Monthly Archives: September 2011

Rival of One: Obama’s Greatest Political Move To Date

Since I am as guilty as anyone for triggering the Hillary for President mini-boomlet with this Salon post, I should point out that the Salon version left out the opening line that was included in my original version at the Presidential Power site:  “She won’t run, of course.”  Clinton confirmed my assertion in a recent informal interview on CNN in which she put the chances of her running for the presidency at “less than zero”.  Clinton was reacting in part to Vice President Richard Cheney’s widely reported comment that she was a “formidable individual” who was “probably the most competent person they’ve got in their — in their cabinet.”

Clinton’s latest statement is not the first time she’s denied any interest in running against Obama. Every time the story begins to fade, however, another news item surfaces to reignite discussion of a Clinton candidacy.  The latest triggering event, as highlighted in  this Politico story, is a recent Bloomberg news poll that received heavy media play for its finding that 34% of respondents thought the country would be better off if Hillary Clinton had been elected president. (The poll was in the field Sept. 9-12, and has a margin of error of +/- 3%).  That is an increase of 9% from when this question was asked by Bloomberg in 2010. Interestingly, even though majorities of both groups view her unfavorably, Republicans and Tea Party supporters were more likely to say the country would be better off under Clinton than were Democrats; most Democrats believe things would be no different under a Clinton presidency than it has been under Obama.

That same poll found that she is easily the most popular figure among a list of prominent political figures that includes all the leading Republican candidates for president as well as President Obama.  As the following table shows, 64% view her “very” or “mostly favorably”, putting her comfortably ahead of President Obama, the second most favorably viewed person and far ahead of any Republican.

 What most of the news stories downplayed, however, is that although 34% of those surveyed said that things would be better if Clinton had won, 47% said things would be about the same. (Another 13% said things would be worse).  Moreover, among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 67% said Obama is the best Democratic candidate in 2012, while only 30% want another candidate.  (Note that Clinton’s name was not listed as an option as an alternative candidate.)

This survey reinforces a point I have made before: that (and contrary to Nate Silver’s assertion) Clinton would likely run more strongly than Obama in the general election but would have a very difficult time beating him for the party’s nomination.  Given this, I have no doubt that her supporters will continue to promote her candidacy, and that these types of triggering events, whether polling data or pundits’ comments,  will continue to keep this story in the news.   And, in fairness to those who push this story, in any “normal” election cycle, as I’ve discussed here, Obama would be facing a primary challenge.

The fact that Clinton won’t challenge him, however, reminds me that perhaps Obama’s single best political move to date was nominating her to be his Secretary of State.  In November, 2008, I wrote a blog post advising Obama not to make this offer to Clinton, and advising her not to take the position if offered.  My advice was correct for Clinton – but wrong for Obama.  In fact, given his current political vulnerability, appointing Clinton as Secretary of State now seems like a stroke of pure genius.  If there is one factor that makes it difficult for her to enter the race, it’s that she’s a visible member of his administration – probably the most visible.  Given her public status, severing ties at this point in order to challenge Obama would, I think, pose a formidable psychological hurdle, never mind the political ramifications that many of you have cited in response to my previous posts on this topic.  Consider, however, if Clinton had followed my advice in 2008, and remained in the Senate.  From there it would have been much easier to act as a “shadow” president, and to position herself to challenge for the party’s nomination should Obama become vulnerable, as he has.

As I said in my first post on this subject, however, that won’t happen. Obama will be the Democratic standard-bearer and Clinton will likely serve out her term and step down no matter what the 2012 outcome.  Supporters will undoubtedly then urge her to run in 2016.  In the CNN interview, she didn’t quite close the door to a return to politics.  Whether she wants to put herself through that grueling process again, at that point in her life, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, her supporters may find some solace (or not) in this concession speech from the last Democrat to challenge his party’s President – it is worth listening to the themes he cites:

On a (West) Wing and a Prayer: Obama This Day Is Daley Led

Predictably, Obama’s chief of staff Bill Daley is coming in for criticism recently (see also here) regarding how he is running the White House on the President’s behalf. The criticisms surfaced against the backdrop of Democratic strategist James Carville’s recent broadside arguing that in light of the Republican victories in the two recent special House elections it’s time for Obama “to panic” and “start firing people”.  Although Carville denied targeting Daley, pundits have been quick to make the connection between Carville’s statement and the latet criticism from other sources regarding Daley’s performance. Those criticisms run the gamut from Daley’s failure to clear the date for Obama’s recent jobs speech with House Speaker John Boehner, necessitating rescheduling the event, to limiting staff members’ access to the President  to failing to consult with senior Democrats in Congress. One specific criticism focuses on Daley’s decision to cut to once-a-week the 8:30 formerly daily White House meeting of mid-level aides that had followed the smaller 7:30 meeting of senior White House aides. The decision to cut the meetings was designed to free up time for Obama’s senior staff to perform other functions, but it rankled mid-level White House aides because it deprived them of face time with senior White House advisers.  These meetings have been replaced by a greater reliance on written memorandum and tightened administrative procedures designed to insure memos are properly prepared and staffed out.

Without commenting on the specific merits of these criticisms, I think it is worth putting them in their historical context.  First, whenever a President begins to lose political clout, supporters begin targeting senior White House officials and cabinet members, rather than aim their barbs directly at the president. The most prominent target is usually the chief of staff; indeed, serving as a “javelin catcher” is part of the job description for this position, and in this case Daley is no exception. Second, the reduction in staff meetings, an increased emphasis on written memorandum and a general movement to tighten administrative procedures while reducing staff access to the President is a pattern almost every recent White House – particularly those run by “policy wonk” Democratic presidents – has followed dating back to Jimmy Carter.  Although Carter and Clinton and now Obama took office promising an inclusive, open-door staffing pattern at the start of their presidencies, they inevitably adopted a more restrictive staff system in which fewer aides had walk-in privileges as time went on.   The reason is that each realized that the immersion in policy and administrative detail often came at a cost in terms of time management and overall efficiency.  In each case the President gradually ceded greater gatekeeping authority to their chief of staff (in Carter’s case it meant recognizing the need for a chief of staff in the first place), and in each instance the change precipitated grumbling from mid-level aides – usually veterans from the president’s campaign – who saw their access to their boss reduced and who were not shy about leaking their dissatisfaction to the press. And so it is with Obama and Daley – according to this Politico story “Daley’s brisk, officious, closed-door corporate style has soured some White House staffers who think he’s pinching Obama’s access to his own people, depriving him of a wider variety of opinions at a time when coming up with creative solutions to the country’s economic malaise — and the president’s political slump — are at a premium While Daley has brought a new level of efficiency to the day-to-day operations of a White House buffeted by two years of Emanuel’s creative chaos, he’s remains an outsider to many of the campaign veterans who make up the core of Obama’s staff.”

But while news accounts cite Daley as the source of the staffing unrest, the reality is that the cause runs much deeper than his management style.  Instead, history suggests that the change in staffing patterns Obama’s White House underwent is simply the latest manifestation of the adjustments almost all incoming presidents make as they begin to understand their administrative needs, particularly the necessity to preserve their most precious commodity: time.   The longer a president is in office, the more he feels the need to husband his time and focus on priorities.  This is particularly the case with those presidents who by temperament and prior experience are used to delving deeply into the weeds of policy debate and immersing themselves in administrative detail.  Invariably, once in the Oval Office they find themselves overwhelmed by the relentless pressure created by the steady stream of appointments and daily decisions that reach their desk, and they seek ways to reduce that flow.  That response usually takes two forms: reducing staff access to the President, and disciplining administrative procedures to save the President’s time.  In the tradeoff between conserving the president’s time and maximizing his access to information and advisers, then, time management almost always win.  This presidency is no exception.

It is tempting to blame Daley for his “officious, closed-door corporate style” of White House management – one that critics claim threatens to cut Obama off from new ideas and advice. But it is a style that reflects the reality of administrative life in the White House.  Almost all presidents and their campaign aides enter the White House thinking they will govern through an inclusive, open-door administrative style. In Obama’s defense, he was less naive than most, as indicated by his choice of veteran White House aide Emanuel as his first chief of staff (although this book suggests Emanuel was not his first choice.)  Even under Emanuel, however, there is evidence suggesting that Obama’s White House suffered from administrative overload in its first few months.  I will deal with this in a later post.  For now, however, rather than blame Bill Daley for the current state of affairs, critics should instead focus on their inflated expectations for what presidents, and their aides, can hope to accomplish.


United Flight 93 and the Limits of Presidential Power

The 10th year anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks reminded Americans once more of the heroism of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.  Those passengers, it will be recalled, overpowered their hijackers and almost certainly prevented the flight from reaching its intended target: the Capitol building.  One of the more remarkable revelations that came out of the recent media coverage of the 9-11 anniversary is that the two National Guard pilots initially scrambled from Andrews Air Force base with orders to intercept the doomed Flight 93 took to the air essentially unarmed. Lacking the firepower necessary to take down the civilian aircraft, the pilots were prepared to ram the plane in what some journalists labeled a “kamikaze” mission.

Although this revelation received widespread media coverage, the more important story  regarding those military flights, and of the shoot-down orders more generally, as revealed in the definitive report issued by 9-11 Commission (formally the National Commission on Terrorist Strikes Upon the United States) has not received nearly the coverage it deserves. And it is another reminder of just how limited the power of the presidency is – even at the height of a national emergency.

When the 9-11 attacks occurred, standard orders required the permission of the President and Secretary of Defense to shoot down civilian aircraft.  The directive was based on the not unrealistic assumption that in the typical hijacking there would be some time to assess the situation. That is, there would be no effort by the hijackers to try to hide the plane, never mind convert it into a suicide weapon. At the worst, it was presumed that a hijacked plane might be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction.  As we know, those assumptions proved disastrously incorrect.  In fact, the hijackers on all four plans turned off the transponders by which the FAA identified aircraft on radar screens.  The result is that even when the civilian authorities notified the military that suspected hijackings were underway they could not tell them where the planes were. Following standard operating procedures, the fighter planes flew to designations off the coast while waiting for information regarding the location of the hijacked planes.

In the confusion that followed, efforts to work through the chain of command were hampered by poor communications between key decisionmakers and a basic lack of information, not least regarding how many planes were hijacked and where they were located.   In recreating the sequence of events from that fateful day, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney recalled an initial conversation, which the 9-11 commission estimated took place at about 10 a.m., or roughly one hour and 15 minutes after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, during which Bush authorized Cheney to give orders for the military to shoot down any civilian airliner that did not respond to commands.  However, the documentation for this initial conversation is sketchy, leading some to argue that Cheney went ahead and issued shoot down orders shortly after 10 on his own, and then retroactively sought the President’s authorization.  It is clear from the records the Bush gave (re)authorization for a civilian shootdown in a second (or perhaps initial) conversation with Cheney at about 10:23.  By this time the fourth and final hijacked plane, Flight 93, had already crashed, although no one in the military chain of command knew this.

Conspiracy theorists, of course, have long speculated that the military actually did shoot Flight 93 down, which made the recent revelations that the initial interceptors were unarmed all the more significant. But the real story is actually far more interesting because, for all the debate regarding who really authorized the shootdown of civilian flights, the reality is that the military never relayed that order to the first interceptors that went up.  The military received word of the hijacking at 8:37, and the first interceptors were ordered scrambled out of Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts at 8:46, just as American 11 struck the North Tower.  As it turned out, the 9 minutes of warning was the most the military would have with any of the hijacked flights; military air defense had no advance warning on the three others flights before they crashed.

The President and Vice President had no way of knowing this of course.  At 10:31, through means still not entirely clear, the shootdown order from the President was disseminated through the North American (NORAD) air defense military chain of command when, according to the Commission report, “General Larry Arnold instructed his staff to broadcast the following over a NORAD instant messaging system: ‘10:31 Vice president has cleared to us to intercept tracks of interest and shoot them down if they do not respond per [General Arnold].’”

This simple, direct order from the commander in chief at a time of a military emergency caused – again quoting the 9-11 commission – “considerable confusion over the nature and effect of the order.”  And it was not passed along.  That’s right. The President’s direct order, relayed through the Vice President authorizing the shooting down of civilian airliner was never passed on to the pilots in the air.  Here’s the key passage from the 9-11 Report:

“The NEADS commander told us he did not pass along the order because he was unaware of its ramifications. Both the mission commander and the senior weapons director indicated they did not pass the order to the fighters circling Washington and New York because they were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance. In short, while leaders in Washington believed that the fighters above them had been instructed to “take out” hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the pilots were to “ID type and tail.”

But what about the second group of interceptors launched from Andrews air force base – the ones on a “kamikaze” mission?  Surely they had shoot-down orders?  No, they did not.  In fact, they were not even scrambled under NORAD order. As the 9-11 Commission explains: “The Vice President was mistaken in his belief that shootdown authorization had been passed to the pilots flying at NORAD’s direction. By 10:45 there was, however, another set of fighters circling Washington that had entirely different rules of engagement.”  Those fights had been launched at 10:38 from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in response to information passed to them by the Secret Service – not NORAD command.  But rather than take the air with orders to shoot, they instead operated under “weapons free-a permissive rule of engagement.” The local commander, General David Wherley was told to “send up the aircraft, with orders to protect the White House and take out any aircraft that threatened the Capitol. General Wherley translated this in military terms to flying “weapons free”-that is, the decision to shoot rests in the cockpit, or in this case in the cockpit of the lead pilot. He passed these instructions to the pilots that launched at 10:42 and afterward.”

In effect, then, the decision whether to shoot down the civilian airliner was the pilots to make – the President’s clear directive notwithstanding. Of course, neither Bush nor Cheney even knew that fighters had been scrambled out of Andrews – that order came from the Secret Service and therefore fell outside the military chain of command.

It is tempting to think that, in a crisis situation that involves national security, ultimate authority lies solely with the President.  Surely the President feels the weight of responsibility in these situations more keenly than anyone else.  In a sense, when national survival is at stake, he comes closest among all elected officials to embodying national sovereignty. The mistake – one that even presidential scholars are susceptible to – is in thinking this heightened sense of urgency increases his actual power to control events.  Alas, the President’s ability to fulfill his constitutional obligations still depends on the actions and judgments of score of individuals, both civilian and military who, although ostensibly in the direct line of command leading to the President, nonetheless must make, often under conditions of intense pressure and with limited information, their own judgments regarding how to respond to the President’s orders.  That is, they view his orders from their own vantage points, and act accordingly.  It is why even in the most urgent matters of national security, presidents rarely can be said to exercise command authority.  And in more mundane matters, the idea that presidents act “unilaterally” is more myth than reality.

And what of United Flight 93?  Given the confusing response to the President’s shootdown orders, it seems the debt we owe to the heroism of the passengers and crew on that flight on September 11, 2001, is even greater than many of us had perhaps realized.   Had they not acted, there’s no certainty anyone else would have been in a position to bring down that plane.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated an incorrect time for the first strike on the World Trade Center.  In fact, the north tower was struck by American Flight 11 at 8:46 a.m. I have corrected the timeline in the post above.

What Congress Can Do To Make The Nation Safer

We tend to believe it is the President, and those working for him in the executive branch, who shoulder the primary burden of protecting the nation against terrorist attack.  Certainly presidents feel that responsibility most acutely.  Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, it was the failures of executive branch agencies – most notably in the intelligence community – that attracted the most scrutiny.  In its comprehensive analysis of the terrorist attacks, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (better known as the 9/11 commission) focused much of its recommendations on restructuring the intelligence community and strengthening border security.  That led to the consolidation of some 22 government departments and agencies into a single Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the creation of a National Counterterrorist Center, headed by a Director of National Intelligence. I have written extensively about the limits of these organizational reforms.

Less well remembered, however, are the 9-11 Commission’s recommendations regarding Congress.  Most notably, it pointed to the fragmented nature of the congressional committee system as a key weakness in the nation’s ability to prevent another attack, and recommended that the congressional oversight of homeland security be strengthened by consolidating the number of committees with oversight responsibility. As the 9-11 commission members wrote: “Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important. So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need. The United States needs a strong, stable, and capable congressional committee structure to give America’s national intelligence agencies oversight, support, and leadership.”

A decade later, this key recommendation has been observed mainly in the breach. Indeed, rather than a consolidation, the number of congressional committees and subcommittees claiming some jurisdiction over homeland security has mushroomed, from some 88 a decade ago to more than 100 today.  Many of these committees, such as Agriculture, Judiciary or Small Business, have only tangential relevance, if that, to homeland security.  Why hasn’t Congress complied with the 9-11 commission recommendations?   As the commission itself noted, “To a member, these assignments are almost as important as the map of his or her congressional district.”  Committees provide a jurisdictional platform from which a member of Congress can hold hearings, maintain a public profile and generally maximize those activities designed to bolster electoral support back home.   Members are loathe to give up this base of power.  The result is that, although both chambers of Congress moved quickly after 9-11 to create a single committee of Homeland Security in conjunction with the creation of the DHS, existing committees were reluctant to cede their oversight relations with the almost two dozen executive agencies from which the DHS was formed.  So although the homeland security committee in each chamber exercises primary jurisdiction over the DHS, dozens of other (sub)committees also claim some oversight responsibility

Why does this matter?  Most of what top officials at DHS do is testify before Congress. That process becomes much more time consuming and complex when that testimony is spread across multiple committees.  More significantly, when many committees are charged with oversight, none is truly in charge, and the chain of accountability is weakened.

Two days ago, Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9-11 commission, along with Tom Ridge, who served as the first Homeland Security director under President George W. Bush, appeared before the House’s Homeland Security Committee chaired by Republican Peter King.  If you listen to the testimony, you’ll find that it focuses almost exclusively on the failure of the DNI to serve as an effective point of coordination for the intelligence community, as well as overlapping jurisdictions at the state and local level in responding to national emergencies. Conspicuous in its absence is any mention of the lack of coordination within the congressional committee oversight system.

This is not because members of Congress and those testifying before them don’t recognize the problem. Instead, it is because, as Hamilton has acknowledged, resistance to change among members of Congress makes it unlikely that any reform will take place. “When you’re talking about changing jurisdictions, you’re talking about taking power away from some committees,” Hamilton said. “That is a very difficult thing to do in Congress because the name of the game is power, and people don’t like to give it up.”

To give one example, our own Vermont Senator Pat Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, refuses to give up his committee’s oversight of DHS because the agency deals in part with immigration issues that fall under Judiciary’s jurisdiction. Similar arguments are made by his colleagues in both chambers to justify holding onto their own slice of the oversight pie.  Collectively, however, this fragments bureaucratic accountability, complicates the DHS’s job and generally does nothing to strengthen anti-terrorism efforts.

As we mark the 10-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, members of Congress will undoubtedly use their committees and subcommittees as platforms to investigate how well the executive branch has responded to the terrorism threat.  Ironically, the sheer number of these hearings is evidence that Congress has yet to deal with its own organizational weaknesses in the War on Terror.

Much Ado About Nothing? The Post-Mortem On The Speech

The reaction among the pundits to last night’s much hyped speech broke down along predictable lines, with conservatives panning it as proposing “more of the same” policies that contributed to the current economic mess (see also here), while liberals generally hailed its tone and, to a lesser extent, the content (see also here.)  The reality, I suspect, is that impact of The  Speech, both politically and policywise,  will be much less than either Obama’s supporters or critics believe.

To be sure, the speech was a newsworthy event.  Much of the media coverage made note of Obama’s new-found feistiness. In listening to the speech last night, my first reaction was that the tone seemed excessively preachy at times, with the President trying too hard to convince us that we faced an economic emergency. Similarly, the paean to American values and the recitation of successful public-private partnerships, complete with the allusions to Lincoln, struck me as over-the-top rhetoric more fitting to an inaugural address. I confess that part of my aversion to the moralistic tone is that it evoked memories of Carter’s famous “malaise” speech, in which – at a time of soaring energy costs and rising inflation – he cited Americans’ “crisis of confidence” as the root of their problems. But admittedly these are criticisms of style, not substance, and I suspect others found Obama’s righteous tone quite appropriate for the occasion.  I do think the “pass this bill now” refrain, while hokey, nevertheless drove home Obama’s point regarding the need for immediate action.

Substantively, The Speech was part policy proposal, part campaign rhetoric.  Until the revenue shoe drops (which Obama promised will come in another speech), it’s hard to evaluate the substantive component.  Critics on the Left will no doubt point out that, at about $450 billion, the overall size of these proposals is only half of Obama’s first stimulus bill, and where did that get us?  As I noted during the speech, Obama’s advisers were not making the mistake of fixing a job-created projection to the proposal, but my guess is that most economists will say that it will provide a mild economic stimulus at best. But even a mild stimulus is perhaps better than the alternative. On the other hand, many conservatives (and not a few economists, I suspect) will disagree, arguing that this is simply more government spending that essentially throws good money after bad.

Again, however, I think it is premature to either embrace or reject the President’s proposals without first seeing how they will be paid for.   He hinted at the need for entitlement reform and pushed for an overhaul of the tax code based on lowering corporate tax rates and closing loopholes and deductions. These are proposals that, in theory, Republicans can accept.  That compromise, however, will be thrashed out, initially, in the joint congressional supercommittee created as part of the debt agreement.

And that is a reminder that, despite the media hype leading up to The Speech – in the end, it was just that: a speech.  Under our system of shared powers, it is Congress that drives the legislative process, not the President. Obama’s most potent policy tool is the power to set the legislative agenda.  But at this point, 14 months before national elections, and with Obama’s approval ratings at low ebb, even this tool has been blunted.  In listening to the focus groups (and I realize there are dangers in extrapolating from these groups to the public at large), I was struck by how many individuals were disillusioned by both parties, and wanted government to, in effect, get out of the way. Essentially, they said they were pinning their hopes for a recovery on market forces.  It was a reminder that the President is in a very weak bargaining position.  He can beseech Republicans to act, but they will do so only if it serves their political interests – not his. His thinly-veiled threat to take his case “to the people” should Congress fail to act likely raised scarcely an eyebrow among Republicans, and understandably so.  Obama is in no position to threaten to mobilize the public – indeed, the bigger worry is that they are tuning him out. That fear, I think, explains the marked change in his tone last night, from “no drama” to “high drama” Obama.

In the end, The Speech was but the first step in the legislative process and a not very important one at that. It is crucial  to remember that most of what Obama proposed last night will never even reach the congressional floor for a vote. And that’s quite typical for any President.  I think there’s a far greater chance that Republicans will work with him on the revenue side.  But even here the process will be driven largely by the interests of legislators, beginning with those on the supercommittee.

In the end, I believe the most important impact of The Speech will be to remind us that, as I have often said, presidents in our governmental system are weak and that this President, at this time, is weaker than most.  This says less about his leadership capability than it does about the scope of the problems, and the political context in which he operates.  But it is a reality that one speech, however hyped, cannot change.