Monthly Archives: August 2014

What?! No Strategy? The President Should Just Resign

Typically my Saturday post centers on a trip using the WayBack machine to revisit some presidential archive, but I confess I’m too distraught over the President’s monumental gaffe to even bother with my usual topic. You know the gaffe I mean – Obama admitted during his press confidence two days ago that he didn’t have a clue regarding how to defeat the Islamic State (IS) that is currently overrunning Iraq and Syria before coming to attack us here. It’s hard to exaggerate how big a gaffe it is. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Human Events John Hayward’s measured analysis: “You can save your breath, frantic Obama apologists. There is no way to spin the unmitigated disaster of this hapless President toddling to the podium yesterday and announcing to the world that he doesn’t have a strategy for defeating ISIS yet. The pants-wetting terror that immediately gripped everyone in the White House, and every dead-ender Obama-worshiping pundit, tells the true tale of how epic a blunder this was.”

Ok, John – who admittedly leans a bit conservative – might be slightly hyperbolic in his assessment but still, when he says this gaffe was “nothing less than Barack Obama conceding victory to ISIS in Round One of the new great war” I get concerned.  This is particularly the case when “non-partisan” media sources seem to concur.  For example, Time’s Zeke Miller, referencing the “no strategy” statement, wrote that, “President Barack Obama seemed to commit the worst of Washington gaffes Thursday when he updated the American people about the ongoing threat from Islamist militants wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria.” The New York Times agrees: “Lawmakers and television commentators expressed bewilderment and alarm that Mr. Obama had no plan for dealing with a militant group in a war-torn country where the death toll is nearing 200,000.” The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin was more concise: “Obama’s speech was a train wreck from start to finish.”

The twitterverse was no kinder to Obama. For example, CNN’s The Lead’s Jake Tapper, publicizing his upcoming program, tweeted: “Obama’s foreign policy criticized in wake of ‘no strategy’ gaffe – @jaketapper reports #TheLead”. Stephen Hayes tweeted “’We don’t have a strategy yet’ not only describes Obama admin & ISIL now but six years of Obama admin & Al quaeda/terrorism”. Even the BBC piled on in noting that the President had committed the very definition of a gaffe: “Mr Obama’s line is a textbook example of veteran journalist Michael Kinsley’s definition of a political gaffe, which occurs when a politician tells an “obvious truth that he isn’t supposed to say”.

Telling the truth?  No one will dispute that we are in deep trouble when the President begins doing that!

Note that the gaffe doesn’t just affect Obama’s political standing. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake suggests that Obama’s gaffe may cost the Democrats control of the Senate: “But it certainly helps the GOP make the case that Obama’s foreign policy continues to ‘lead from behind.’ And to the extent foreign policy matters in the coming election (which it’s starting to look like it could), that could put some red-state Democrats in tough positions.” This is because, as the Washington Examiner‘s Brian Hughes notes, the remark cements the prevailing view that when it comes to foreign policy, Obama is in over his head: “Rather than the average inartful comment that disappears after a few news cycles, the no-strategy line could help cement charges that Obama lacks the competency to handle multiple crises at once.” Politico’s Josh Gerstein concurs: “[H]is awkward choice of words to describe a policymaking process still in midstream seems likely to haunt him for some time.”

This is because the President’s remarks, as Gerstein reminds us, are part of a longer pattern in which the President consistently underestimates IS’s threat: “The impact and the danger of the no-strategy remark could be exacerbated by earlier Obama comments in which he seemed to dramatically underestimate the ISIL threat.” More importantly, Obama’s statement, as CNN’s Barbara Starr points out, could embolden IS: “But perhaps worth remembering that ISIS fighters, ISIS leadership will hear this statement that the U.S. right now has no strategy to deal with them. I don’t think anybody thought a military strategy was the whole answer, but no strategy?”

And what does this do to Obama’s historical legacy? Blake thinks the gaffe “strikes us as a legacy problem for Obama. For a president confronting a bunch of overseas crises in the final two-plus years of his presidency — including ones that involve or could involve U.S. force – ‘we don’t have a strategy yet’ could become pretty unhelpful shorthand for his foreign policy if things don’t go well.” The American Spectator’s Thomas Lifson, in an article titled “Obama’s no strategy gaffe may become the ‘read my lips’ signature of a failed presidency” is more candid: “President Obama has now placed himself in an extraordinarily vulnerable position should ISIS act against the American people with its customary savagery. His arrogant dismissal of it with a sports metaphor, his admission of no strategy, and his track record of dithering and unseriousness combine to make his gaffe into what could become his politcal epitaph.”

I could go on citing sources proving what an umitigated, crisis-inducing, presidency-ending Titanic-like foreign policy blunder this statement was, but fortunately IJS does it for me, linking to “17 Reactions to the ‘We Don’t Have a Strategy’ Gaffe That May Haunt the Rest of Obama’s Presidency”.  And, let’s be honest – it’s not like Obama didn’t realize his presidency had essentially ended when he made that remark; as the New York Daily News notes, Obama sent out his press secretary Josh Earnest to try “backtrack from his ‘no strategy’ gaffe”, but then the President realized the enormity of the gaffe and said essentially “The hell with it, I’ll go golf and raise some money.”

At this point the damage is already done. Frankly, it’s not clear to me why the President soldiers on in the face of this enormous mistake. As gaffes go, this is pretty devastating – worse even than “he didn’t build this”, or Obama’s reference to bitter, gun-toting bible-thumpers with no teeth.  I don’t need to state the obvious – journalists covering the presidency are not the types to exaggerate an incident for the sake of wooing viewers or increasing site visits.  No, this isn’t about hyping a story to generate ratings – it’s a sober, clear-headed analysis of a presidential statement that is likely to go down in history as perhaps the greatest presidential gaffe of all time.

Sigh. I’m going back to bed. Wake me when the President resigns.

Why “We Don’t Have A Strategy Yet” Is a Good Strategy For Now

In my years of punditry sophisticated application of political science to presidential politics, it has been rare for a president to both confirm my take on his previous actions and to follow my advice on what to do next within hours of my post on the topic. (Please, hold the hate mail – I’m not suggesting he actually read the post!) But we just saw both occur in the President’s recently completed press conference,  during which he acknowledged that, as yet, his administration has not settled on a policy for dealing with ISIS/ISIL, much as I suggested was the case in my earlier post.

Of course, the President’s candid confession set off the predictable barrage of criticism on the twitterverse with comments like this:

“What on earth are we waiting for?”

“Clint Eastwood’s empty chair would have a better strategy to deal with ISIS than Barack Obama.”

“If I have this right, we’ll be taking unspecified action following an unformulated strategy leading a nonexistent coalition.”

As I suggested in my post earlier today, however, it is no surprise that the Obama administration is struggling to formulate a response to ISIS – this is precisely the type of foreign policy problem that is most difficult to address because it is not immediately clear whether the nature of the ISIS threat affects U.S. national interests to the degree that warrants a more comprehensive military response, particularly one that may put us on the same side as a dictator we have been trying to remove for some time now. Once again, Obama’s initial response seems dictated by a desire “not to do stupid stuff” – at least not immediately, and not before he can get Congress involved in the formulation of a response. And while the twits in the twitterverse panned him for acknowledging that he has no “organizing principle” that would immediately dictate how to respond to ISIS, my point in my earlier post is that he needed to explain why this was the case, and why deciding what to do was so difficult. Today’s conference was evidently a first step in doing so.

Did he succeed? One of the difficulties any president faces in trying to explain his actions is that his is not the only voice that will be heard. Heading into a midterm election, Republicans are sure to pounce on Obama’s candid statement that his administration is still formulating a strategy as evidence that his foreign policy is reactive and lacks guiding principles. It will be interesting to see how the media reports on what are sure to be dueling narratives, and what the public reaction to these narratives is. This much is certain: almost every media report will lead with some version of the President’s statement that his administration does not yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS.  Whether they will provide some context for this statement, however, remains to be seen.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE 5:50 p.m.: Since I know lots of you don’t follow Twitter, I thought I’d give you a representative sample of the reaction Obama’s admission is getting.  Needless to say, heads are exploding and, as far as I can tell, they are exploding on the Left as much as on the Right.

“I’m baffled. What possesses a president to acknowledge he doesn’t have a strategy against a threat he’s fighting?  Answer: Lameduck”

“Just to point out the obvious, ISIS in its various iterations is at least a decade old. But glad we are still working on the strategy thing.”

UPDATE 6:20:  Understandably, the White House Press Secretary is already trying to clarify the President’s remark: “WH scrambles to explain “we don’t have a strategy yet” remark. on CNN says there is ISIS strategy. Obama meant military in Syria.”

UPDATE 8:00:  And here is the predictable media headline (undoubtedly the first of many):

Why “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” Becomes An Organizing Principle

With news reports suggesting the Obama administration is contemplating extending air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into Syria, it is worth revisiting Hillary Clinton’s implicit criticism that Obama’s foreign policy lacks any underlying guiding principles. You will recall that in her interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton opined that “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Clinton’s words, which many pundits took as a shot at her former boss’ conduct of foreign policy, prompted Obama’s former White House aide David Axelrod to tweet back, “Just to clarify: ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.”  If Obama does authorize air strikes in Syria, it will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire ignited by Clinton’s remarks, particularly since air strikes in Syria against ISIS would appear to implicitly place Obama on the same side as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad*, only a year after Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons against his own people.

However, as political scientist Bear Braumoeller wrote in this excellent piece at the Monkey Cage two days ago, Obama’s seemingly rudderless foreign policy is in fact partly a function of the nature of the foreign policy crises he faces.  In the case of ISIS, there is a clear lack of agreement regarding the severity of its threat to U.S. national interests. In the aftermath of reporter James Foley’s killing, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned ISIS in the strongest terms, saying “ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable.” Similarly, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel described ISIS as “an imminent threat to every interest we have.”  It is not clear, however, whether these remarks from Obama’s chief foreign policy aides reflect Obama’s views – or are designed to persuade him to adopt them. And, while opinion polls indicate public support for air strikes against ISIS, they also show extreme reluctance to engage in another war in Iraq.

Lacking a consensus regarding the severity of the threat ISIS poses makes it difficult to fashion a coherent foreign policy response. More generally, this has been the problem that has plagued Obama throughout his presidency as he has confronted a series of regional hotspots. As Braumoeller writes, “Sometimes the main actors agree on fundamental values and policies—as the Great Powers did, for a time, during the Concert of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. More often, though, no foreign policy is completely successful. What that means is that, while everyone ends up at least a little bit frustrated, no one is so dissatisfied with the status quo that they are willing to exert the effort that would be needed to change it.” As Braumoeller’s argument implicitly suggests, Obama’s foreign policy appears to lack an underlying principle in large part because the President does not appear convinced that the issues he confronts – the Ukraine separatist movement, the fight in Gaza, and now ISIS’ effort to establish a caliphate – clearly affect U.S. national interests. As Braumoeller puts it, “Simply put, the challenges that remain are not sufficiently compelling to prompt us to attempt them in the face of determined opposition.” The result is a foreign policy that appears reactive because although Obama appears unpersuaded that a stronger foreign policy response is warranted, neither does he feel free to completely disengage from each of these hotspots, particularly when the status quo is in danger of unraveling.

For Braumoeller, this is the crux of the dilemma Obama faces: “The paradox of living in a world in which we have achieved most of our big foreign policy goals is that the lesser ones that remain seem more difficult to obtain. But that is exactly what we should expect, precisely because these are lesser goals — and because we have reached the point at which frustrating them matters more to someone else than achieving them means to us.” It is here, in the failure to articulate a policy for addressing these lesser crises, that I think Clinton’s criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy may have some merit. It is one thing to promise to withdraw militarily from regional hotspots that do not immediately affect U.S. national interests. It is quite another to do so if the consequences are greater regional destabilization and a potential increase in the likelihood that warring groups will become a threat to U.S. national interests. My sense is that the Obama administration, understandably, is recalibrating its response to these regional threats on an ongoing basis, as the context changes and as it learns more about the nature of the forces it is facing. But that recalibration creates the perception that Obama’s foreign policy is reactive, and guided by no clear principle.  Yes, that may be an inevitable consequence of the nature of the security dilemmas with which Obama struggles to cope, but it may also reflect his own uncertainty of his foreign policy goals – and how best to obtain them.

If so, he wouldn’t be the first president to struggle with these issues.  It is common for pundits to argue that the presidency has become more difficult  in large part because of the nature of the foreign policy problems recent presidents face. However, as I have argued previously, and as Braumoeller’s post suggests, these problems appear more intractable in part because their severity, at least as they affect U.S. national interests, has lessened compared to what presidents confronted when we lived in a nuclear weapons-dominated, bipolar world.  Yes, Obama faces difficult foreign policy challenges – ones that defy easy solutions, and hence make it difficult to articulate the modern-day equivalent of “containment“.   However, as this audio recording of Lyndon Johnson voicing his struggle with foreign policy choices in a 1964 conversation with Senate Majority Leader Richard Russell reminds us, adhering to abstract foreign policy principles doesn’t always lead to optimal outcomes.  In this regard, while “don’t do stupid stuff” may not rise to critics’ idea of an organizing principle, under some circumstances it may be the best default option, at least in the short run.

Now all Obama needs to do is to make the public understand this – and that may be his most difficult foreign policy challenge.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed the Syrian dictator as Hafez al-Assad rather than his son Bashar.

President Griswold? The Nation Lampoons Vacations

I vowed that this year I would not engage in the annual “The President is on Vacation Now?!” madness. In past years when I’ve participated in this debate, I felt a little like Clark Griswold persuading his family to go to Walleye World (more on that below). As I’ve noted in previous columns, the “discussion” is typically a partisan exercise in which both sides defend the necessity of their guy taking a vacation and/or point out that the other team’s guy took many more. It is a silly debate, beginning with the effort to numerically document “vacation days”. The New York Times is the latest media outlet to fall prey to this infantile exercise. Let’s be clear – the purported measures that papers like the Times report regarding how many vacation days each president took are really only measuring the presidents’ time away from the White House – a number that, as far as I can tell, says more about whether a president owns a second home that is easy to secure than it does about his propensity to go on vacation. By the logic underlying media measures of vacation time, Kennedy was taking down time when he was browbeaten by Nikita Khruschev at Vienna in 1961. (Yes, I’m guilty of repeating those numbers – see below.) In truth, presidents are almost never on vacation. Sure, golfing with Alonzo Mourning probably represents a form of pure recreation, but as Tony Soprano proved, you can conduct a lot of business even on the golf course.


So, if I vowed not to engage in this debate, why am I writing this post? Because I’m on vacation and needed an easy writing day. However, rather than repeat myself, I’ve decided simply to repost my last discussion of this issue – this came out August 19, 2011 under the title “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 Truman 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 (pardon his French!).

Now, back to my paper. Au revoir!


Small States, Malapportionment and Electoral Independence

I’m up today at U.S. News with an analysis of Republican Senator Jim Jeffords’ decision in 2001 to declare as an independent and caucus with the Democrats. As I noted in yesterday’s post, his political career was largely defined by this decision which threw control of the Senate to the Democratic Party for the next 18 months and elevated Jeffords to “rock star status” – he was on the cover of Time – at least for the moment. As Shelly Sloan notes in his comment to yesterday’s post, however, it also infuriated many Republicans who felt Jeffords had betrayed his constituents since he had just won reelection by running as a Republican. Although support for Jeffords’ decision was mixed in national public opinion polling, it was received much more favorably for the most part in his home state of Vermont. As I note in today US News post, research by Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer indirectly suggests that the fact that Jeffords represented a small state probably was an important factor in his decision to leave the Republican Party.

In reviewing the tributes that poured in after Jeffords’ death, one in particular caught my fancy.  Some of you will recall that Jeffords was part of the Singing Senators, a barbershop quarter featuring senators Jeffords, Trent Lott, John Ashcroft, and Larry Craig.  According to Jeffords’ son Leonard, Jeffords was the only one of the four that couldn’t carry a tune.  “He thought he could sing, but he was horrible,” Leonard Jeffords recalled. “The dogs would start howling. Lott could really belt it out; Larry Craig had a nice voice. John Ashcroft was pretty good. My dad, I think, was just there.”  Here’s a brief clip of them on the Chris Matthews show (from a video clip of them on the Today Show). You be the judge.


Rest in peace, Jim Jeffords.