Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Real Reason Obama Chucked Hagel

As the news that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had resigned “under pressure” spread, media sources immediately characterized his departure in terms of a combination of personality clashes and policy disputes. Thus, the New York Times, citing White House sources, reported the story this way: “The officials characterized the decision as recognition that the threat from the Islamic State will require different skills from those that Mr. Hagel, who often struggled to articulate a clear viewpoint and was widely viewed as a passive defense secretary, was brought in to employ.” The Times’ reporter went on to note that “Mr. Hagel struggled to fit in with Mr. Obama’s close circle and was viewed as never gaining traction in the administration.”

The problem with this explanation is that it was Hagel’s low-key demeanor that made him particularly appealing to Obama, who had clashed with Hagel’s two predecessors at Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, both of whom were more vocal defenders of their policy views and institutional interests. Now we are led to believe that it was precisely this close-to-the-vest approach that cost Hagel his job.

So, why was Hagel jettisoned, if not because of his “passive” administrative style? The more likely reason is that Hagel fell victim to a more fundamental tension affecting relations between many modern presidents and their cabinet members, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. As evidence, consider that Obama’s two previous defense secretaries, Gates and Panetta, had job tenures not much different in length than Hagel’s despite their different demeanors; Gates tenure under Obama lasted a bit more than two years (he served previously under Bush), while Panetta left before the two-year mark. Hagel’s tenure will fall between these two. In the modern era, defense secretaries serve, on average, about 2 ½ years, so Hagel’s tenure was shorter than usual, but not by much.

Nonetheless, Obama will have gone through at least four defense secretaries, tied with Nixon and Truman for the most for any modern president dating back to the creation of this position during Truman’s administration. The high turnover reflects the difficulty presidents have in balancing two competing needs from their advisers. On the one hand, they need information and expertise from their foreign policy agencies that is untainted by partisan or institutional slant. On the other, they want to be sure their advisers are loyal to the president’s policy and political objectives. In practice, it is difficult to calibrate an advisory system so that both needs are fulfilled. The reality is that over the course of their presidency, presidents increasingly rely on their core political supporters located in the White House office over the input from their cabinet secretaries in charge of the major departments. This is particularly true in foreign policy, where the weight of responsibility falls most heavily on the President. The most visible manifestation is a tendency for the national security adviser and his or her staff to take on a greater foreign policy advising role, usually at the expense of the secretaries of State and Defense. This tension has been on display from the moment Obama took office and was confronted with the Pentagon request for a troop increase in Afghanistan. Obama eventually signed on to the request, but only reluctantly and after an internal debate that, as recounted by Bob Woodward, laid bare these tensions for all to see. Woodard’s account was largely confirmed by Gates in his memoirs, in which he describes a President who never really believed in his own Afghan war strategy.

From the perspective of defense secretaries, the White House-centered national security staff is viewed as composed of partisan loyalists lacking in foreign policy expertise and who are too willing to micromanage the Pentagon’s military and civilian leaders. White House loyalists, in contrast, believe that the cabinet secretaries are insufficiently concerned with the political impact of their policy choices, and are too beholden to institutional interests at the president’s expense. By virtue of geographic and administrative proximity, it is the White House national security staff that usually wins this conflict. Cabinet members, in contrast, are typically forced out or resign amidst rumors of personality clashes with the President and/or members of his White House team.

In their memoirs, both Gates and Panetta paint a similar picture of an adversarial relationship with Obama’s national security team. Gates describes Thomas Donilon, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and then-Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the White House coordinator for the wars, as engaging in “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.” Similarly, in his memoirs Worthy Fights Panetta describes an insular White House staff that seemed to ignore cabinet members’ advice on issues ranging from intervention in Syria to troop levels in Afghanistan. In acknowledging that White House staffers Donilon, then-Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, and Deputy National Security Advisor Dennis McDonough wielded disproportionate influence over nation security policy, Panetta notes “There was nothing wrong with that, but that did have the effect of reducing the importance of the Cabinet members who actually oversaw their agencies…Those agency heads were rarely encouraged to take their own initiative or lobby for priorities.”

It may be that this dynamic is more pronounced in the Obama administration because Obama entered office with less experience, and perhaps less confidence, in the foreign policy realm than some previous presidents, such as George H. W. Bush, as well as little executive experience. But the reality is that most recent presidents enter office lacking extensive foreign policy backgrounds and while they initially may be willing to defer to those advisers, like Gates and Panetta, who have expertise and experience in these areas, over time presidents are more likely to seek to broaden their reach, through their hand-picked White House-centered staff, on major foreign policy processes. This is particularly true as their term in office winds down, and they become increasingly concerned about their policy legacy. Inevitably, cabinet advisers are going to bristle under what they see as declining influence and increased White House meddling in their institutional bailiwick. In this regard, Hagel’s departure seems to fit the prevailing pattern.

I have no doubt that Hagel clashed with the President, and his immediate White House staff, on a number of foreign policy issues. But those clashes, rather than reflecting personality dynamics, or differences on the issues, are more likely the result of diverging institutional perspectives that have colored the relationships between presidents and their defense secretaries long before Obama and Hagel took office, and which will govern future presidential-advisors relationships as well.   The key for any president is to recognize the source of these disagreements, and to understand that despite – because of – their different perspectives, they must make an active effort to include defense secretaries’ perspectives in their advising process.  This may require institutionalizing that input through a formal mechanism, such as a weekly meeting unfiltered by the immediate White House staff.  And it means acting to be sure that, when it comes to managing the foreign policy advising process, the White House loyalists don’t operate as both judge and jury.  This is particularly the case now, as the Obama administration faces numerous foreign policy crises that threaten not just his political standing, but the nation’s security as well.

No, Obama’s Executive Action Did Not Violate Governing Norms

But that doesn’t mean it was smart.

In my two previous posts  regarding President Obama’s decision to take executive action to defer deportation proceedings against some 5 million undocumented immigrants, I suggested that its impact on his power would be determined by politics – that is, by the public reaction, as expressed through elected officials and mediated by the press. Predictably, in the 48 hours since Obama’s gave his national address, both sides on this issue have enlisted their usual allies in the punditocracy to make their case to the public.

Critics of Obama’s action have generally not attacked him on the merits of his executive action. All seem to agree that immigration policy is broken, needs to be fixed, and thus this is, substantively, a step in the right direction. Instead, they direct their ire at Obama’s apparent willingness to violate some unspoken “norm” that apparently constrained previous presidents from making significant policy change of this magnitude absent an overarching emergency. They note, for example, that previous immigration orders issued by presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush affected far fewer people, and were designed to clean up existing legislation, rather than to make new law.  As Sean Trende puts it, “That is what this really comes down to, at least for me: A substantial violation of norms surrounding executive authority.”

I confess that I’m skeptical that norms alone have deterred previous presidents from seeking to expand their sphere of authority. Instead, it has been fear of blowback from the other governing branches with which the president shares power. And that is how it is supposed to be. As Madison famously wrote in Federalist 51, “But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers into each department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachment of the others… .The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”

If Republicans, and their allies in the punditocracy believe Obama has overreached (and I think there is merit in that argument) the remedy is not referencing a need to restore some long-standing norm of comity and deference. It is for members of Congress to act to defend their constitutional preeminence in the lawmaking process. Presidents seek power because that is how they get things done – and in the process they provide an agenda and thus a focal point to which the legislative branch can react. “The more determinedly Presidents seek power,” wrote presidency scholar Richard Neustadt, “the more he will likely bring vigor to his clerkship. As he does so he contributes to the energy of government.” One cannot stop presidents from seeking to exercise power in pursuit of policy objectives by telling them it is impolite, and that they need to play nice. Instead, when presidents try to usurp too much authority, the proper remedy is to threaten to cut off their allowance and send them to bed without supper.

To be clear, my critique of Obama’s executive action on immigration is not that he has violated some longstanding norm governing relations with Congress – it is that his decision to move unilaterally is likely to provoke a backlash from Congress that in the long run will weaken his effective influence on government, much as happened with FDR and court-packing, Nixon and budget impoundment and Bush II and social security reform. (Interestingly, that backlash may be grounded in part on the claim that Obama’s actions are illegal although, as I’ve previously suggested, legal opinions tend to reflect the underlying political sentiments.)  However, I may be wrong in my assessment. As Matthew Beckmann suggests (see his comment here), it may be Obama’s decision will do little to change the strategic calculus guiding congressional Republicans’ relations with the President more generally, which is to compromise when it suits their interests, and to obstruct if that pays greater political dividends. It might also be the case that a divided Republican caucus will be unable to muster the political will to respond because they cannot agree on how to retaliate. At this point it appears that the Republican leadership is weighing their options. Conservatives like Ted Cruz are itching for another showdown over funding, with the possibility of a government shutdown. The Republican leadership, understandably, is looking for a less politically risky means of responding. I suspect both factions are limited in what they can do until they assume majority Senate control in January. But, in the absence of additional evidence (and pushback from you, the reader) I stand by my position that Republicans will seek to retaliate and that therefore Obama’s action – while not breaking any “norms” – is nonetheless potentially counterproductive.

Has Obama Stepped Into the Second-Term Trap?

Does Obama’s executive action on immigration demonstrate that he has fallen into the second-term trap that ensnared so many of his predecessors?

Two years ago, looking ahead to Obama’s reelection, I posted this piece warning about the “history of past presidents who won a second term in office.” The danger, I wrote then “is that the combination of a reduced window of opportunity to enact policy and political change combined with an overwhelming desire to enhance one’s presidential legacy can prove politically lethal.” This was particularly true, I argued, because presidents who are freed from having to face the electorate often display a stunning lack of political sensitivity. At the same time, having successfully won reelection – often by large margins – they tend to overstate the degree to which voters have given them a mandate to pursue treasured policy objectives. As evidence, I cited examples including FDR’s court-packing scheme, Reagan’s Iran-contra affair and the second Bush’s effort to push social security reform. I might also have cited Nixon’s budget impoundments and, perhaps, Clinton’s sexual dalliance with Monica as well.

Today I have a piece up at U.S. News  that considers whether Obama’s decision to take executive action designed to defer deportation proceedings against up to five million undocumented immigrants, and to allow many of them to work legally, fits within this historical pattern of second-term overreach. My tentative conclusion – subject to correction by you, dear readers – is that Obama has needlessly jeopardized his political standing, but this does not necessarily mean he will suffer the same degree of political fallout that befell his presidential predecessors. Much depends on how Republicans respond to Obama’s misstep.

As I note in my U.S. News piece, my judgment is not based on the belief that Obama has overstepped his formal powers. Legitimate arguments regarding the legality of Obama’s executive action can be found on both sides of the legal issue. But those who assess Obama’s action solely on legal or constitutional grounds are missing the bigger picture – whether Obama suffers the fate of his predecessors will be determined by the political process, not a legal one. That is, ultimate judgment will be rendered by the public, as expressed through the actions of their elected representatives and as mediated by the press in all its variegated forms. That verdict will depend in part on how congressional Republicans respond. Their potential choices run the gamut from voting to censure the President, withholding funding from relevant agencies, or blocking confirmation of nominees to key positions such Attorney General, to cite some of the publicly-discussed options.

But the greater concern for Obama, I think, is the long-term impact of his immigration action on his relations with Congress and on political support for his presidency more generally. In the U.S. News piece, I raise this question: “If the President’s actions on immigration, as announced yesterday, essentially poisons his relations with Congress for the remaining two years of his presidency, thus foreclosing efforts to pass climate change legislation, or to address tax reform or entitlement programs – was it worth it?” The short answer, I think, is no – it will not be worth it. This is because, in my view, immigration was the one issue that had the potential for Obama and congressional Republicans to strike a bipartisan deal in no small part because Republicans had an electoral incentive to do something to shore up their support among Hispanics. In his memoirs, former president George W. Bush acknowledges that he should have pursued a bipartisan immigration bill first after his reelection, rather than opting for social security reform which was a much tougher bill to pass. By pursuing social security reform, Bush believes he further polarized an already divided Congress, making subsequent efforts to deal with immigration impossible. Such is my fear with Obama’s decision to go it alone via executive action – it needlessly inflames an already volatile situation, and at exactly the wrong moment: when Republicans are feeling their oats after coming off a convincing midterm victory. As House Speaker John Boehner made clear in his statement today, Republicans are going to retaliate for Obama’s actions with untold consequences for future relations between the two branches.

To be fair to Obama, it is always difficult to weigh uncertain long-term costs against clear and immediate short-term gains. There is an argument to be made, moreover, that Obama has put Republicans into a box because any effort by them to move against Obama on immigration risks alienating the growing bloc of Hispanic voters heading into the 2016 elections. But Obama could have just as easily accomplished that goal by forcing Republicans to negotiate a comprehensive legislative immigration fix, or else risk alienating Hispanics, and at less political cost. Moreover, as several critics have suggested, Obama’s action may set a dangerous precedent that future presidents, including Republicans, can cite to justify ignoring or changing law on their own.

For all these reasons, my initial reaction is that Obama has needlessly risked his already diminished political clout. If so, he would not be the first president to fall prey to the second-term combination of political hubris rooted in decreasing political sensitivity and a desire to burnish one’s political legacy. But the fact that previous presidents have made similar mistakes ought not to excuse Obama’s behavior. Instead, assuming my analysis is correct, it raises the question as to why he didn’t avoid following in their footsteps.

Health Care and the Obama Presidency: A Giant Squander?

There’s no doubt that, as midterms go, President Obama has not fared well. In 2010, his Democratic Party lost 63 House seats – the biggest midterm loss in that chamber since 1938 – and with it control of the House to the Republicans. Although they also lost six Senate seats, Democrats were at least able to retain their majority there. Four years later, however, Democrats lost the Senate too when Republicans picked up 8 Senate seats in the 2014 midterms – with one more still at stake – to regain a Senate majority. Republicans also padded their House majority by gaining a dozen more seats (a handful of House races have yet to be decided). The net result is that Obama is facing an opposition-controlled Congress for the last two years of his presidency.

The successive Republican waves are particularly devastating because they swept away what many pundits believed to be a coming period of Democratic electoral dominance. When Obama was elected President in 2008, he appeared to display substantial coattails; Democrats picked up 25 House and 8 Senate seats and enjoyed comfortable majorities in both chambers. More importantly, demographic trends suggested the size of the Democratic voting coalition was likely to expand in the coming years. In short, Obama’s election was, as one pundit put it at the time, “likely to create a new governing majority coalition that could dominate American politics for a generation or more.” Instead, the purported realignment lasted a bit less than two years. To borrow one of the catch phrases of Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione, the Obama presidency has been, politically at least, “a giant squander”.

But just how big a squander is it, historically speaking? One chart that made the rounds of the twitterverse this week indicates it was a very big squander indeed. It shows that Obama’s Democrats have suffered a net loss of 13 Senate and 77 House seats during the two midterms held in his presidency, which ranks as the third worst cumulative midterm seat loss among modern presidents, behind only FDR and Truman.

Obama losses

But is this really a useful metric? Roosevelt, who suffered the greatest cumulative seat loss, is nonetheless typically ranked as one of the nation’s three best presidents – someone who was the consummate political leader.  The problem with using total seat loss as a measuring rod is that presidents like FDR who enter office with substantial coattails, as indicated by large partisan majorities, and who serve the longest – both arguably measures of political skill – stand a greater probability of losing more seats. Moreover, looking only at midterms may not be a fair measure of a president’s party leadership since midterms operate under such unfavorable dynamics to the president. Perhaps a better metric is to assess the proportion of seats a president loses over the course of his presidency in all elections. This is not perfect, of course, because it still penalizes presidents who enter with a substantial governing majority – they have greater room to fall – but it is probably a better gauge of a president’s political pull than a raw seat count of midterms alone. Middlebury College student Tina Berger calculated that figure for all the modern presidents and summarized the totals in this chart.

Seats lostAlas, Obama does even worse by this standard – among modern presidents only Dwight Eisenhower lost a greater proportion of party seats across his presidency. The Republican Ike, however, presided in the midst of the post-Depression Democratic-dominated era (he was the only Republican president to serve between 1933 and 1969) and he managed to retain his personal popularity even as control of Congress reverted to what might be called its natural partisan state during this New Deal period. Obama, in contrast, has watched his popularity stagnate in the low 40% approval level for the better part of a year and with Democrats winning four of the last six presidential elections, it can hardly be called a Republican era (Karl Rove’s McKinleyesque visions notwithstanding.)

To be sure, not all of the blame for Democrats’ losses can be pinned on Obama. Surely the Party’s congressional wing is partly culpable for its dismal showing. Nor should we forget when judging his political leadership that Obama won reelection in 2012, and did so while helping Democrats net eight House and two Senate seats. The bottom line, however, is that in this era of nationalized politics, elections – even mid-year ones – are invariably in large part referendums on the president’s performance. And, at least by this one metric, Obama appears to have come up short.

Where did it all go wrong? Pundits are quick to blame the President’s detached leadership style but as I’ve noted in previous posts, it’s not clear how much temperament or character really matters. The fact is that Obama inherited an economic mess and a war on terror – two issues that defy easy solutions under the best of political circumstances. Moreover, as David Mayhew persuasively argues, the American system of separated institutions, each operating according to its own electoral clock and responding to different constituencies, seems to possess a systemic equilibrating tendency that prevents either party from holding onto strong majorities for very long, regardless of the president’s skills. In this respect Obama’s presidency demonstrated a not unexpected reversion to the political mean.

Still, I doubt very many pundits in 2008 predicted the speed and degree to which Obama’s governing majorities would dissipate – if they predicted dissipation at all. If one were to isolate one primary reason for this speedy partisan erosion, it is probably Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform despite strong Republican opposition and lukewarm public support. Along with the economic stimulus bill, health care proved to be the focal point of Republican resistance early in his presidency, and his failure to bring even a single Republican aboard when passing Obamacare cemented the partisan divisions that have come to characterize our national politics, and provided a rallying point for Republicans as they fought to regain partisan control of Congress. This is not to say pursuing health care reform was a mistake. It is to say that Obama – and his Democratic Party – paid a steep political price for doing so.

And so I wonder: as he contemplates finishing out his presidency facing two years of an opposition-controlled Congress, and with the fate of his signature piece of legislation now partly in the hands of the Supreme Court, does the President ever ask himself whether passing health care reform was really worth it?

Why The Economy Didn’t Help Democrats

I’m up today at U.S. News with a piece that examines why the improving economy did not help Democrats in the 2014 midterms even though economic growth was the primary reason Obama won reelection in 2012. Briefly, I think there are three related explanations:

First, as I noted in this Bloomberg interview, voters’ negative perceptions regarding economic growth lagged behind objective conditions, due in no small part to the incremental and uneven pace of growth.

Second, voters view economic conditions through their own partisan lenses, and with the midterm electorate shading more Republican compared to 2012, it’s no wonder more voters had a negative perception of the state of the economy.

Finally, many Democratic incumbents were reluctant to tie themselves too closely to Obama, and they also ran for Congress by running against it as an institution. It’s hard to claim credit for macroeconomic improvements when one is also implicitly criticizing the President and Congress.

I’ll be up with a separate post soon taking on some of the more prevalent day-after punditry that is crediting the Republican win to clever advertising, new turnout technology and spending by outside groups.