Category Archives: People

Obama’s Michael Brown Address: I Won’t Do Stupid Things

The sense of disappointment among many progressive pundits yesterday, particularly denizens of the twitterverse, to what they viewed as President Obama’s tepid remarks  on the Michael Brown killing was palpable. Rather than attempting to condemn the actions of the white police officer who shot Brown, or to place Brown’s death in the larger context of police shootings of black men and race relations more generally, the President gave a decidedly more measured response, stressing the need to maintain the peace in Ferguson while the facts are gathered. Perhaps the most noteworthy takeaway from the press conference is that he is sending Attorney General Eric Holder to Missouri.

Needless to say, this was not the response many progressives wanted to hear, and they weren’t shy about making their disappointment known, as this sampling from my twitter feed and other sources indicates:

“Barack Obama is either very tired, doesn’t believe a single word he’s saying re: Michael Brown, or both.”

And this:

“The suggestion that My Brother’s Keeper could have helped save Michael Brown is ludicrous to the point of being willfully ignorant.”

And this:

“Barack Hussein Cosby”.

Ouch. And when asked whether he would personally travel to Ferguson, instead of a dramatic version of Eisenhower’s “I shall go to Korea”  the president was noncommittal, prompting twitter responses like this:

“Even Bush didn’t take this long to get down to Katrina. Jesus.”

In trying to explain the President’s failure to take a more strident stand, some progressives defended him by suggesting he was likely hiding his true views in order to avoid inflaming an already unstable situation. Ezra Klein’s take is not uncharacteristic of this perspective: “The problem is the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge divides. They believe — with good reason — that he widens them. They learned this early in his presidency, when Obama said that the police had ‘acted stupidly’ when they arrested Harvard University professor Skip Gates on the porch of his own home. The backlash was fierce.”

Maybe. But here’s a radical thought. Perhaps there’s another explanation for the President’s muted response – one that is admittedly more outlandish than what progressive pundits would have us believe: it’s that the President actually meant what he said yesterday. Maybe – just maybe – he really does want to wait until all the facts are in, rather than following the Twitterverse into a headlong rush to judgment. Maybe he understands that the circumstances surrounding this incident may not be as black and white as the armchair analysts twitting their views from their computers thousands of miles from the scene of the shooting would have one think. Maybe he sincerely believes that the best way to defuse the tension is to let the investigation run its course, rather than trying to force facts and rumors of facts into a pre-existing framework of analysis designed to confirm what some pundits are certain happened.

Shocking, I know. But, as I have argued from day one of Obama’s time in office, this pragmatic, show-me-the-facts – dare I say “moderate”? – take on the presidency is exactly what we – progressives included – should have expected from Obama, based on his prior history. And it is entirely consistent with a President whose operating mantra is captured in the phrase “don’t do stupid things.”  Yes, there may yet be a time for the President to reprise his stirring 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention – “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America” – or to echo the theme of racial harmony that characterized his Reverend Wright condemnation speech – “As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.” But those speeches were made by a man who dreamed of becoming president and they were, in large part, designed to further that goal. As President, however, Obama no longer has the luxury to be quite so self-indulgent. Yes, there may come the moment when he can use the Michael Brown tragedy as an opportunity to talk about race relations, civil rights, police shootings and the myriad other issues that progressives wish Obama had addressed yesterday. But as President he has evidently concluded that this moment is not now. Some find this disappointing. Others, however, may interpret the President’s reticence as a sign of true leadership.

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Is The Loneliest Job In the World Getting Lonelier?

This week we take the WayBack machine to revisit an exchange in the White House Oval Office between President Harry Truman and some public administration scholars that provides a fascinating window into Truman’s perspective on being president – and what President Obama can learn from Truman’s views. According to the transcript of the meeting, Truman is asked at one point whether he agrees with President Taft’s characterization of the Presidency as “the loneliest job in the world”. Truman replied, “Oh yes, it’s true.” Here is part of his full response to that question:

Truman interview lonely job.1

The irony of Truman’s observation, of course, is that he was anything but alone in this, the loneliest job in the world. As Truman explained earlier in the conversation, “I have a number of Secretaries and assistants here, who are of immense help to me.” One of those was his Appointment Secretary, Matt Connelly, “whose business it is to see that the people get in that should get in. You see, I can’t see everybody that wants to see me….It took me a long time to figure that out.” Truman noted that as a Senator, he had been used to seeing “two or three hundred [people] a day…and saw each one individually. … But the President can’t do that. His callers have to be screened and confined to those who really have business that the President needs to talk about, or needs to transact.”

Who were those people that Truman deemed “really” necessary to see? Truman’s review of his daily schedule above shows that he was a very busy man, but it does not indicate with whom he met with regularly. However, notes from a study by his White House assistant Richard Neustadt gives us a glimpse into Truman’s regular appointments throughout his presidency. Here is an overview of Neustadt’s findings:

Truman Schedule
In looking at Truman’s regular schedule of meetings, there are several items of particular interest. First, he operated without a chief of staff, choosing instead to manage his staff on his own. This meant scheduling a daily staff meeting with his senior White House aides, during which he would hand out assignments and receive oral reports. By all accounts this was a tremendously helpful administrative exercise, not least because it kept each senior aide apprised of what his colleagues were doing. Presidents have long since given up this practice, choosing instead to delegate staff oversight to a single senior aide.

Second, Truman does not begin daily intelligence briefings until 1950 which, not coincidentally, marks the start of the Korean War that June. Interestingly, however, those briefings were conducted initially by General Omar Bradly, who was serving as the first chairman of the newly created Joint Chiefs of Staff, and not by the CIA director or a personal White House equivalent to the national security adviser.

Third, Truman met weekly with both his full cabinet and with the press. Neither practice continues today. Most of Truman’s successors, beginning with JFK, complained that the cabinet had become simply too large and unwieldy to justify regular cabinet meetings. Instead presidents have opted to meet with smaller, issue-based cabinet councils, usually under the direction of a White House aide. At the same time, for reasons I discuss here, presidents find regular press conferences far less useful than in Truman’s day.

But perhaps of greatest relevance to today are Truman’s regular Monday meetings with the congressional “Big Four” – the House Speaker and majority leader, and the Senate majority leader and president pro tempore. In addition to these weekly get togethers with the congressional party leadership, however, Truman’s schedule is studded with additional meetings with senators and representatives of both parties. Neustadt’s notations indicate that many of these meetings dealt with regional issues of concern to the particular member of Congress, while others dealt with national policy. For example, in June 1947 Truman met with Senator John Overton to discuss flood control in Louisiana, with Alabama Senator John Sparkman “re War Dept. run out on cotton”, and with House Labor Committee Republicans to discuss their opposition to the Taft-Hartley act – just three of 13 separate meetings with senators and seven more with representatives Neustadt records for that month.

It is perhaps not surprising that Truman, the former Senator, took such pains to keep in regular personal contact with those at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. In the notes Neustadt kept of his 1958 interview with the ex-president for his book Presidential Power, Truman discusses his views toward Congress in the context of his disapproval of White House aides “swarming over the Hill” on the president’s behalf: “I didn’t believe in it; never did….[M]y attitude formed in my early years in the Senate. I always believed Congress was a co-equal branch, just like the Court; the President should tell them what he thinks right and then it’s up to them…There’s bound to be some inefficiency [but] it’s worth it. [A] Congressman’s entitled to talk to the President directly and be talked to directly, not second hand….they resent it.”

I thought about Truman’s remarks after having dinner recently with a former member of the House who remains in somewhat close contact with current members of Congress. According to him, legislators on Capitol Hill from both parties do not believe President Obama is sensitive enough to the need for reaching out to the Hill on a regular basis.  Of course, this is a complaint one hears voiced on a frequent basis in media reports, but it is difficult in the absence of records like Neustadt’s to verify just how often the President meets with his legislative counterparts. If true, however, it may explain in part why a President – and former Senator – ostensibly committed to changing the culture of Washington has apparently made so little headway toward reaching this objective.

The Presidency is already the loneliest job in the world. Truman’s words, and actions, are a reminder that it makes no sense to further the isolation by failing to reach out regularly to those with whom you share power.

Why Obama’s Approval Ratings Languish

I don’t normally focus too much attention on one survey, but when it helps illuminate a broader (and not uncontroversial) argument I’ve made it becomes too good to pass up.

Readers will recall that in yesterday’s post I noted that the likely explanation for President Obama’s recent sputtering approval ratings in the face of an incrementally improving economy is a spate of bad news from overseas. The results of this McClatchy-Marist poll, in the field August 4-7, are consistent with my analysis.  It shows Obama’s approval rating languishing at 40%, the second lowest of his presidency, and the lowest it has fallen in three years. (He was at 39% approval in a September 2011 McClatchy poll.)

More importantly, in the poll Obama gets dismal ratings for his handling of foreign policy, with only 33% approving of his performance in this area, compared to 61% who disapprove. That’s a decline of 13% in approval since the start of this year, and a decline of 9% since April. As I suggested yesterday, that nosedive appears to be driven most recently by the public’s perception of events in the Mideast and in the Ukraine, as well as Iraq. Only 30% of respondents approve the President’s handling of the Israeli-Hamas conflict, and only 32% give Obama favorable marks for his dealing with Russia regarding the Ukraine struggle. (McClatchy didn’t ask about the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq, but I am confident that is also contributing to Obama’s loss of support.) In comparison, while his handling of the economy gets relatively low marks, at 39% approving, that level has remained relatively consistent for over a year now. So it appears that foreign policy is keeping Obama’s polling numbers low for now.

As you might expect in an era of deep party sorting, there is a pronounced partisan divide in Obama’s approval numbers with Democrats showing far greater support for his handling of issues, including foreign policy, than do Republicans. However, what is most telling is his declining support among independents who, as I noted in my previous post, are a growing portion of the electorate, and who were a key component of Obama’s electoral coalition in 2008.  As of today, however, Obama’s support among this voting bloc has seen a precipitous decline.

Fully 45% of respondents to the McClatchy survey now categorize themselves as independent, compared to 28% who self-identify as Democrat and 25% Republican. Among independents, 18% say they lean Republican, while 12% consider themselves “pure”, with no partisan leanings in either direction. We know from previous studies that “leaners” tend to act on those predispositions; when given a choice of two candidates, most will back the one from the party to which they lean. If this holds true to form, the survey suggests an electorate that is almost evenly divided between the two parties, with the independents likely to hold the balance of power heading into the 2012 midterms.

What is driving down Obama’s support among independents? Again, consistent with my post yesterday, Obama is not being helped by events overseas; McClatchy finds that only 31% of independents approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy. The number is lower among independents – at 24% approval – for both his handling of the Israeli-Hamas conflict and the Ukraine conflict. More worrisome, it appears Obama’s foreign policy woes may affect the midterm results come November. When asked if “November’s election were held today, which party’s candidate are you more likely to vote for in your district?”, Republicans lead on this generic ballot question by 43-38% over Democrats. In April, by contrast, Democrats were up by 48-42%, so it has been nearly a 10% net change in support across three months. During this period the indicators measuring the health of the economy have not changed much or have indicated a slight improvement, but the salience of foreign policy has increased, and not to the President’s benefit.

It can be dangerous to put too much stock into one poll. Events overseas remain fluid, leaving the possibility that a reversal in fortune could redound to Obama’s – and Democrats’ – benefit. Moreover, we shouldn’t overstate the impact of Obama’s low approval on voters’ choices come November. Fully 51% of respondents to the McClatchy poll say their opinion of Obama won’t be a factor in their vote during the midterms, including 61% of independents who say it won’t matter. On the other hand, 41% of independents say “their impression of Obama” will make them more likely to vote Republican come November, compared to 22% who say it will make them more likely to vote Democratic. Obama’s standing within the public, particularly among independents, is one factor – but not the only one – that will affect the midterm results.

My broader point, however, is to reiterate my claim in yesterday’s post regarding why Obama’s poll numbers remain sluggish. In this era of social media and partisan-driven talking points, it is easy to blame some combination of polarization, cable news, and racial animus for his languishing approval ratings. The evidence, however, points to a more prosaic culprit: things aren’t going well overseas, and when that happens, the President, fair or not, takes the blame.

Why Obama’s Approval Is Bush League, Take Two

Why are President Obama’s approval ratings so low?

The latest aggregate polling at Pollster.com shows Obama’s approval rating at only 43% which, as the Pollster.com graph indicates, is pretty much right where it has been all this year. At RealClearPolitics, which uses a slightly different algorithm, Obama’s approval stands at 41%.

Obama approval

This is a puzzle, because as political scientist Seth Masket points out, the economy is actually improving, albeit not in historically robust fashion, and presidential approval ratings usually track economic performance. However, Obama does not seem to be reaping any reward in his approval ratings from an improving economy.  Instead, his approval ratings appear stagnant. Why is this the case?

Masket rejects two frequently cited suspects: “First, let’s dismiss the simple answers: It’s not because of racism or polarization. Obama’s approval ratings have been very stable for most of his term, usually hovering within a few points of 45 percent. But he came into office with approval ratings near 70 percent, even though it’s hard to imagine any of the respondents not knowing his race. And the country wasn’t really much less polarized in 2009 than it is today.”

Instead the answer, Masket suggests, is that perceptions regarding the economy among those polled have yet to catch up with the reality of sustained growth: “Basically, because the good news is relatively new. The American economy is still emerging from the shadow of the worst crash since the Great Depression, and the recovery up until very recently has been rather paltry. Remember, GDP growth in the first quarter of this year was actually negative. And even consistently strong growth takes a while to affect voters’ impressions of the economy and the political system.”

I think Masket is on to part of the explanation, but that there are additional factors at work that are deflating Obama’s support. Let us first consider the impact of polarization, or what is more properly described as party sorting. As the two parties have become more uniformly sorted by ideology – with liberals increasingly calling themselves Democrats, and conservatives identifying as Republican – presidential approval ratings are more likely to break down along partisan lines. In this respect, Obama’s partisan support in approval ratings is almost the mirror image of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush’s.


For Masket, however, party sorting can’t explain Obama’s persistently low ratings because, as the chart above shows, even as Republican support for Obama may fall, rising Democratic support should compensate. Moreover, the country is no better sorted now than it was when Obama had approval ratings hovering above 70%. However, this does not take into account shifting levels of approval among independents. As of today Obama’s approval among independents stands at 33%, a far cry from the 52% margin he won among this group in the 2008 election and even lower than the 45% support independents gave him in 2012. Moreover, polls show that the percent of people self-identifying as independents is growing, with more than 40% classifying themselves as independents at the start of this year compared to 35% when Obama took office.

To explain Obama’s drop in support among independents, it is worth thinking about the factors that influence approval ratings more generally. As I discuss in this previous post, Masket is correct that the economy is certainly a major influence. But two additional factors come into play. One is what I call a structural dynamic associated with the President’s time in office. For example, we know that all presidents start with artificially high approval ratings – the so-called “honeymoon” effect – in which even some who did not vote for the President nonetheless express initial approval of his performance. That explains the 70% approval rating Masket references in the first weeks of the Obama presidency. Invariably this level of support cannot be sustained as political reality sets in.

The second set of factors influencing a president’s approval ratings are significant events which often exert a short-term but measurable impact. For an extreme example, think of George W. Bush and his 90% approval rating after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. On a less extreme level, as Stu Rothenberg suggests, Obama’s approval rating may be suffering from the confluence of a recent series of negative events, particularly in foreign policy. These include the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, the Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza and the ongoing civil war in the Ukraine, to name the most prominent. The reason Obama’s approval ratings continue to lag, I think, is because these foreign policy events have tended to overshadow the economy when it comes to evaluating his performance.

The result is that despite an economy that seems to be improving, Obama’s and Bush’s approval ratings are remarkably similar at the same point in their respective presidencies, as this chart put together by Tina Berger and Day Robins indicates. (Note: the x-axis denotes the number of days into the presidency.)

Obama Bush approvalThis does not mean, however, that the two presidents’ approval ratings will continue operating under identical dynamics. Bush’s approval ratings had yet to be impacted by the Great Recession which officially kicked in during December 2007, and which contributed to the steady decline in his approval throughout his presidency. In the long run, if the economy continues its current incremental improvement I would not expect Obama’s approval to continue to track Bush’s decline. But that improvement may not come soon enough for Democrats. In this era of increasingly nationalized elections, midterms are in part viewed as a referendum on the president’s performance. To the extent this holds true this November, Obama’s middling  approval ratings are not likely to boost his party’s electoral fortunes.

A Switch in Time: How Nixon Might Have Survived Watergate

On Jan. 27, 1969, less than a week into the Nixon presidency, Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman relayed the following request from President Nixon to White House aide and former Time magazine executive editor James Keogh: “The President is most anxious to bring in an official White House historian to make sure that we maintain on a current basis an accurate record of the work of this administration.” Nixon even had a person in mind for the position: Professor Ernest May, a historian at Harvard University who had served on the Lindsay transition task force. More generally, Nixon sought someone “who has outstanding intellectual ability to analyze everything as it is happening in historical perspective and keep an accurate record… .” Here is the full memo from Haldeman to Keogh.

haldeman historian.1.27.69
On February 10, evidently after canvassing various White House aides regarding Nixon’s proposal, Keogh responded with a four-page memo to the President that began, “There are some serious questions involved in the recruitment of a White House historian. The first is the ultimate: Should there be a staff historian, as such, in the White House?” Would the President want an outsider sitting in during key meetings? Keogh’s answer, shown here at the bottom of the first page of his memo, was: “I would say he should not, for his presence surely would tend to inhibit what the President and others might say and do. And so the historian’s presence could have a negative effect not only on the Presidency but also on history.”

keogh historian 1

In addition to inhibiting conversation, Keogh warned that “any established historian that we might bring on would have very definite ideas about his own freedom of point of view.” That might mean a desire to prove “his credentials to his colleagues in the profession by being critical even if that meant doing so only for the sake of being critical.” Keogh also warned that “Loyalty is another problem” – someone who initially expressed support for the President might, over time and in reaction to events, change his views.

In seekng a “court historian” Nixon may have had in mind some counterpart to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Harvard historian who served on JFK’s White House staff, and who used his position to write A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, a not uncritical but generally quite positive account of JFK’s presidency. But Keogh had other examples in mind, telling Nixon: “The recent track record on all this is not encouraging. Eric Goldman, professor of history at Princeton, was brought into the White House by Lyndon Johnson. He has just produced the Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, which can only be described as an anti-Johnson book.”

Keogh noted that he had discussed Nixon’s request with his immediate team of White House aides: “The consensus in this group is that this Administration should not bring in a historian as such. This position is based on the feeling that the risks are too high and the potential for positive results too low.” Rather than a court historian, Keogh suggested instead that aides be assigned to keep detailed notes of meetings, “recording the color, the tone, the asides for the general Administration record.” For more intimate conferences with the President “I see only one process. The people involved should as often as possible record their own impressions… .This also suggests that the President himself should, as often as possible, dictate his own thoughts and impressions… on tape or on paper…and on some kind of more or less regular schedule.”

We now know, of course, that Nixon did Keogh one better. In 1971, so as to provide a more accurate history of his administration’s proceedings, he had a secret taping system installed in the Oval Office, the Old Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room and at Camp David. Conversations were recorded via this voice-activated system for more than two years, starting on February 16, 1971 through July 18, 1973. It was these tapes, particularly this so-called “smoking gun” tape dating from June 23, 1972, that provided clear proof that Nixon obstructed justice by trying to impede the investigation into the Watergate break in.

When a unanimous Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon must hand over the tapes to an independent prosecutor, and the transcripts of the tapes were made public, Nixon lost any hope of surviving the Watergate scandal. Forty years ago today, he officially resigned the presidency. It is tempting, of course, to surmise that if only Nixon had appointed a court historian, he might not have also seen the need to install a taping system. But that is probably not the case. From the moment they take office, all presidents, and their immediate advisers, are aware that they are making history and they understandably want to insure an accurate record of the events in which they participate.  But meeting notes can only go so far toward providing that record.  For this reason Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson all secretly recorded some White House conversations. Kennedy did so despite the presence of Schlesinger, Jr., as his White House “court historian”.

But these previous recording systems differed from Nixon’s in one key respect: they had to be manually activated by the President. This meant that they were forced to exercise a bit more discretion than Nixon did when deciding what to record for posterity.  Had Nixon been forced to activate his recording devices, he might never have decided to essentially tape himself admitting to crimes.  But in his memoirs Nixon defends the decision to install a voice activated machine: “I thought that recording only selected conversations would completely undercut the purpose of having the taping system; if our tapes were going to be an objective record of my presidency, they could not have such an obviously self-serving bias. I did not want to have to calculate whom or what or when I would tape.”  Alas for the future of his presidency, Nixon was initially “conscious of the taping, but before long I accepted it as part of the surroundings.”

“From the very beginning,” Nixon writes in his memoirs, “I had decided that my administration would be the best chronicled in history.”  Little did he know how prescient that statement was.  No subsequent president has, to my knowledge, kept any recording system in their White House, and for good reason. And, with the advent of e-mail, even the paper documentary trail is a less reliable history of a president’s time in office (although there are safeguards in place that are intended to preserve electronic messages as part of an administration’s presidential records).  Had Nixon been less conscious of the need to accurately record the events of presidency, he might have emulated his predecessors and utilized a manually-activated recording device.  But he did not.

For want of a switch, he lost the presidency.