Monthly Archives: August 2011

Vacation Advice to the President: Avoid The Nude Beach

If it’s August, I know three things will happen:

1. France will essentially shut down;

2. I’ll be late writing my APSA paper;

3. The President will be criticized for taking a vacation.

And right on cue, the lead story in most media outlets today centered on the critical reaction to the First Family’s departure for a 10-day stay at Martha’s Vineyard. It is, of course, now customary for the political opposition to rail against the President’s willingness to take time off while the country’s future is at stake. And at taxpayer’s expense, no less!  (Never mind that the lodging is paid for privately – what about all those security and transportation costs!)  President Bush’s travels to his Crawford, Texas ranch elicited the same indignant reaction, as did Bill Clinton’s vacations (which often included trips to Martha’s Vineyard as well), George H. W. Bush’s frequent stays at the family compound in Kennebunkport (where he terrorized the locals in his speedboat) and Ronald Reagan’s regular trips west to his California ranch to clear brush, and ride horses with Nancy.

I don’t know when taking a vacation started becoming bad politics, although I think it began with Reagan’s trips to California. Of course August is always a slow news month, which makes it easier to justify running the “Should the President Be on Vacation At a Time Like This?” story. Although this is the Obamas’ third trip to Martha’s Vineyard, the attacks on him seem more intense this time. I think this is for at least two reasons.  First, the stock market’s recent roller-coaster ride has entered another downward plunge, amid continuing reports of weak job growth. Second, we are deep into the invisible primary season, and his vacation timing and locale provides ample fodder for Republican candidates out on the campaign hustings to scold the president for his seeming obliviousness to the plight of the common man.  For example, consider Mitt Romney’s remarks from two days ago:  “if you’re the president of the United States, and the nation is in crisis, and we’re in a jobs crisis right now, then you shouldn’t be out vacationing.”

Of course, the choice of locale doesn’t help. Much of the criticism centers on the message the President seems to be sending by staying in opulent vacations digs hobnobbing with the glitterati at a time when almost 1 in 10 Americans lack jobs.  As one columnist put it, “Which begs the question – why did the president go ahead with his vacation despite the worst approval ratings of his presidency, plunging stock markets, falling consumer confidence, and overwhelming public disillusion with his handling of the economy? I think the answer lies in Obama’s professorial-style arrogance, and a condescending approach towards ordinary Americans.”

Forgive me if I don’t share the outrage. The reality is that presidential vacations aren’t like the ones you and I take (if I ever took one!). Sure, there’s some recreational downtime.  But it’s mostly much of the same daily grind: the intelligence briefing, the meeting with staff, the constant stream of memoranda and official documents. In terms of intensity, I think it’s a lot closer to vacationing with Clark Griswold and his family: things are always going wrong, and the stress level is very high.

Moreover, Obama’s vacationing no more frequently than did his immediate predecessors. Indeed, at this point, Obama’s vacation time (I don’t count time spent at Camp David) seems about average for presidents.  By one count, in their first year as president, Reagan (42 vacation days) and both Bushes spent more time on vacation than did Obama, while Clinton and Carter spent less. (I’ve never been to Plains, GA, but perhaps the locale partly explains Carter’s aversion to vacationing? Or maybe Democrats just work harder.)

In any case, Obama has a ways to go to match his immediate predecessor’s vacation time. Across his eight years as president Bush took 77 vacation trips to his Texas ranch, spending 69 days there during his first year alone.  By comparison, Obama only vacationed 26 days during year one of his presidency.  And this doesn’t count the more than 450 days Bush spent at Camp David. Similarly, Clinton spent 171 days “on vacation” during his eight years.  Keep in mind as well that Obama has two kids, and something tells me they have some say in the vacation decision.

But there’s a more important reason why I’m not sympathetic to the “no time for vacation” crowd.  History suggests that these trips help presidents cope with the burden of being president.  And if they cope better, the nation benefits as well. Have you seen before and after pictures of the President?  He’s clearly aged at a rapid clip since taking office. It’s worth remembering that at one time presidential vacations were viewed in a more positive light. Franklin D. Roosevelt made forty-one trips to his cabin in Warm Springs, Georgia during his presidency, often spending a week or more in a working vacation. He had purchased the property there shortly before reentering politics, in large part because he believed the warm springs to be therapeutic. Aides noted that Roosevelt invariably came back from these working vacations reinvigorated.   (We now know, of course, that he spent his last visit to Warm Springs secretly rendezvousing with his former mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, who had to be quickly secreted away when the FDR suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died).  Of  course, media criticism of FDR may have been muted because the visits to Warm Springs could be linked to the foundation he established there to treat polio victims.

But Harry Truman made 11 separate trips to the “Little White House” in Key West Florida, often staying three weeks or more at a time.  (Here is an exterior shot of the building which is open to visitors).

During the day he would sit by the beach, while aides played volleyball, in between work sessions. (The shorter guy holding onto the post is presidency scholar [and my dissertation chair] Dick Neustadt, author of Presidential Power, for which this blog post is named).

Most evenings he played small stakes poker (he was reputed to be a middling player) in a small room with close friends. (Truman sat in the corner with his back to the wall.  The table is still there, complete with playing cards, if you want to visit).  Today, of course, the thought of the President gambling with his cronies at “seaside resort”, while the stock market dropped 500 points, would elicit howls of outrage from the chattering class.  But somehow the republic survived Truman’s trips.  As I suspect it will survive the next ten days.

Unless the President has a Clark Griswold moment.

Now, back to my paper. Au revoir!

The One Reason Why Hillary Might Be More Effective Than Obama After 2012

Yesterday the New York Times finally jumped into the Hillary for President debate with this piece by Rebecca Traister.  So now I guess it’s a legitimate news story! Citing the Daily Beast article by Leslie Bennetts , which in turns draws heavily on my initial “Run, Hillary, Run” post, Traister – a Clinton supporter in 2008 – tries down to tamp the growing buyer’s remorse she detects among Obama supporters.  She writes: “Rather than reveling in these flights of reverse political fancy, I find myself wanting the revisionist Hillary fantasists — Clintonites and reformed Obamamaniacs alike — to just shut up already.” Traister argues, persuasively in my view, that had Clinton won the presidency in 2008 instead of Obama, there’s no compelling evidence suggesting she would have been any more effective. In this she echoes points made by Jonathan Bernstein in this Salon post. To be sure, Traister admits to her own bouts of buyer’s remorse, but she thinks publicly airing these thoughts is not helpful: “I understand the impulse to indulge in a quick ‘I told you so.’ I would be lying if I said I didn’t think it sometimes. Maybe often. But to say it — much less to bray it — is small, mean, divisive and frankly dishonest. None of us know what would have happened with Hillary Clinton as president, no matter how many rounds of W.W.H.H.D. (What Would Hillary Have Done) we play.”

Traister’s conclusion? “There simply was never going to be a liberal messiah whose powers could transcend the limits set by a democracy this packed with regressive obstructionists. That doesn’t mean we can’t hope for, seek and demand better from politicians and presidents. But we can’t spend our time focused on alternate realities in which our country, its systems and its climate are not what they are. With advance apologies for returning to one of 2008’s most infelicitous phrases, it’s time to let go of the fairy tales.”

Amen to that! It’s a point that long-time readers will recognize from reading my posts on this site dating to before Obama’s inauguration: that the expectations for his presidency far outstripped the reality of his actual ability to effect significant change. Although we can’t be sure, given the constraints on a president’s power, it’s hard to see how Hillary Clinton’s election in 2008 would have produced demonstrably different policy outcomes.

 But who is talking about what happened in 2008?  My “Run, Hillary, Run” post was about Democrats and voters more generally looking ahead to 2012!  And here there is one very good reason to believe that a Clinton presidency might be marginally more effective than Obama’s second term: she would not be a lame duck president.  Recent history suggests that, should Obama win reelection in 2012 (and that is no sure thing), he will almost immediately begin losing political influence. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Bush all witnessed their influence slip away during their second terms.  For Nixon, of course, the Watergate scandal and impending impeachment drove him from office. Reagan’s second term saw some accomplishments, including fundamental tax reform, but he frittered away a good deal of influence due to the Iran-contra affair. Clinton, of course, had his own second term impeachment imbroglio.  Finally, George W. Bush – Mr. Imperial Presidency – found out in short order that the political capital he pledged to spend after the 2004 election bought him little in Congress. Despite an extensive publicity tour, he was unable to get even fellow Republicans to buy into his plan to reform Social Security or immigration law, and within two years the Democrats had regained control of both the Senate and the House, thanks in part to an unpopular war and Hurricane Katrina.  In the aggregate, then, this is not a very auspicious second-term record, and while there’s no reason to expect Obama to find himself engulfed in scandal should he win reelection, neither is there any strong reason to believe he’ll defy the historical pattern and see his influence grow.  Instead, the greater likelihood is that it will begin to wane.

The reason for this seemingly inevitable decline is, I think, more structural than personal.  It has to do with the loss of political acuity that accompanies the removal of the reelection imperative.  Presidents begin to think historically,  and, in some cases, recklessly as well.  They see the end of their presidency on the horizon, and they are willing to take risks and to downplay the political constraints that they must normally navigate to achieve policy objectives.  Think FDR with his second-term court packing fiasco. (Although not subject to the 22nd amendment the expectation – one shared by FDR – was that he was not going to run again.)  Bush experienced a similar dulling of his political sensitivity.  He writes in his memoirs that he made a mistake in  pushing social security reform before immigration reform, since the latter had a greater chance of securing bipartisan support.  The failure of the first doomed the second, he believes.  He writes, “If I had to do it all over again, I would have pushed for immigration reform, rather than Social Security, as the first major initiative of my second term”.    Instead, he went for the riskier reform first, and lost both.

It is possible Obama may be the exception to this rule.   But we shouldn’t count on it.  Nor, however, should we expect a Clinton first-term to be a reprise of FDR’s celebrated 100 days.  We don’t want to fall prey again to the overly optimistic “liberal messiah” scenario.  Instead, in concert with Traister’s argument, I would expect a Clinton first-term to be perhaps even less productive, legislatively, than Obama’s first four years, in large part because she would likely be facing a Republican-controlled Congress.  The one advantage she might have is that economic growth may start accelerating during her four years. All this is speculation, of course.  The takeaway point is that, in deciding whether to jump on the Hillary bandwagon, Traister’s is the wrong question.  It’s not “What Would Hillary Have Done”?  It’s what can she do, in her first term, compared to Obama in his second?

(Note: the original post was updated at 1 p.m. to expand on the discussion of second-term presidencies)


Draft Hillary Movement Goes International! (Sort of)

First France.  Now Canada.  The “draft Hillary” campaign that I am now accused of sparking is apparently gaining traction in all the places where no one can vote for her.  Evidently that’s the kind of influence I have – a pariah at home, prophet abroad.  Yesterday, I appeared on the Arlene Bynon Show, a Toronto-based radio talk show, to discuss the “growing draft Hillary movement”. (Note that the audio link is listed under Monday, August 16. Must be based on the Canadian calendar!)  In that interview, she asked a very interesting question: what would it take to persuade Hillary to jump into the race?  I should begin by reminding everyone that I don’t think that she will get into the race, nor am I personally advocating a Clinton challenge.  (For those who haven’t figured it out yet, I’m an analyst, not a partisan advocate.)  The original post that started all this was based on conversations with Democrats, many of whom were making the argument that she should run.  In that post I tried to lay out the scenario that would justify that decision.   The primary one, as I discussed with Bynon, is the calculation that Obama can’t win in 2012, and that she would have a better chance of keeping the White House in Democrat’s hands.  We can (and have) debated whether that is true.

But Bynon’s question got me thinking: what would be the logistical hurdles a Clinton challenge must overcome? In contemplating this question, it becomes immediately clear that she faces complications that previous intra-party challengers to incumbent presidents did not.  To begin, she is part of Obama’s administration.  When Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter in 1980, he was a sitting Senator and sometime administration critic. Four years earlier, Ronald Reagan was an ex-Governor with national stature but no official public position when he took on the “accidental president” Gerald Ford.  In 1992, Pat Buchanan was a media personality with a reputation for “pitchfork” American-first politics at odds with President George H. W. Bush’s more internationalist “new world order” foreign policy. If we go back further, to 1968, both Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy were senators who turned against the Vietnam War when they launched their bids for the presidency held by Lyndon Johnson.

As Secretary of State, Clinton faces a different challenge. Presumably launching a candidacy would involve a two-step process – resigning from Obama’s administration and announcing she was taking him on.  Taking the first step would generate immediate speculation about the second, so she would in all likelihood combine them both into a single media bombshell announcement.  “I am stepping down today to announce…” In that speech she would have to explain why, as a member of the Obama team, loyalty demanded that she not express the deep dissatisfaction that was now fueling her run.  Could she pull off this delicate political pivot?  Jon Huntsman has had to perform a similar two-step, with results still pending.  If Clinton is truly committed to running, I don’t think this additional complication would be an impediment to winning, although some opponents would certainly cite it as a form of political “backstabbing.”  But my guess is it wouldn’t cost her the votes of people who would otherwise be inclined to support her.

One reader laid out another factor that might be necessary for Clinton to run: a Democratic stalking horse.  If another Democrat launched a bid against Obama – say a Kucinich, or Feingold – that might provide political cover for Clinton to jump in.  A similar dynamic drove RFK’s decision in 1968; he formally entered only after McCarthy’s second-place finish to LBJ in the NH primary demonstrated that the President was vulnerable.

There is also the timing issue. When would Clinton have to announce?  Reagan, Kennedy and Buchanan all launched their bids about a year before the general election: Reagan in November 1975, Kennedy in November, 1979 and Buchanan in December, 1991.  That gave them 10-15 weeks to gear up for the New Hampshire primary.  In contrast, under the pre-primary, convention-dominated nomination process, Robert Kennedy could afford to wait much longer before entering the 1968 race, since he was courting party leaders who controlled blocs of delegates more than issue activists that voted in primaries. Given the front-loading of the current nomination process, and the need to put together a funding infrastructure, I would guess Clinton would have to declare at least as early as did Reagan, Ted Kennedy or Buchanan – that is, no later than December, 2011.

So, what would it take for Clinton to run?  Here’s the hypothetical scenario. Sometime in the next two months, a progressive Democrat needs to jump into the race, perhaps emboldened by a drop in Obama’s approval ratings into the mid-30% level.  Meanwhile, despite the President’s nationwide September “jobs” speech, third-quarter employment figures come back showing little-to-no job growth.  Then the joint budget committee releases a deficit reduction plan that calls for deep spending cuts, including entitlement reform based in part on pushing back eligibility dates which are interpreted by the Democratic Left as de facto benefit cuts.  Meanwhile, Syria and Libya continue to burn, while a rise in violence in Iraq leads the government there to petition for an extension of the U.S. military presence.  These events don’t need to unfold exactly like this, or in this exact sequence, but you get the picture.

Would this convince Clinton to throw her pantsuit into the ring?  I doubt it.  But evidently what I think no longer matters (if it ever did) – the “Draft Hillary” movement has gone international!  Will the U.S. be next?  Stay tuned, and keep those comments coming.

(Note to Readers: I’m on deadline with a couple of papers, so will be posting shorter pieces in the next couple of weeks.)

Hillary For Vice President?

My recent suggestion, acting in the guise of a partisan Democrat, that Hillary Clinton should challenge President Obama for the party nomination, generated a huge amount of traffic and prompted debate across the blogosphere (see here and here and here and here). Even the French joined the debate.  The comments to that and a follow up post continue coming in. Many of you are suggesting that rather than challenge the President and risk splitting the party, the better option would be for Obama to put Clinton on the ticket as vice president, with Biden moving over to State or to some other position.  That possibility has gained media traction in recent days (see here and here  and here) in light of the growing signs that Obama is electorally vulnerable.  In considering this option, I have one crucial question:

What’s in it for Clinton?

I understand the upside for the President. Right now – and no one can project how things will look a year from now – but right now I would put his odds at winning reelection at less than 50%.  In the wake of the debt deal, continued volatility in the stock market, and the hammering he took in the Republican debate in Iowa, his approval ratings have fallen 10% since June to about 40%, the lowest of his presidency, and they could very well go lower.  No president has won reelection with approval ratings this low.

In contrast, Hillary has seen her popularity climb above 60% after almost three years as Obama’s Secretary of State.  By putting Clinton on the ticket, Obama supporters hope that he might benefit on the campaign trail from her higher approval ratings, particularly among key constituencies, including older women and white working class voters among which his support his weak. Moreover, the argument goes, she is more likely than Obama to attract independent voters.

If we look at the electoral map there’s roughly a dozen states totaling some 155 electoral votes that will likely be in play in 2012.  Among them are the big three of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida – all states in which Clinton bested Obama in 2008, and in which his popularity lags today.  Again, it’s possible that her stronger support in these states among independents and working class voters might bolster his electoral chances.

Finally, Clinton would “neutralize” the gender issue should the Republican nominee be Palin or Bachmann, or if either of those two women were on the Republican ticket as the vice president.  And she would easily best them in a V.P. candidate debate.

But even if we buy these arguments – and longtime readers know that I am skeptical that vice presidential choices have much electoral impact – I still see no upside for Clinton.  Obama supporters say it will put her in line to make a run for the presidency in 2016.  But she’s already at the top of the Democrat candidate list – why would serving as Obama’s “lady in waiting” for four years bolster her political profile?  And that assumes Obama wins reelection. If he loses, after she dives into the political mud on his behalf in a failed political campaign, she could emerge considerably weaker.  And she has to then defeat an incumbent Republican.

It seems to me that the Hillary-for-VP argument is being driven by Obama’s interests, not hers.  Indeed, if the argument that her presence would strengthen the Democratic ticket is as strong as Obama’s supporters claim it is, it leads inevitably to one conclusion: she should be heading that ticket.

And the only way to do that is if Obama steps down – or if she challenges him for the Democratic nomination.

But, I already said that.

Explaining Bachmann’s Win: You Must Pay to Play

Regular readers of this blog were likely not surprised by Tim Pawlenty’s decision to drop out of the race for the presidency after his disappointing third-place finish in Saturday’s straw poll.  In an earlier post I had noted, based on the debate and polling data, that his candidacy was in trouble.  Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann tried to capitalize on the shower of media coverage, including this harsh grilling by David Gregory on Sunday’s Meet the Press show, which accompanied her victory.

In their rush to make sense of Saturday’s results, however, the media largely ignored one of the more interesting facets of the Iowa straw poll: that voters had to pay to play.  Because the straw poll doubles as a Republican fundraiser, participants were required to pay a $30 fee to vote.  No fee, no vote. There’s a pretty good chance, of course, that candidates took on the costs of not only busing their supporters to the polls, but also paying their entrance fee.  Which raises the obvious (to me, if not to the media) question: is there any relationship between the results of Saturday’s straw poll and the amount of money each candidate had on hand to spend?  In the table below, I ranked the candidates by the votes they received compared to the amount of discretionary cash they had on hand as of June 30, which is the last quarterly fundraising reporting period.  I only include the five candidates who actively competed in the events leading up to the straw poll (so, no Mitt Romney).  Note that I don’t have fundraising data on Herman Cain or Jon Hunstman.


Name Votes Percentage  Cash On Hand
Michele Bachmann 4,823 28.6


Ron Paul 4,671 27.7


Tim Pawlenty 2,293 13.6


Rick Santorum 1,657 9.8


Newt Gingrich 385 2.3


What do you know?  There is an almost one-for-one correspondence between the amount of discretionary cash a candidate has and their performance in the straw poll – the more cash on hand, the better the candidate did!  Most importantly, Bachmann led the pack in discretionary cash and in votes received.  So, did Bachmann win because her campaign personally footed the roughly $150,000 it cost people to vote for her?  Probably not.  Instead, the link between the two measures – votes received and cash on hand – is likely that they both reflect the candidate’s ability to attract support from the issue and partisan activists who dominate these types of events.  Keep in mind that Saturday’s event drew less than 17,000 people.  Those who do show up are committed partisans – not Joe and Jane Six-pack.  They are the same people who are likely to contribute money to these candidates early in the nominating process.

My point is that Bachmann, and Paul, performed well in Ames not necessarily because of any broad-based support among Iowan voters, but because they do disproportionately well among the core group of committed activists who both attend straw poll events and give money to candidates.  It bears repeating that, media reports to the contrary notwithstanding, all those “small donors” the Obama campaign so loudly proclaimed were an indication of their grass roots support among new voters in 2007-08 in fact indicated nothing of the sort – these people making small donations are typically the hard-core ideologues that provide much of the electoral impetus for the polarized nature of Washington politics today.

Does the relationship between discretionary cash and votes received hold for previous straw polls?  It’s not quite as strong in 2007 and 1999, the two previous straw polls for which I have data, but it’s not non-existent either. Note that in 2007 Romney was the clear discretionary cash leader and he won the Ames straw poll rather convincingly. To be sure, there’s not a one-to-one correspondence for candidates below Romney between vote share and cash on hand (Ron Paul in particular throws the figures off).  Note that I don’t include John McCain, Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson since they didn’t compete in the event.


Name Votes Percentage Cash on Hand  (millions)
Mitt Romney 4,516 31.6 12.1
Mike Huckabee 2,578 18.1 .4
Sam Brownback 2,192 15.3 .5
Tom Tancredo 1,961 13.7 .6
Ron Paul 1,305 9.1 2.4
Tommy Thompson 1,039 7.3 .1
Duncan Hunter 174 1.2 .2

We see similar results in 1999; if we exclude Steve Forbes, who was largely a self-funded candidate, we see that Bush was the clear discretionary cash leader, and he easily won the straw poll.  Again, the correspondence becomes a bit murkier for candidates below the winner.


Name Votes Percentage Cash On Hand
George W. Bush 7,418 31.3 6,355,370
Steve Forbes 4,921 20.8 7,585,802
Elizabeth Dole 3,410 14.4 1,590,882
Gary Bauer 2,114 8.9 2,213,688
Patrick Buchanan 1,719 7.3 1,673,542
Lamar Alexander 1,428 6.0 1,775,611
Alan Keyes 1,101 4.6 .NA
Dan Quayle 916 3.9 1,763,501

If we pool the results from the three straw polls and run a simple regression, cash-on-hand is a statistically significant predictor of vote percentage (adjusted R-squared =  0.47), based on 19 data points.  Anna Esten charts the pooled relationship below.

Of course, if I’m right and the relationship is not simply a function of candidates buying votes, but instead a reflection of support among party and issue activists more generally, a better predictor of vote share might be the share of money each candidate raised in small donations. If I get a chance, I’ll run those figures as well.

Pending those results, however, the bottom line is this: in explaining the results of the Ames straw poll, cash-on-hand isn’t everything. But it does seem to correlate at least in part with the candidates’ straw votes totals. And that means, consistent with my earlier post on this topic, I would be skeptical of overstating the significance of Saturday’s outcome. Rather than a measure of general support in Iowa, the results instead are a better gauge of the intensity of support among core activists for particular candidates. This is not insignificant, of course, since these intensely committed activists form the shock troops that can be counted on to support a candidate throughout the campaign. But to win the party’s nomination, candidates need to broaden their support beyond this core group.

Addendum:  According to this CNN article, Bachmann purchased 4,000 tickets to dole out to potential supporters,  and Paul paid for a couple of thousand. See: