Monthly Archives: May 2012

On Commencement Day, In Honor of My Favorite Student

It’s that time of year again.  Middlebury is holding its commencement ceremony today, and as I have done ever since I started this blog, I commemorate the event by sitting down on the deck and, while the bluebirds fly by,  pouring a deep glass of single malt (thanks Peter), and raising a toast to you, My Favorite Student (MFS).

Who, you ask, is My Favorite Student? You know who you are.

Four years ago you dragged yourself across campus in the dark to make that first 8 am class in Twilight Hall, only to doze off six minutes into my opening lecture on why you should study American politics.  And yet you kept coming, week after week, likely inspired by my promise that “90% of success in life is just showing up.”  By the semester’s end, you realized that it truly was “great to study American politics in America” and you signed on to become a political science major.

Four years later you have reaped the many benefits from this decision.  Perhaps none is more consequential than getting added to the distribution list to this Presidential Power blog.  It was your comments to this site that made it one of the top 50 blogs for  political science students (yes, there are actually 50 blogs like this);

You heard my impassioned plea regarding the consequences of a legal career (the rhinoplasty to repair damage from your cocaine habit, the estranged children, the massive debt, the adultery with the pool boy, the long hours writing briefs defending BP ["It was just a little spill! In Louisiana, for god's sake!"] and, of course, the terminal cancer) and still asked me for a letter of recommendation to law school;

You listened, amazed, at my lecture on the American Revolution, during which I quote from memory and with perfect inflection Captain Kirk’s famous speech about the Constitution – “We, the PEOPLE!… Down the centuries you have slurred the meaning of the words!” – and then asked your classmate: “Who’s Captain Kirk?”;

You now understand that political science is the “queen” of the social sciences, and why after four years this major has better prepared you to improve the world than if you had chosen any other discipline (but especially economics) – unless you blow it and go to law school;

You know now that just because a pundit says it is so, you still need to ask for evidence;

You didn’t make me explain “Teabagging” during my lecture on the Tea Party movement;

You gave me a gift of a bottle of scotch after the final class lecture that wasn’t Old Smugglers and didn’t come in a plastic bottle;

You figured out that my political views and partisan affiliation are exactly the same as yours;

You entered my blog contests for a chance to win an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid!” t-shirt, and then sent me a picture of you wearing your prize;

You stifled a gasp when entering my office, and managed not to fixate on the coffee stains and food remnants;

You learned, from “my son”, how to really do “the wave”;

You laughed at all my jokes, even the second time through (“Did you hear about the two hunters from Ripton who drove to Yellowstone to shoot grizzly?  The sign said ‘Yellowstone – Bear Left’, so they went home”);

You understood that when I hectored you in class, it was to make a broader teaching point, and not (necessarily) to humiliate you, although that was an ancillary benefit;

You remembered not to bring your Strawberry, U-Pad or other hand-held electronice device to exams;

You took on responsibility for sending the seemingly endless stream of emails the night before exams, asking all the questions that the other students wanted to ask;

You know that when we next see each other, I will not recall your name, but I will remember everything you ever said to, or wrote for, me during your entire four years at Middlebury.  (Which means at our next meeting you must greet me by first telling me who you are);

You brought me free beer during Election Night at the Grille, so that by evening’s end I was spouting utter nonsense even though all my electoral projections were dead on;

You understand now what really happened when they tried to “Free Willy”;

You know as well how to survive a nuclear holocaust;

You stayed home until you were sure you could not infect me;

You became part of my twitterverse by joining the other Twits who now receive my infrequent  twittings.

And, finally, you taught me more than you realize during your four years here.  Students often don’t appreciate that my interactions with them provides the impetus and the spark for keeping up with developments not just in my area of expertise but in society more generally. How else would I learn about The Cable, or FaceSpace, or the myriad other technological innovations?  Always remember that the questions you ask often inspire lectures or blogs or tweets!  In short, education at Middlebury is an interactive process – a two-way street – from which I benefit as much, or more, than do you. That is why I stay in this job despite the fact that, as I have reminded you countless times, Middlebury pays me nothing.

So, assuming you don’t get heat stroke today, let me end by sending you – My Favorite Student – best wishes in all your future endeavors.  Do stay in touch, and remember to thank your parents for getting you vaccinated; for rousing you out of bed for all those 5 am trips to the skating rink; for the endless piano lessons; for reminding you to finish those application essays; for instilling a strong sense of values based on discipline, hard work, and rooting for Boston sports teams; and for forking over the $76,000 a year (none of which went to me) to attend Middlebury College.  They did all this because they love you and they want to be sure you don’t have to move back home again.

And parents, you should realize that although you won’t ever see that money again, and that your kids are in fact going to move back home for a bit, it was well worth the investment. Contrary to what you probably believe deep in your soul, your child did not squander your retirement money on endless nights of booze and partying. They actually learned to think and to communicate and to treat anything they read in the New York Times with skepticism. Nor did s/he waste four years by majoring in political science.  Read the papers.  Listen to the news.  More than any other discipline, it is politics that most determines whether tomorrow will be an improvement over today.  Your child has a head start in fulfilling that promise.

So, to paraphrase the late, great Richard Neustadt, “Trust the kids.”  After all, you were one too and look how your life turned out!  (Ok, maybe a bad example….)

And finally, if you don’t want to take the elevator down while your spouse holds the bag, remember to always, always, know your limits.

Good luck, stay in touch, and may your scotch bottle never run dry…

With fond memories,

Matt (which you may call me only after you are handed your diploma!)

P.S. To My Favorite Student: If you would like to continue to get direct email notifications of new presidential power blog postings, please remember to provide me with an updated email address before your Middlebury email expires. And the same goes for you parents out there who also wish to get blog notifications.  Unlike the Middlebury alumni office, I’ll never ask for money.  (But I won’t turn down an endowed chair!)

Same-Sex Marriage: Reigniting the Culture War?

Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney gave a highly publicized speech at the conservative Liberty University yesterday.  The speech was billed as an opportunity for Romney to reach out to a group – evangelicals – who so far have shown him only lukewarm support during the Republican nomination race.  (Most of you will recall that high turnout among evangelicals was the single most consistent predictor of a Romney primary loss.) Many pundits wondered whether Romney would use the Liberty University speech as an opportunity to push back against President Obama’s recent announcement that he now supported same-sex marriage. Indeed, social commentators such as Patrick Buchanan argued that Obama’s open support of same-sex marriage – “the Antietam of the culture war” – might cost him the presidency.  “Obama,” Buchanan declared in reference to Obama’s decision to publicly back same-sex marriage, “may also have just solved Mitt Romney’s big problem: How does Mitt get all those evangelical Christians and cultural conservatives not only to vote for him but to work for him?”

Cue the Liberty University speech. However, rather than make Obama’s declaration the centerpiece of his address, Romney only referenced gay marriage once, saying, “Culture — what you believe, what you value, how you live — matters. As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate from time to time. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” Although that statement triggered a standing ovation and the largest applause of the address, Romney did not elaborate this point, nor did he address social cultural issues more generally. Nor did he discuss his Mormon faith, choosing instead to speak more generally about Judeo-Christian values.

Why didn’t Romney come out more strongly against same-sex marriage?  There are two reasons, I think.  First, he can read the public opinion trend lines as well as anyone.  As I noted in my last post, opposition to same-sex marriage has been dropping during the last decade, so that today, as this Pew Poll indicates, a slight plurality of the public now supports same-sex marriage.

Other polls suggest support is over 50%. This trend follows growing support for accepting homosexuality more generally.

More importantly, about half of independents, who promise to be the key voting bloc come November, are also same-sex marriage supporters.  That’s up by 18% in the last decade-and-a-half.

There’s a clear generational bias at play here, with younger voters – the so-called millennials – showing greatest support for same-sex marriage, while opposition is strongest among the oldest cohort.  Interestingly, most African-Americans still oppose same-sex marriage, although support is growing among this group as well.  There is little risk, however, that their opposition will lead them to vote against Obama come November.

The bottom line is that Romney recognizes what I argued in my last post: that support for same-sex marriage is not going to hurt Obama, and it may help him, particularly among younger voters and, possibly, independents.  It may also have given Obama a short-term fundraising boost among his base.  To be sure, some 30-plus states have banned same-sex marriage, so this is not to say that Obama wants to make this the centerpiece of his reelection bid.  But neither does it suggest that Romney will gain much by publicizing his opposition.

This leads me to the second reason why Romney did not make a bigger deal of his opposition to same-sex marriage: it’s not an issue that concerns many Americans.  Consider this bevy of polls at Pollingreport.com asking what Americans consider to be the most important issue facing the country.  Cultural issues, such as gay rights, same-sex marriage or family values, barely register in the single digits.   Economic issues, including jobs and the budget deficit, on the other hand, consistently top the list of highest concerns among a strong majority of those polled.   The implication is clear: while same sex headlines may grab the headlines today- David Gregory made it the centerpiece on Meet the Press this morning -  and while it is of deep concern to activists in both parties, this issue is simply not going to be influencing very many voters come November.  It may be, as Buchanan would have us believe, that “everything is up for grabs this November: the House, the Senate, the presidency, the Supreme Court and whether we still call the United States of America God’s country.”  The reality, however, is that November’s vote will not turn on whether and how voters read the Bible – it will turn on what’s in their pocketbooks. It’s still the economy, stupid.

Biden “Outs” Obama – But At What Electoral Cost?

While liberals and others openly applauded President Obama’s announcement two days ago that he now supports same-sex marriage, some backers openly worried  about the electoral implications of his decision.  They fear that by coming out for same-sex marriage, Obama provided conservatives, who to date have shown only tepid support for the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a reason to turnout against Obama come November.  This is exactly what happened in 2004, they claim, when John Kerry lost to George W. Bush because of gay marriage initiatives on the ballots in 11 states during that election, including the key battleground state of Ohio, which Bush barely won.   Those ballot initiatives, they argue, increased turnout among conservatives – particularly among evangelicals – by enough to cost Kerry the election.

Those fears notwithstanding, I’m skeptical that Obama’s decision to back same-sex marriage will have major electoral implications. To begin, it’s not entirely clear that the ballot initiatives in 2004 had all that much impact on conservative turnout. While conservative turnout was up in the ballot initiative states by about 5% from 2000, it was up by a similar amount nationally.  Moreover, there wasn’t much difference in turnout among white evangelicals in ballot initiative states versus other states without ballot initiatives.  Indeed, exit polls indicate that the 2004 election primarily turned not on cultural issues like gay marriage, but on foreign policy (Iraq and terrorism) and the economy (taxes and jobs.)  I expect that the same will hold true come November; media speculation to the contrary notwithstanding, several months from now voters will be much more concerned with job growth and the state of the economy than they will with Obama’s views on same-sex marriage.

Indeed, while his supporters are praising Obama for getting out front on this issue, my guess is that the ever pragmatic President would not have come out in favor of same-sex marriage without first calculating the likely electoral ramifications.  Conservatives who oppose gay marriage weren’t likely to vote for Obama in the first place, and same-sex marriage supporters were already in his camp.  And when it comes to those on the fence, Obama could take some solace that overall public opinion, as this recent Gallup Poll indicates, is trending in favor of same-sex marriage.

According to Gallup, in a span of a decade and a half, opposition to same-sex marriage has dropped 20%.  Moreover, the Gallup results are consistent with trends from other surveys, including these Washington Post/ABC polls:

41. Do you think it should be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian couples to get married? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?

——— Legal ———   ——– Illegal ——–     No

NET   Strongly   Somewhat   NET   Somewhat   Strongly   opinion

3/10/12      52       36         17      43        7         36         5

7/17/11      51       32         19      45        9         36         4

3/13/11      53       36         17      44        9         35         3

2/8/10       47       31         16      50        9         42         3

4/24/09*     49       31         18      46        7         39         5

6/4/06       36       24         13      58        7         51         5

8/28/05      39       NA         NA      58       NA         NA         3

8/29/04 RV   32       18         14      62       10         52         5

3/7/04       38       24         14      59       11         48         3

2/22/04      39       25         13      55        6         49         6

1/18/04      41       NA         NA      55       NA         NA         4

9/7/03       37       NA         NA      55       NA         NA         7

*2009 “gay and lesbian” and “homosexual” wordings half sampled. 2005 “gay and lesbian”, others “homosexual”.

The WaPo poll indicates that opposition to same sex marriage has dropped by about 12% since 2003.  If these trends are accurate, Obama is probably going to gain more than he’s going to lose by taking this stand. This is not to say the issue does not remain divisive; as the recent ballot initiative in North Carolina banning even same sex civil unions reminds us, there remains strong regional opposition to same-sex marriage.  Nonetheless, my read of public opinion trends suggests that Obama saw a chance to get on the same sex marriage train as it was beginning to pick up speed, rather than waiting until it had already left the station and was too far down the tracks.  If Obama’s not the same-sex conductor, at least he’s not in the caboose.

Whether he would have jumped on board without Vice President Joe Biden’s apparently unsolicited prod is unclear.  While many have suggested that Biden’s unscripted remarks are simply another reminder of the Vice President’s celebrated penchant for exhibiting foot-in-mouth disease, I’m not so sure.   Joe may have apologized to the President for his remarks, but I suspect that he is actually quite pleased with his verbal “misstep”.   Indeed, as a longtime Washington insider who understands how the media game works, it is not unlikely that Joe’s remarks were calculated to both put Obama on the spot but also provide a modicum of political cover to allow the President to do what he wanted to do anyway.  This is a reminder that even within the President’s own executive family, the President is rarely “in charge”; subordinates who have strong policy preferences are not shy about using the media, either directly or through indirect leaks, to make those preferences known, even when the President prefers otherwise. Similarly, aides may resist complying with presidential wishes, at least until directly pushed, and usually it takes more than one push to induce compliance. This is not insubordination – it is how the Washington game is played.

Moreover, while we often talk about the president’s power to persuade – persuasion, as Biden understands, can work in both directions.  In either case, however, the essence of the task remains the same: to convince someone that what you want them to do is what they ought to do for their own sake, and on their own authority.   Evidently Biden, working with others, was able to persuade the President that it was in the President’s own political interest to take a public stand on this issue.  It remains to be seen whether the voters will be persuaded as well.   But all the signs indicate that Biden’s instincts are sound.

Obama In Afghanistan: To The Victor Goes the Spoils

After a surprise overnight trip, President Barack Obama delivered a nationwide address tonight from the Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan.  Speaking at 4 a.m. local time, Obama delivered a roughly 10-minute address touting the signing of a strategic agreement with Afghanistan that laid out a timetable for the U.S military withdrawal from that nation.  Predictably, critics tsked-tsked that the President’s decision to announce the agreement on the anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden threatened to politicize the conduct of foreign policy, and they were exactly right. But, in truth, no presidential action can be completely divorced from politics, and this is particularly the case in an election year, with the election slightly more than seven months away.  It would be more shocking if the President did not try to capitalize on what is likely the signature foreign policy accomplishment of his administration to date, particularly in light of the rather anemic GDP number announced three days before.  This was a Mission Accomplished reminder in which the Mission – at least in part – was really accomplished.

The language Obama used in the speech was particularly striking. According to the White House text, he said:

“And so, 10 years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al Qaeda could never again use this country to launch attacks against us. Despite initial success, for a number of reasons, this war has taken longer than most anticipated. In 2002, bin Laden and his lieutenants escaped across the border and established safe haven in Pakistan. America spent nearly eight years fighting a different war in Iraq. And al Qaeda’s extremist allies within the Taliban have waged a brutal insurgency.

But over the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set — to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach.”

This was both an indictment of the Bush administration for failing to kill Bin Laden, and a reminder that he – Obama – came closer to achieving the “goal that I set” – defeating al Qaeda – than did his predecessor.  It was a very effective way to personalize the killing of Bin Laden – one might say it was positively Bush-like.

It also served to take some attention away from the more important acknowledgment contained in the speech: that the U.S. would be involved in Afghanistan for years to come. Although largely symbolic and vague on details, the strategic agreement commits the U.S. to remaining in Afghanistan for another decade after the U.S. military forces are slated to be removed in 2014.   Although Obama touted the troop drawdown, the reality is that by the end of this term he will have more than doubled the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan from what he inherited from Bush, and it remains unclear just how many troops will remain to train Afghan security forces and perform other security related tasks in the years to come.  In justifying the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of his presidency, Obama relied on the time-tested rhetorical trick of sandwiching his chosen policy between two extreme alternatives:

“As we move forward, some people will ask why we need a firm timeline. The answer is clear: Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that. Afghans want to assert their sovereignty and build a lasting peace. That requires a clear timeline to wind down the war.

Others will ask, why don’t we leave immediately? That answer is also clear: We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise, our gains could be lost and al Qaeda could establish itself once more. And as Commander-in-Chief, I refuse to let that happen.”

Given the alternatives, which Obama defined as indefinite involvement or unilateral withdrawal, his policy option seems downright sensible.  Critics will contend, of course, that we have heard this type of rhetorical device used before – in Vietnam, for instance.  And it assumes that the phased withdrawal will not be disrupted by a deteriorating security situation.

The more important point to come out of tonight’s speech, however, is that while Obama wants, understandably, to focus on the troop drawdown, the reality is that he has acknowledged that we are once again – as we are in Iraq – back in the business of nation building.

P.S. I appreciate all the emails asking where I had disappeared to, but as I warned in a recent post, sometimes my day job takes over my life, and I hit a particularly busy patch during the past two weeks due to grading, teaching and research deadlines. I’ll try to resume a more normal blogging schedule for the immediate future.  Meanwhile, keep those comments coming.