Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Politics of Natural Disasters

As natural disasters go, President Obama has – knock on wood – been luckier than his predecessor.  That thought came to me on Monday as I waited for emergency crews to reconnect the power and telephone lines to my house. Both had been severed by a single tree felled during tropical storm Irene’s leisurely jaunt through Vermont at  the tail end of its travels up the eastern seaboard.  I was lucky – the tree only grazed the house, power was restored after a day, and I was spared the flooding that hit much of Vermont, including throughout my town, and which completely cut off communication with at least a dozen nearby Vermont communities.  As of today, helicopters are ferrying supplies to those communities while road crews work around the clock to repair damaged roads. And I have been busy cutting firewood.

Make no mistake – it could have been much worse. It is true that Vermont took a historic beating, with water levels in many rivers and creeks cresting at heights never previously recorded.  And the cleanup is only beginning.  It will be days, and even weeks, before roads are made passable and power restored to many areas. But the loss of life was minimal – four dead in Vermont and less than 50 in total attributed to the storm so far – in no small part because state and local authorities were proactive in requesting federal emergency authority to mobilize emergency response teams, and in issuing mandatory evacuations.  Indeed, the biggest complaint heard in the aftermath of Irene is that authorities overreacted, particularly in ordering the evacuations.  A full evaluation of the civil authorities’ overall response must await the cleanup efforts, of course, but the initial perception is that the coordination between local, state and federal forces has been relatively smooth.  In Vermont, local officials have taken the lead in the initial emergency preparations and responses, under state coordination. The feds are mostly providing resources and, in time, will provide disaster relief money. That partly reflects the decentralized nature of the storm’s impact, at least in Vermont, where authorities have to deal with 250+ communities, many of them containing less than 1,000 people.  Under these circumstances, local control over relief efforts is imperative.

This, of course, is in stark contrast to what happened in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast while George W. Bush was president.  To be sure, at Category 5, Katrina was a more powerful storm than Irene, which had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached New England.  And New Orleans, as the famous National Geographic film watched by every schoolchild of a certain generation reminded us, is a city that is built largely below sea level, in a bowl-shaped depression. The geography alone meant it was a disaster waiting to happen.  The only question was when.

But, as Time Magazine’s Michael Grunwald documents in the end, Katrina was primarily a man-made, and not a natural disaster. And the primary culprit is one almost no one talks about: the Army Corps of Engineers, whose malfeasance in this instance was aided and abetted for years by the local congressional delegation. The immediate failure was the breaching of the system of flood control levees designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to withstand surging waters from hurricanes.  As it turned out, those levees were poorly designed and constructed, and proved not up to the task. But the more deep-rooted cause of the Katrina catastrophe was the Corps’ policy, at the behest of local members of Congress, of building “water control projects”: levees, dams, artificial lakes and irrigation channels that destroyed thousands of acres of wetlands which provided a natural barrier against storm-induced flooding.  The water projects were intended to benefit local businesses, including fisherman as well as the oil industry.   But by destroying the wetlands, the Corps eliminated a natural shock absorber that would have helped minimize flooding in the delta region.  Given this decades-old policy, it was only a matter of time before a Katrina-like event would flood New Orleans.  It was George W. Bush’s bad luck that it happened on his watch.

This is not to absolve Bush of his share of responsibility – he was, as he later admitted, far too respectful of local and state authority in the initial hours after Katrina struck.  When Louisiana Governor Kathleen Bianco proved slow in requesting the federal government to take charge of the emergency response, Bush hesitated rather than federalizing the National Guard on his own and ordering military troops in as well. Eventually he did so, but by then the damage was done. But Bush’s error was only the latest in a sequence of mistakes, beginning with Mayor Nagin’s initial decision to order a “voluntary” evacuation before making it mandatory and a more general lack of coordination between local, state and federal officials in responding to Katrina.  These errors culminated with FEMA’s botched response under the leadership of Mike (Heckuva job, Brownie) Brown.

As Hurricane Irene headed toward the east coast, it was clear that local politicians, particularly the state governors Christie and Cuomo, and New York Mayor Bloomberg – all of whom are rumored to be potential presidential candidates down the road – were not going to make Bianco’s mistake.  Mindful no doubt of the Katrina precedent, they all moved quickly in requesting authority from Obama to declare an emergency, and when the hurricane hits their states, they made sure to visit constituents, on the ground, to show their concern.  Indeed, I could not listen to a news broadcast without seeing a somber-faced elected official, usually with jacket off and shirt sleeves rolled up, listing the disaster preparation steps that were underway.  And that included the President, who cut short his vacation to return to the White House and give a nationwide address warning of the severity of the hurricane, and who thereafter made sure to visit, along with FEMA director Craig Fugate, local and state emergency crews on the ground in affected areas.  There would be no visuals of Obama flying over disaster areas.

To be sure, Obama is not completely clear of political controversy in Irene’s aftermath; already there is grumbling from some officials that FEMA is pulling money out of relief efforts in other regions hit earlier by tornadoes in order to fund the cleanup in areas affected by Irene.  But so far he has escaped the criticism that befell Bush and his FEMA team (and that Obama endured during the Gulf oil spill crisis, another event for which a president took blame although it was largely Congress’ fault.)   The differing perceptions may say less about their respective handling of the two crises and more about the hurricanes themselves, and where they hit.  If so, it is a reminder that disasters choose their presidents, and not vice versa.

Meamwhile, I leave you with a glimpse of Irene’s local impact: the destruction of an iconic covered bridge in the town of Quechee.




Is Obama The Strongest Democrat (as Silver Suggests)?

Is Nate Silver right? Is Obama the strongest candidate Democrats can put forward in 2012?  A student forwarded me this New York Times’ column by Silver in which he takes issue with my suggestion in this widely-circulated post  that Hillary Clinton might in fact be a stronger candidate for Democrats.  (Interestingly, Silver studiously refrains from actually mentioning Voldemort’s …. Er ….Hillary’s name until very late in the post, and then not in the context of her actually  challenging Obama.  Instead he speaks of unnamed Democrats! )

Silver pushes back on my premise, arguing instead that “The evidence, if anything points in the opposite direction: Mr. Obama is more popular than his policies, and probably gives Democrats a better chance of maintaining the White House than another Democrat [Voldemort?] would.”  As evidence, Silver cites three factors:

1.First, Obama’s personal favorability ratings, at about 50%, are high relative to his job approval ratings which have sunk to 40%. He suggests that because voters like Obama personally, they may be more inclined to vote for him.

2. Second, Obama’s low approval ratings are higher than they should be given voters’ generally pessimistic view regarding the state of the nation.  Conclusion? See point one.

3. Third, there’s no reason to think any other Democrat would be able to “shed Mr. Obama’s liabilities on the economy.” Moreover, his policy views track very closely to the “typical” Democrat in Congress.  So, even if another Democrat ran, “the message would be mostly the same – but delivered by a Democrat who was probably no more effective than Mr. Obama, and who would lack the aesthetic and tactical advantages of being an incumbent president”.

Silver adds a final thought: that if Obama voluntarily stepped down he would be viewed as a “quitter” and – citing the historical examples of Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968 – there’s no reason to expect that his replacement would do any better.

Silver makes an interesting argument, but in the end I am not yet persuaded that he is right. To begin, as I have discussed repeatedly at this site, political science forecast models based on the “fundamentals”: – war casualties, growth in disposal income, changes in GDP – leave little room for the impact of candidate “favorability” ratings on electoral outcomes.  This actually is consistent with Silver’s third point, if not his first two – that any Democrat will be hobbled by the same conditions that, as of now, put Obama’s reelection in doubt. However, it is possible that in a very close race – and right now several of the forecast models suggest 2012 will be such a race – a candidate’s favorability ratings might matter at the margins. Rather than assume that Obama’s comparatively high favorability rating make him the de facto strongest candidate, however, we should see if any other  Democrats are viewed even more favorably?  Thinking, thinking….why yes!  Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings have been consistently in the mid-60% range, significantly higher than Obama’s, dating back to the end of 2009 (as have her approval ratings).  Here’s a Gallup poll comparison from last March.

Note in particular her support among independents –  a key voting bloc that Obama won in 2008, but which Democrats lost in the 2010 midterms, as well as with Republicans.  Indeed, it is these groups that give her the advantage over Obama;  they have roughly equal favorability ratings among Democrats.

To be sure, these high favorability numbers will likely drop if she announces her candidacy – but by how much?  That’s an empirical question.

Keep in mind that although current polling typically has Hillary with a higher favorability rating than Obama, that was not the case in 2007-08, however; then her favorability ratings were consistently 5-10% below Obama’s.


However, even in the depths of the 2008 nomination fight, Clinton’s favorability ratings hovered near 50%, about even with her unfavorability ratings, in the Gallup poll.  In the CNN polls of registered voters during the 2008 nomination battle she retained even more impressive favorability/unfavorability ratings.

So, assuming candidate favorability comes into play at the margins in a close 2012 election – a big assumption – the question we need to ask is whether Clinton’s current advantage in favorability (and approval ratings) over Obama will be sustained, or will it revert to its 2008 component, or will it adjust somewhere in between? Interestingly, in this earlier post Silver suggests a potential answer: looking at the last three presidential elections, he finds a statistically significant if not substantively huge correlation between candidates’ favorability ratings in the six months before the nomination process officially kicks off in Iowa and those candidates’ favorability ratings during the actual post-Iowa primary season.  That is, early favorability ratings help predict later ones, up to a point.  If Silver is right, Hillary’s current advantage over Obama in favorability ratings may continue through the primary season.  Of course, there are all sorts of caveats to this analysis. In particular, should we use favorability ratings of someone who is not a declared candidate as a starting point?   And given the not exactly robust correlation between early and late favorability ratings, is the current difference between Clinton and Obama even substantively meaningful?

I confess I don’t know the answer to those questions.  But without those answers, I cannot, as yet, accept Silver’s argument that Obama is likely to be the strongest Democratic candidate; an equally valid case can be made that Clinton will run stronger.  Interestingly, the biggest advantage Clinton is likely to have is precisely the one that Silver cites in Obama’s favor, namely, she would lack the aesthetic and tactical DISadvantages of being an incumbent president!  In the end, Obama must run on his record.  Clinton can run on the promise of hope and change.  In a close election, that might be enough to win.

(NOTE: I’m writing a separate post on Silver’s second point that Obama’s approval ratings are outperforming the economy, so will postpone discussion of that.)

Why History Suggests Obama Should Face A Primary Challenge

Will Barack Obama face a primary challenge?  If history is an accurate guide – a big if for reasons I discuss below – he should. Dating back to 1948, incumbent presidents with a combination of low approval ratings against the backdrop of poor economic conditions have almost always been challenged for their party’s nomination.  In the table below, I present every post-W.W. II  incumbents’ approval rating and the misery index (a combination of the inflation and unemployment rate) at the time when a candidate announced, or might be expected to announce a challenge to the sitting president.  For ease of interpretation I’ve arrayed them in descending order, based on the misery index.

 President and Year of Reelection  Gallup Approval  Misery Index At Time of Convention or Announced Challenged  Challenged for Nomination?
Carter – 1980 51% (December 1979)


Ford -1976 41% (November, 1975)


Truman – 1948 40% (June, 1948)


Obama – 2012 40% Current


Reagan – 1984 52% (Jan.1984)


Bush I -1992 52.2% (December 1991)


Nixon – 1972 49% (Jan. 1972)


Clinton -1996 42% (Jan. 1996)


Bush II – 2004 49% (Jan. 2004)


LBJ 1964 74% (June 1964)


Eisenhower 1956 73% (June 1956)



*In January 1948 Henry Wallace bolted the Democratic Party to run as a Progressive, while Strom Thurmond campaigned as 3rd party candidate after the Democratic Convention.

This is a relatively simple but I think effective gauge of an incumbent’s perceived vulnerability.  To be sure, there are a couple of apparent anomalies.  Jimmy Carter was challenged by Ted Kennedy, and Jerry Brown, despite approval ratings at the start of the election year above 50%.  But that is misleading – Carter’s approval rating was temporarily buoyed by the rally-round-the-flag effect caused by the Iranian takeover of the American embassy in November, 1979.  Prior to that event, and during the period Kennedy was deciding whether to run, Carter’s approval ratings were mired in the 30% range.

The other apparent outlier is Ronald Reagan, who faced no significant internal challenge in 1984 despite a misery index above 12.  However, as indicated by his relatively high approval ratings, Reagan was benefiting from the comparison with the conditions he had inherited from his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who saw the misery index peak at above 20 when he left office. The subsequent decline in the index over the next four years, particularly in inflation because of Fed’s tight money policy, bolstered Reagan’s approval ratings and scared away any challenge.

Based on the historical comparison, then, it appears that Obama’s current approval rating, coupled with a double-digit misery index should invite a primary challenge.  If so, one would expect it to be announced no later than December. But will anyone step up to the plate?  Despite the usual rumors, no credible candidate appears on the horizon as yet.  I’ve already speculated about a Clinton challenge, and what it might take to trigger it.  But it might be more helpful to consider why, despite the historical pattern, Obama might not face a challenge.  I can think of at least three reasons.

1. Money.  Obama smashed all fundraising records his last time around (and in the process likely put the nail in the coffin of public campaign financing).   Early reports show that he hasn’t lost the Midas touch; his second quarter earnings, in conjunction with contributions to the DNC, reached $86 million, shattering all records for this time period before an election.  It’s hard to see how an opponent could match that.

2. Race.  If I heard it once from you, I heard it a thousand times: that African-Americans in particular, but also many other Democrats, would view a primary challenge as a “stab in the back” of the nation’s first black president.  For this reason, it would prove unusually divisive. No one wants to risk that controversy.

3. History. Look again at the table above. None of the four challenges to incumbent presidents succeeded, although two – those by Reagan in 1976 and Kennedy in 1980 – went all the way to the convention.  Nonetheless, if the historical record suggests a challenge is likely, it also tells us that such a challenge won’t succeed. So why bother?

To these I might add a fourth reason: the Democrats lack a candidate with the stature of a Kennedy or Reagan to take on Obama.  Sure, there are some progressives, such as Dennis Kucinich who could carry the torch for the Left, but they lack the political clout to seriously challenge the President.  So who does that leave? Al Gore?  He has name recognition, but may be too tarnished by personal issues at this point.  Andrew Cuomo?  Too young and inexperienced.  Howard Dean?  Been there, done that.   Indeed, in considering likely candidates, one is struck by just how weak the Democrat Party lineup is at this stage.  I can’t think of a single Democratic politician with the stature, name recognition and built in support to take on an incumbent whose record in most years would invite such a challenge.

Can you?

A Weak Republican Field – Says Who?

As recently as this past May 20, Republicans lamented and Democrats took comfort in the conventional wisdom that the current crop of Republican presidential candidates constituted one of the weakest fields in recent memory. In less than three months, however, that conventional wisdom is about to be turned on its head if, as media sources suggest, several name-brand Republicans are really reconsidering whether to mount a challenge against the President. If this story is correct,  former New York Governor George Pataki is now seriously (re)considering whether to join the race. Pataki could be joined by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Meanwhile, Republican pundit and former White House aide Karl Rove indicated yesterday that Sarah Palin was likely to enter the race as well. Not to be outdone, confidants of House Republican Paul Ryan say he too is considering a run for the president.  Finally, after consistently denying any interest in running, rumors are now swirling that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is reconsidering  his decision whether to run for president.

Let me state at the outset that these are only media-inspired rumors; none of these candidates, as of this writing, have publicly declared their candidacy.  We should also remember that when it comes to running for the presidency, politicians live by the adage “the only bad publicity is no publicity.”  Nonetheless, I think the sudden surge in media stories about potential candidacies is not mere coincidence.  In this case, where there’s smoke, there is also likely fire. And it is easy to locate the spark.

We are now less than 15 months from the 2012 election, and the stark reality is that unemployment is unlikely to drop below 8% by then. Keeping in mind that we are generalizing from a small number of cases, the plain fact is that no president in the modern era has won reelection with unemployment at that level or higher.  If we consider presidential forecast models based on changes in disposable income or GDP instead, the scenario is not much better from the President’s perspective: at best, current economic projections based on these factors put the race at a dead heat, or worse.  This could change in the next year, but the economic fundamentals as of today are not comforting for the administration.

One does not need to be a political scientist to see the handwriting on the wall: this President is in deep, deep electoral trouble. In my view, it is the increasing evidence of Obama’s electoral vulnerability that explains why name-brand Republicans are now apparently seriously considering a run for the presidency.  Simply put, what we are seeing is an illustration of Gary Jacobsen’s argument that congressional candidates’ decision whether to challenge the incumbent are systematically informed by their evaluations of the likelihood that they can win. When conditions favor a challenge to the incumbent, the opposition candidate field becomes stronger.  The same logic, I argue, is driving these name-brand Republicans to reconsider whether to challenge Obama. The President’s approval ratings are at a low point with indications that they will drop some more,  economic reports suggest little-to-no job growth,  economic growth remains sluggish, and the stock market has been volatile, with several days of deep drops. All this has created a growing perception, fueled by media reports, that the President is “in over his head”.  Sensing his vulnerability, Republicans who otherwise might pass up the chance to challenge a sitting president are reconsidering their options.  In so doing, they may be remembering 1992, when a number of prominent Democrats took a pass at challenging incumbent President George H.W. Bush, leaving an opportunity for the lesser known Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton to enter the race.  When the economy went south, Clinton capitalized.  Republicans do not want to make the same mistake in 2012.

How long can these potential Republican candidates wait before officially declaring whether to run? As I noted in this post discussing a possible Rick Perry candidacy, the trend in recent years has been for earlier candidate announcements. In 2008, the declaration of candidacy took place on average about a year and a half before the election, give or take a month or two .  This chart shows the average announcement date for presidential candidates in the last three presidential election cycle.

The trend, as you can see, is for earlier declaration by presidential candidates.  We have already passed the 2008 average declaration date, but this doesn’t necessarily preclude someone entering the race in the next few months. As I told a reporter today, based on this data, I would think that any Republican considering whether to enter the race would likely do so no later than December.  That would be late by recent standards, but not prohibitively so. Keep in mind that all of the candidates-in-waiting have decent name recognition and, in some cases, have already established a fundraising infrastructure, so there is less pressure to announce earlier.  Nonetheless, waiting does raise the risk that they will be competing for a dwindling pool of donations.

The latest stories are a reminder that perceptions of candidate quality are based in part on assessments regarding the incumbent’s electoral vulnerability.  In the final analysis, a “strong candidate” is one that does better than expected – but expectations can evolve, based on changes in the fundamentals that drive election outcomes.  And right now, those fundamentals suggest that Obama is in the fight of his political life.  If, as current projections suggest, the 2012 election is now likely to be a dead heat, the marginal impact of candidate qualities may be more significant than usual in determining the election outcome.  That’s not necessarily good news for those who are used to relying on our forecast models to predict the winner by September, but perhaps the excitement of a close race will compensate for the uncertainty.

The One Thing Obama Must Do To Achieve Presidential Greatness

What is the one step presidents must take to insure their historical legacy as effective leaders?

I’ve addressed this issue in previous posts, but want to revisit it today in light of Michael Kazin’s  article at the TNR website in which he tries to put Obama’s falling popularity in some historical context.  After reciting the litany of woes affecting Obama’s presidency, Kazin notes that “Such a descent is neither a remarkable nor an exceptional development in American politics, which might provide a bit of ironic comfort to Obama as he peddles around Martha’s Vineyard. In fact, the history of the modern presidency is replete with disappointment and failure.”  For Kazin, only “four post-TR chief executives retired from the job with their popularity and reputations either intact or enhanced: Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan.”  We can quibble with Kazin’s list (I’ve dealt with the issue of presidential rankings many times here), but that’s not what I find troubling about his article.  Instead it’s his failure to fully address what factors contribute  to the perception of presidential effectiveness.

Kazin suggests that in time (but how much time?) Obama’s considerable accomplishments “may yet restore his image as an effective leader.”  Kazin cites the health care act, the Dodd-Frank banking bill, the auto company bailout, “and perhaps even the 2009 stimulus” as acts that will be viewed more favorably in the future. For that to happen, however, Obama must jettison his post-midterm strategy of trying to reach agreement with Republicans.  Instead, he must return to “the bold stance he promised during his 2008 campaign” and make a “serious effort to reverse the nation’s decline” rather than “trying to assuage his critics with timid rhetoric about civility and compromise.”

Kazin is correct that most presidents leave office less popular than when they entered – but there are presidents who leave with lower popularity – and then there are Jimmy Carter-type failures.  The essential ingredient that differentiates Carter-type failure from lesser failure, and which ties the successful presidents together is whether the president won reelection to a second term.  Consider Kazin’s successful presidents: Coolidge took office when Harding died, but he easily won reelection in 1924.  Roosevelt, of course won four presidential elections. Both Eisenhower and Reagan served two full terms.  Winning reelection does not guarantee one’s historical legacy as a great, or good, president,  but it is the necessary first step.  Without it a president is destined to sit in the ranks of the average or below average presidents.

If Obama is to reverse the growing perceptions that his is a failed presidency, then, the first and most essential step is to win in 2012.  How can he do so? Here Kazin is guilty of recycling the tired progressive line that an Obama victory can be achieved by changing his public tone and demeanor, in order to rediscover his 2008 election mojo. Presumably that means stop playing nice and instead come out fighting.  That advice ignores the more fundamental factors that contributed to Obama’s 2008 win, particularly voter dissatisfaction with Republicans, a sluggish economy and growing fatigue with the Iraq war – fundamentals that now suggest 2012 is a dead heat, at best.   These fundamentals aren’t much affected by changes in the incumbent president’s rhetorical stance or public attitude. Nor it is obvious why a return to the “bold stance” (whatever that means) that Obama exhibited in his first two years will be a surefire recipe for turning his presidency around. Indeed, it was that “bold stance”, and the legislation it engendered, that contributed, along with the sluggish economy, to the historic Republican gains in 2010. In particular, studies show that members of Congress who supported the stimulus and health care legislation suffered at the polls.

If Obama wants to join the pantheon of effective presidents, then, the first step is to win in 2012. Alas, as of today – with my usual reminder that there is still time for conditions to change – the trend lines do not bode well for Obama’s reelection. Consider the latest polling in Pennsylvania – a state critical to Obama’s 2012 reelection and which he won in 2008.  A poll released today shows his support dropping rapidly, with only 35% of registered voters approving of the job he is doing, down 10% in 6 months. However, he still beats a “generic Republican” in that state by 36%-31%.  That suggests that who the Republicans nominate may, in a close race, be the determining factor in Pennsylvania. Indeed, if the race is as close as the numbers currently suggest, who the Republican nominee is will play a larger role in determining the overall election outcome than it did in 2008.  From a purely horserace perspective, 14 months out, this is shaping up to be a very exciting race.  (Insert Dickinson caveats here.)

Nationally, of course, Obama’s approval ratings are at the lowest point of his presidency, amid continue reports of sluggish job growth.  It’s not immediately clear how Kazin’s strategy promises to reverse either those polling numbers, or the faltering economy that is driving them in the wrong direction. At this stage, talk is cheap. Instead, Obama needs as a first step to get legislation through Congress that shows the potential for stimulating economic growth – and that means working with Republicans, not castigating them as paragons of evil.

It may be that Kazin is right – that at some point we will look back at Obama’s presidency and realize that it accomplished a great deal.  But it makes a considerable difference to his historical legacy if that turning point takes place in the next 12 months, or the next 12 years.  His chances of joining the pantheon of above- average presidents, rather than the below- average cohort, depends first and foremost on the outcome of the 2012 election.

Addendum: Apropos of my previous post, the White House released this photo today showing the president receiving a national security briefing while on vacation. I understand the logic driving the decision to release the photo, but it says something about the state of political discourse today that the administration felt compelled to “prove” the President is keeping up with events.