Monthly Archives: September 2011

Raising Cain While Eyeing Newt

Was Herman Cain’s victory in the Florida straw vote last Saturday a game changer in the race for the Republican nomination? Will he be the Republican’s “next big thing?” Those are the questions pundits are asking after Cain saw his standings in the polls jump after his unexpected trouncing of Rick Perry a week ago. According to the latest Fox News poll of Republican voters, Cain has 17% support, putting him just 2% behind second-place finisher Rick Perry (well within the poll’s margin of error) and 7% behind the poll’s front-runner Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, a Zogby poll released three days ago, but which was in the field before the Florida straw poll, has Cain at the front of the Republican pack, with 28%, a 10% lead over the second-place finisher Rick Perry, and 11% ahead of Mitt Romney.  That’s more than double the support Cain received in the last Zogby poll from two weeks ago.

The boost in Cain’s polling, combined with his straw poll victory, has produced a mini-boomlet in his media exposure.  And, to Cain’s credit, his biography is pretty impressive, a point made by this Wall Street Journal article by Dan Henninger which openly touts  Cain’s private sector record (better than Romney’s!) Henninger writes, “Put it this way: The GOP nominee is running against the incumbent president. Unlike the incumbent, Herman Cain has at least twice identified the causes of a large failing enterprise, designed goals, achieved them, and by all accounts inspired the people he was supposed to lead. Not least, Mr. Cain’s life experience suggests that, unlike the incumbent, he will adjust his ideas to reality.”  Henninger concludes by opining that “Herman Cain is a credible candidate. Whether he deserves to be president is something voters will decide. But he deserves a serious look.”

He’s getting that look now. Of course, part of Cain’s attraction is that he’s African-American, and he has been making the case that he can “win one-third of the black vote”.  This, of course, would be unprecedented in recent presidential elections; African-Americans typically support the Democratic candidate at rates of 90% or more.   Even with his approval ratings hovering in the low 40’s, Obama continues to attract support in polls from 85% or more of African-Americans. If Cain were to hold onto the typical Republican coalition and attract 1/3 of the black vote, he would be sitting in the Oval Office in January 2013.

Before you jump on the Cain pizza truck, however, a couple of cautionary points are in order. First, the Zogby poll is an online poll which raises issues of sample bias. I’m not saying it’s inaccurate, but we need to be cautious when interpreting the results. The Fox poll, meanwhile, was in the field immediately after the media boost Cain received based on his Florida victory.  Keep in mind that we’ve seen these mini-boomlets before.  Bachmann soared in the polls after the Ames debate.  She is now in the low single digits in most polls.  After Perry entered the race, he also surged to a lead in the polls, only to see that initial wave of support recede. .Cain is but the latest candidate to benefit from a media-induced polling bump.  History suggests, however, that as a candidate gets singled out as a potential rising star, the rest of the field adjusts by targeting that individual, aided by the increasingly critical media coverage directed toward top tier candidates. Expect this to happen with Cain’s candidacy.

In a break from past Republican races, when there always seemed to be a candidate in waiting, this Republican race remains very fluid with no obvious frontrunner.  As a result, there is a tendency for pundits to overreact to individual events in order to induce some clarity into an otherwise murky electoral picture. But it is far too early to slot these candidates into a stable hierarchy.  As evidence, consider Newt Gingrich.  While media pundits play “whack a mole” with the Republican frontrunners, Gingrich keeps producing first-rate debate performances while never really getting much media scrutiny.  The result is that although he continues to fly under the media radar, his standing in the polls has inched upward in the last two weeks, to the point that he is knocking on the door of first-tier status. The RealClear Politics composite poll now has Newt tied, with Cain, for third place in the Republican race. This despite the pundits all but writing him out of the election script earlier this summer.

Gingrich is hoping that eventually, after the media cycles through most of the Republican flavors of the day, it will begin to realize that his combination of national experience and policy wonkishness makes him a credible contender for the nomination. Cain’s sudden rise in the polls, and the recent growth in Gingrich’s support, is a reminder that, media efforts to suggest otherwise, Republicans have a strong field of candidates, and that voters are in no hurry to settle on a front-runner.

This is going to be fun!

Surprise! Palin wins Florida, Michigan Straw Polls!

“It wasn’t fully clear at the time, but the political ground was shifting under Rick Perry’s feet from virtually the moment he arrived here in Orlando for the Republican presidential debate and Florida GOP straw poll.”  That was conservative columnist Byron York’s dramatic pronouncement   in the aftermath of Saturday’s straw poll in Florida, .which saw Perry soundly drubbed by pizza magnate Herman Cain.  The final results were Cain 37.1 percent; Perry 15.4 percent; Romney 14.0 percent; Rick Santorum 10.9 percent; Ron Paul 10.4 percent; Newt Gingrich 8.4 percent; Jon Huntsman 2.3 percent; and Michele Bachmann 1.5 percent.

Meanwhile, in the less highly publicized Michigan straw poll also held yesterday, Mitt Romney trounced Perry and every other Republican, winning 51% of the vote to Perry’s 17%.   Coming off Perry’s “disappointing” performance in Thursday’s fourth Republican debate, in which he stood by “controversial” positions on immigration and on vaccinating against the HPV virus, pundits like York are openly questioning whether Perry is on the verge of a complete campaign meltdown. On Fox News today, Britt Hume opined that Perry was “One-half step away from almost total collapse.”  Fellow panelist A.B. Stoddard agreed, noting that the Florida results represented a “real slap to Perry and Mitt Romney.”

Really?  A half step from total collapse?  It was less than a week ago that these same pundits were telling us this was a two-person race between Perry and Romney, and that Cain was among the group of Republican second-tier candidates who had no chance of winning the nomination. Now, on the basis of one debate and second place finishes in two straw polls, Perry’s candidacy is apparently ready to implode, while Cain has new life.

What we are seeing here is the inevitable media overreaction to an event of dubious political significance. Yes, at first glance, Cain’s margin of victory seems impressive – until you realize that less than 3,000 people participated in the Florida straw poll and he received votes from maybe 1,000 of them.  Evidently his “stemwinder” speech won over the crowd of Disneyworld-based Republican activists.  (It’s a small, small world, after all.)  Who are they, and do they represent Florida Republicans more generally?  That’s a question the media doesn’t bother to answer.

Instead they trumpet the results as an indication of widespread dissatisfaction with Perry, and with the Republican field in general. Forgive me if I don’t buy the spin to anoint Cain the next Michele Bachmann.  (Remember her? The flavor du jour after the Iowa Ames poll, she won less than 2% in yesterday’s Florida event.)   Keep in mind that the media spent several months searching for a credible alternative to Romney, in order to create the perception of a real horse race, while simultaneously working to weed out second-tier candidates in order to simplify the story line.  First they tried to pump up Bachmann, but she proved just a bit too extreme to be credible, so they were very grateful when Perry stepped in – until he threatened to run away with the race, thus eliminating any sense of suspense.  Fortunately for the pundits, Perry “stumbled” on Thursday, and with Cain’s victory, we can expect to see all the news stories from August regarding the dissatisfaction with the Republican field recycled.

And what about Romney? Keep in mind that he didn’t bother participating in Florida, preferring to focus instead on the all-important “National Journal Hotline/National Association of Home Builders” straw poll in Michigan. His efforts paid off, as he trounced Perry, who flew in at the last moment only to finish second. Mitt’s performance, capturing more than half the vote, seems even more impressive than Cain’s – until you realize that only 661 GOP activists bothered to attend the weekend conference in Michigan. So Mitt picked up 332 nonbinding votes in Michigan.  Stop the presses!

If these events are significant, it’s not because they are an accurate barometer of candidates’ broader support among likely Republican voters – it’s because the media says they are important, and as such they can influence perceptions of viability. Those perceptions matter, in large part because they can influence the decisions by party elites and potential donors regarding who to back.

The next big Republican debate comes in October.  In the meantime, expect to see some jockeying among the candidates as they react to the media narrative regarding what happened yesterday.   Romney will trumpet his Michigan victory, Cain will try to feed off Florida to attract support, and Perry will have to think about how to deal with the growing perception that he’s not conservative or smooth enough.

Make no mistake, however. The longer the punditocracy continues to play up the “weak Republican field” angle, the better it is for yesterday’s big winner:  Sarah Palin.  That’s right – I can spin with the best of them.  But think about it: by not declaring her candidacy, she avoids wearing the front-runner bulls-eye that Romney and Perry have both been saddled with, and she continues to fuel media speculation regarding her real intentions.  Although she’s nearing some October deadlines for getting her name on the ballot in many states, don’t be surprised if a “volunteer” group springs up to do that on her behalf, without her having to officially enter the race even then.  It would allow her to remain the candidate-in-waiting, as the media takes turns assailing the purported front-runners.  Ideally, she jumps in at the very last moment, in time to win the first real contest, but without giving the media time to target her as the front-runner.

An unorthodox strategy?  Sure,  but so was Jimmy Carter’s decision to campaign all out in the early caucus and primary states in 1976, while his big-name rivals concentrated on the bigger states.  As campaign rules and technology changes, so do candidates’ optimal nomination strategies.  The smart candidates are those who are ahead of the curve in assessing those changes and adjusting accordingly.  Evidently Palin is gambling that, in the era of social media, candidates no longer need to play by the traditional media’s rules.  Time will tell if she is right – assuming, of course, that she’s running.

Is Obama “Unbeatable”? Whistling in the Graveyard of Trial Heat Polling

Is Obama unbeatable in 2012?  With the economy showing no signs of recovery, joblessness hovering above 9%, the poverty rate on the rise, median income dropping, Obama facing the lowest approval ratings of his presidency and with his favorability rating now below 50%, and with the recent release of Ron Suskind’s book that purports to show a president not in charge of his own White House, you might think the obvious answer is a resounding “NO!”

According this article by Tim Noah at The New Republic, however, you might be wrong. Noah rests his case on recent trial heat polls that show Obama easily coming out ahead in one-on-one match ups against his main Republican rivals. For example, in this Public Policy Polling survey that was in the field shortly after the President’s job speech, Obama bests each of the five top Republican candidates.

For Noah, the fact that Obama is still beating his opponents in trial heat polls despite the dismal economic climate and his own administrative struggles indicates his strong position going into 2012.  Indeed, Obama’s biggest worry, Noah warns, may be that “these [trial heat polling] numbers might make him overconfident. How lucky can you get?”

How lucky indeed?  Alas, for Noah and other Obama supporters, given the current electoral fundamentals, pinning one’s hopes on trial heat polls taken this far before the election is the epitome of whistling in the graveyard.  In fact, history shows that these early polls are not reliable predictors of actual election results. As evidence, Sarah Pfander and Owen Witek went back and examined previous trial heat polls between the incumbent president and the opposition candidate at roughly this same point in the calendar, and compared the surveys to the election outcomes. Because prior to 1980 only Gallup consistently polled more than a year before the election, I’ll focus here on trial heats for the five most recent elections involving an incumbent president, dating back to 1980.  The findings suggest that Obama supporters should not rest their hopes on the results of trial heats this far out.

Let’s start with the 1980 election.  In trial heat polls in April and August of the previous year, Ronald Reagan ran about even with Jimmy Carter, but with large numbers of voters saying they were undecided.  By January, 1980, however, Carter was leading Reagan by 62%-32%! As late as June, 1980, Carter was still polling ahead of Reagan by 6-7% in trial heats.  Of course, Carter lost that election by almost 10% in the popular vote.  Flash forward to 1984. In August, 1983, and again in January, 1984, Reagan and Mondale were tied in trial heat polls.  Reagan, of course, went on to crush Mondale by almost 20% in the popular vote. It doesn’t get better from here. In 1992, of course, Bill Clinton was a virtual unknown, but in the earliest trial heat poll from January of that year, the incumbent George H.W. Bush was beating him by 15%.  In fact, Bush lost to Clinton in a tight race.  In 1996, the trial heat results are complicated because pollsters assumed Ross Perot would again be the third-party candidate, and he was often included in early surveys between Clinton and Dole. Nonetheless, the earliest survey we could find, from late 1995, has Clinton ahead of Dole by 11%, with Perot running third.  However, a Gallup Poll from January 1996 without Perot has Clinton’s lead over Dole down to 4%.  Clinton, of course, won handily by almost 9%.  Finally, in 2004, two polls from 2003 have Bush leading Kerry by 15% and 3%.  The latter survey came closer to the actual results; Bush won by a bit more than 2%

The following table put together by Witek summarizes the results of the those trial heat polls taken closest to the current point in the 2012 election calendar, and compares them to the actual poll results.  This is a rough guide, of course, but as you can see, except perhaps for 1996, they are completely unreliable indicators of the likely popular vote results and in three of the cases they don’t even predict the winner. (I don’t count the 1984 trial heat as a correct prediction since it falls within the poll’s margin of error.)

Election Year Trial Heat Prediction 10-14 Months Before Election Actual Winning Margin Net Difference Projected vs. Actual


Even Reagan +9.75



Reagan +1 Reagan +18.2



Bush +15 Clinton +5.5



Clinton +11 Clinton +8.5



Bush +15 Bush +2.5


If trial heat polls this far out don’t tell us much with a great deal of confidence, when can we begin to rely on them to accurately predict the election outcome?  Brendan Nyhan, in this article cites more systematic research by political scientists Christopher Wlezien and Robert Erikson indicating that, not surprisingly, trial heats’ predictive power increases as we get closer to the election.  Indeed, their accuracy grows in almost linear fashion, as indicated by the following chart from the Wlezien/Erikson paper.  It shows trial heat polls’  predictive reliability increasing the closer we get to election day.  (Think of the left-hand axis as measuring how much of the final outcome can be predicted from trial heat polls, with “1” indicating that polls are in effect perfectly predicting the outcome.)

This is because as voters begin to pay attention to the race, the fundamentals that influence how they are likely to vote also begin to drive the trial heat results.  In short, when we get to Labor Day – or about 60 days before the election- we should see a closer convergence between trial heat polls and what our forecast models predict based on these fundamentals.  At this point about two months before the actual election, of course, many political scientists issue their forecast models based on those fundamentals.

Meanwhile, there will be undoubtedly be many more trial heat polls during the coming months and they will receive a good deal of media coverage, particularly as pundits’ cherry-pick the results that seem to support their preferred candidates.  In truth however, the entertainment value of these polls is greater than their predictive value, and the media coverage of them should be judged accordingly.

Is Rick Perry Dumb Enough To Be President?

In this Politico article, Jonathan Martin dares to ask an important, if perhaps impolitic, question: Is Rick Perry dumb?  Martin writes, “Another Texas governor who drops his “g’s” and scorns elites is running for president and the whispers are the same: lightweight, incurious, instinctual. Strip away the euphemisms and Rick Perry is confronting an unavoidable question: Is he dumb — or just ‘misunderestimated?’”

This is a great question. Now that polls show Perry leading the Republican field, we have a right to know: Is he “Bush, but without the brains?”  Can we be sure that he’s stupid enough to serve as President?

Note that we have a long history of electing – and reelecting – intellectual lightweights to the highest position in the land.  Start with FDR, architect of the New Deal and Supreme Allied commander during World War II.  He certainly lacked the brains to be president. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – no intellectual slouch – famously described FDR as having “a second-class intellect, but a first class temperament.  Noted social critic H.L. Mencken tabbed him “Roosevelt minor”.  Columnist Walter Lippmann called Roosevelt “a pleasant man who, without any qualifications for office, would very much like to be president.”  These guys were experts, mind you, so they knew what they were talking about.

Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, didn’t have much on the ball either.  A failed haberdasher, Truman’s best attribute was his Bush-like certitude when it came to decisionmaking.  But brains?  Not Harry – he was a simple man with a simple mind.

By the same token, when smart people have run for President, Americans have usually had the foresight not to elect them.  Think Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois “egghead” beloved by the liberal intelligentsia, but who was twice defeated by that genial if not particularly bright Republican Dwight Eisenhower.  I know Eisenhower orchestrated the D-Day invasion and all, but did you ever hear him mangle the English language during one of his press conferences?  A nice guy, but none too bright.  Remember, as President Ike did a lot of golfing, but that was pretty much it.

And let’s not forget Ronald Reagan. There’s a reason that very smart journalist Haynes Johnson titled his book about the Reagan years Sleepwalking Through History.  Reagan was, as Democratic strategist Clark Clifford famously put it, an “amiable dunce.”  Americans recognized his lack of intelligence, and reelected him to a second term.  It was by sheer luck that Reagan was in office when the Cold War, in effect, ended.  And the economic growth on his watch happened despite his policies, not because of them.

And no discussion of truly stupid presidents would be complete without reference to perhaps the dumbest of them all: George W. Bush.  Another President rewarded for his ignorance with a second term, Bush – if pundits are to be believed – might be the stupidest guy to ever occupy the Oval Office.  Jacob Weisberg once wrote, “The question I am most frequently asked about Bushisms is, “Do you really think the president of the United States is dumb? The short answer is yes.”   Weisberg defends Bush, however, by noting that he wasn’t necessarily born stupid – he just chose “stupidity” as president.  Hmmm….maybe, but I’m not ready to dismiss the idea that Bush was dumb from birth.  Never mind what he did as President – just focus on those Bushisms:  “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” or “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we” or this gem, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”  Yep, these are proof enough that Bush is a genuine idiot.    And to think we almost elected Al Gore! In fact, Gore fooled a lot of us in 2000 with that slow Tennessee drawl – can you say “lock box?” – but we should have caught on that he was really smart when he kept rolling his eyes at Bush’s answers during their first debate. I mean, this guy went to Harvard!  Since he’s left office, of course, he’s proved how smart he is by jumping on the climate change bandwagon, making documentaries and winning a Nobel prize. It was lucky for us the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount.

I know, I know, if stupidness is a prerequisite to become president, how do you explain the smart guys who made it?  See, for example, Jimmy Carter, who graduated in the top 10% of his class at the Naval Academy and went on to serve in the nuclear navy, not to mention winning his own Nobel Prize and writing scads of books.  However, as the Carter case shows, Americans believe in the adage, “Fool me once…”.  Once they recognized how smart Carter was, they threw him out.  You didn’t see that happening with FDR, Truman, Ike, Reagan or Bush.  You have to be authentically stupid to win a second term.

So, should Perry start measuring the Oval Office drapes?  Not so fast.  Just because Obama, a Harvard Law school grad, now occupies the White House doesn’t mean he’s sure to be defeated in 2012.  Maybe Obama’s really not that smart?  Certainly he’s been opening some eyes on that score during his first term. As evidence, note that he’s largely adopted the parameters of the Bush War on Terror.  And he extended the Bush tax cuts.  Heck, lots of progressives view his presidency as, in effect, Bush’s third term. It takes a certain lack of intelligence to emulate anything Bush did, don’t you think?  Makes you wonder if maybe Obama does deserve to win reelection.

In any case, Perry can’t be given a free pass to the Presidency – he has to conclusively prove that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal to earn the job on his own. Dropping your “g’s” and hailing from Texas isn’t enough for me. Nor is the fact that Texas voters reelected him as Governor more times than anyone, and that under his watch the Texas economy gained jobs despite a nationwide recession.  And the fact that really smart journalists and other pundits are convinced Perry is stupid isn’t proof either.  After all, they might be wrong.  I’m just not sure.

Keep in mind that – if those in media are to be believed (and why shouldn’t they be?) – Perry is competing for the Republican nomination against some first-class dumbasses.  Think Bachmann’s rewrite of colonial history, or Paul’s rants regarding the Federal Reserve.  Cain doesn’t seem all that bright either.  Gingrich has his moments too.  And there’s always Palin –  she’s the moron waiting in the wings.  Yes, I know they’ve all won elected office multiple times or are successful in business, but if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times from the pundits (many of whom are really really smart, of course):  this is one slow-witted Republican field.  Certainly Perry has his work cut out for him.

At this point I think the jury is still out.

Rick Perry.  Is he dumb enough to be President?


Suskind: Unkind or Untrue? Assessing the Obama White House

Ron Suskind’s book Confidence Men, due for general release this week, is already attracting headlines for its depiction of a President who is not in command of a White House staff that is riven by rivalries and internal dissent. Not surprisingly, the White House is pushing back against Suskind’s characterization, with several former Obama aides now denying the quotes that Suskind attributes to them. I have only read the excerpts from Suskind’s book, so will limit my response in this post to those. Note that I know this subject well and have a lot to say here, so I’ll break my comments into two separate posts.

The most sensational claims Suskind makes, at least based on media coverage, are:

1. Obama’s economic team was rife with discord, most noticeably between Larry Summers, who headed the National Economic Council (NEC) and OMB director Peter Orszag.  As illustration, reportedly Summers was outraged when Orszag submitted a private economic report on the long-term economic impact of large deficits, but without providing Summers a copy.  More generally, the two clashed on how best to deal with budget deficits and on economic policy.

2. That Summers at one point complains to Orszag that no one is in charge at the White House. “We’re home alone,” Summers reportedly confided. “There’s no adult in charge. Clinton never would have made these mistakes.”

3. That Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner simply ignored the President’s request to create stress tests for the banks to determine whether they were likely to survive the financial crisis without additional funds.

4. And in perhaps the most controversial excerpt, the President reportedly admitted that he lacked the “vision thing”, to paraphrase a previous one-term president:  “I think one of the criticisms that is absolutely legitimate about my first two years was that I was very comfortable with a technocratic approach to government … a series of problems to be solved. …

“Carter, Clinton and I all have sort of the disease of being policy wonks. … I think that if you get too consumed with that you lose sight of the larger issue. … The reorganization that’s taken place here is one that is much more geared to those [leadership] functions.”

What are we to make of these revelations?  I have spent most of my academic life researching and writing about life in the White House, focusing in particular on the relationship between presidents and their senior aides, and I can tell you, based on reading memos and documents from thirteen previous presidencies, the scenes Suskind describes regarding dissent in the Obama White House are neither uncommon nor nearly as problematic as he would have us believe. I should state at the beginning that I have no reason to believe that any of the quotes, by themselves, are inaccurate, but I’m also certain that he has cherry-picked the most controversial statements and probably presented them in ways that don’t do justice to the full context of the conversation he was having with these individuals.  Lacking access to the full transcript, however, I can’t be certain. So we must proceed with caution. With those provisos, let’s revisit the controversial claims.

To begin, the fact that two of the President’s four primary economic advisers (the other two are CEA head Christina Romer and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner) were at loggerheads is neither surprising nor problematic. Indeed, I would be more worried if there was no clashes among them, particularly regarding an issue as complex as the nation’s economy. The truth is that economists do not agree on what caused the current economic crisis or how to end it.  It thus does a disservice to the President, and to the nation, not to have those disagreements aired and thoroughly debated. In the end, Obama was forced to choose under conditions of uncertainty. This is par for the course in the White House. People forget that when Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, he did so thoroughly committed to pursuing orthodox economic policies, namely cutting government spending and balancing the budget.  A few months into his presidency, however, he reversed course and embraced deficit spending.  His budget director, a man named Lew Douglas (the Orszag of the day), who had spearheaded FDR’s initial economy act that cut government spending, was appalled by the President’s decision to now embrace a spending increase and to run historically large peacetime deficits, and he wrote anguished memos to the President pleading for FDR to return to his initial recovery program based on balanced budgets. Alas, FDR stuck to the new course, and Douglas eventually resigned.  Nor was his the only resignation among senior White House staff; FDR’s other key domestic adviser, a man named Ray Moley, also resigned in reaction to Roosevelt evolving political views, and went on to write books that were critical of the President’s New Deal policies.

My point is that this type of policy infighting goes with the territory. The clashes among Obama’s senior White House staff described in Suskind’s excerpts have been interpreted to be petty disputes driven by clashing egos, but in fact they also represent sincere policy disagreements held by well-intentioned advisers (admittedly with large egos) who fervently believe they are right. Presidents need to encourage these disagreements, unsettling as they may be to the advisers who find themselves on the losing end of a policy fight.

What of Summers’ alleged outrage at Orszag’s sending in a report directly to the President without Summers’ review?  Isn’t that petty?  Not at all.  In fact, any well run White House will have a set of procedures in place to prevent memos from going to the President without the signature and comments of all relevant parties. Summers’ anger that this procedure was violated is justified.  But blame shouldn’t be directed at Orszag – it should fall on Obama’s senior staff responsible for staffing papers out. Usually this is part of the Chief of Staff’s duties; typically there will be a junior aide in the Chief of Staff’s office who oversees the paper routing system. But no system will work if the President doesn’t actively police it. In the Orszag memo incident, the President should have made sure the report was vetted by Summers. In interviews with previous White House aides, I have heard more than one story about a President making sure that a particularly important policy memo was sent back to be vetted by other aides.  This is not to say, however, that President Obama should be expected to serve as his own chief of staff.  He needs to have someone in charge of managing the paper flow on his behalf. This incident, by the way, is precisely what I blogged about two days ago in defending Bill Daley’s efforts to tighten administrative procedures in the White House.

Perhaps the most damning excerpt is Summers’ alleged statement that no one was in charge at the White House, and that Clinton would never have “made these mistakes”.  We’ve seen more than a little Clinton nostalgia these past days, but I had to laugh when I read the Summers’ quotation.  In fact, Bill Clinton’s White House staff during the first months of his presidency was legendary for its administrative disorder.  Critics alleged that, under the loose direction of Chief of Staff Mack McClarty, the President and his senior aides could not make decisions in a timely fashion, that policy debates proceeded far too long and without any apparent regard for proper staffing procedures and that, in effect, no one was in charge!  Ultimately, Clinton recognized that he needed someone to discipline his young staff and make the trains run on time, and he replaced McClarty with his OMB director and veteran Washington hand Leon Panetta. How soon we forget!

This is not to excuse the Obama administration for any administrative sloppiness.  In part, however, as I noted in my earlier posts on this topic, this is a function of being new on the job.  It takes time for a president’s team to realize the importance of establishing and adhering to fixed administrative procedures designed to insure that no person talks to and no memorandum reaches the president without it being properly staffed out.

It is no surprise that the initial media coverage of Suskind’s book has centered on allegations of dysfunction in the Obama administration.  The truth, however, is that the incidents Suskind describes are neither unprecedented nor even problematic.  All White House staffs, if they are doing their job, will be divided along political and policy lines, and will press to have their views adopted by the President. These clashes are both necessary and healthy.

To this point, I have not addressed Obama’s remarks, including his confession that, as a self-proclaimed “policy wonk”, he may have lost sight of the “bigger picture”.  I want to address this in a separate post, because it gets to a crucial point regarding Obama and his leadership that I have made since before he was sworn in as President.  In contrast to Suskind’s other allegations, this one deserves greater scrutiny. .