecting presidential campaigning. When Dunn Tenpas and I estimated the impact of the changing presidential selection process on retention rates for the period 1929-1997, we controlled for each aide’s/cabinet secretary’s previous length of service. Even when accounting for previous time served, we still found a pattern in which turnover increased as a function of the post-reform electoral changes. So burnout is unlikely to be the only factor at work here.

If I can, I’ll try to update our statistical analysis for the post-1997 period.  However, if the post-reform turnover pattern holds, by this time next year between 30%-40% of Obama’s current White House staff will be working elsewhere.  Why? Because (with apologies to the immortal Bob Dylan):  It’s time to start a-campaigning!

Why Gibbs Really Resigned (and why Daley Was Hired)

Why did Robert Gibbs decide to step down as Obama’s press secretary? (For that matter, why was Bill Daley hired as chief of staff?)  In his public statement Gibbs cited personal reasons, noting his desire “to occasionally drive his young son to school.”  Others observed that, as former Bush aide Ari Fleischer put it, serving as press secretary is “the ultimate burnout job.”  It is also no secret that Gibbs, like previous White House staffers, is hoping to capitalize financially on his White House experience.  Finally, rumors swirling today suggest that incoming chief of staff Bill Daley forced Gibbs out – a charge Gibbs denies.

I have no doubt that some combination of these factors contributed in part to Gibbs’ decision to step down. But these explanations ignore a more fundamental reason for Gibb’s resignation: Obama’s senior staff is undergoing the restructuring that most presidential staffs undergo after a president’s second year in office, as they begin transitioning from governing to campaigning.  Note that in addition to Gibbs, Obama in recent weeks has replaced or will replace many of his senior level advisers, including his interim chief of staff Peter Rouse, chief aide David Axelrod and senior economic adviser Larry Summers.  Meanwhile, former campaign manager David Plouffe will come on board as a White House aide. This turnover is hardly unprecedented – in two articles jointly authored with Katie Dunn Tenpas, I examined staff retention rates among presidential advisers, including both senior White House aides and cabinet secretaries, during the period 1929-1997.  As the following table indicates, we found that staff retention rates began dropping beginning approximately in the early 1970’s. (The lowest levels indicate changes in presidential administrations when, as you might expect, almost no aides are retained.)

What explains this drop in retention rates after 1970?  We argued that it reflects a change in the way presidential campaigns are run.  As we wrote in our 2001 article, “Prior to the campaign finance and delegate selection reforms of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the traditional party structure–the loose federation of party leaders at the national, state and local levels–provided most of a president’s campaign expertise.  The national party organization charted campaign strategy, solicited donations and coordinated the overall reelection effort in response to presidential direction.”  This is no longer the case. A series of reforms beginning after the 1968 election, including changes in campaign finance, the growing use of primaries, and new norms of media coverage, created the candidate-centered presidential selection system familiar to us today.

Why should this development adversely affect staff retention rates? We write, “In the parties’ stead, the president’s personal staff has assumed campaign dominance, its members taking major responsibility for providing expertise pertaining to voter mobilization, campaign strategy, spending, policy and media relations. The growing prominence of presidential candidates’ (including incumbent presidents’) personal staffs as purveyors of campaign expertise” has led to increased staff turnover during the post-reform period.

The reason is that, as I have noted in previous posts, governing and campaigning in the post-electoral reform era are, to a certain extent, relatively distinct processes.  As a consequence the expertise a president requires from his staff to govern is not always the same skill set he needs for campaigning. Moreover, federal law prohibits White House aides from engaging in purely campaign-related activities while operating on the government payroll. This means, for example, that White House aides must use separate email accounts and communication devices when performing campaign functions as opposed to governing-related tasks. As a result, it is often easier simply to move a senior aide from the West Wing to the campaign staff so that they can focus exclusively on the reelection campaign, which is evidently what will happen with Axelrod.

The bottom line is that the recent turnover among Obama’s senior-level staff is driven in part by systemic factors that affect all White Houses in the post-reform, primary-dominated electoral era.  As evidence, note that the mean retention rate for the electoral pre-reform, pre-1971 41-year period is 74% (n=1,284), a statistically significant different average than the post-reform (1972-1997) mean of 59% (n=2,431). As the following table indicates, these aggregate figures reflect statistically significant differences in retention rates across specific years of a presidential term as well.

Year After Election (Includes All Presidential Terms) Pre-Reform Retention Rate Post-Reform Retention Rate
First .42 .28
Second .86 .75
Third .82 .64
Fourth .83 .71

It is not surprising, of course, that retention rates are lowest in the first year of a presidential term, coming off the election campaign. Obviously there will be almost complete turnover if a new president is elected. But even reelected presidents often reshuffle their senior staff at the start of the first year of a second term. Note, however, that consistent with our argument the next lowest rate of retention in the post-reform period occurs in the third year of a presidential term – precisely where we are at in Obama’s presidency.  This is not the case, however, in the pre-reform period – retention rates in that era do not vary across years 2-4 of a president’s term.

The bottom line?  The modern White House staff moves to a somewhat predictable rhythm, one dictated by a president’s administrative needs.  When a president moves from governing to campaign mode, as Obama is now doing, the expertise he seeks from his senior aides changes as well.  This invariably produces higher level of staff turnover. News accounts often portray these changes in terms of individual factors, such as staff burnout, personality clashes, the aide’s perceived ineffectiveness or an internal power struggle (Daley forces Gibbs Out!) While not totally discounting these factors, the primary cause for the staff overhaul that we see in the Obama presidency now is systemic, not individual.  Simply put, Obama is running for reelection and he is reshaping his White House accordingly.

Addendum:  For those interested in reading the original study to which this post refers, including methods and data, see Matthew J. Dickinson and Kathryn Tenpas  “Explaining Increasing Turnover Rates Among Presidential Advisors, 1929-1997,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 64, No. 2, May 2002.  If I get the chance, I’ll update the retention data through 2010.