Category Archives: Uncategorized

President Obama: A First Class Intellect, But a Second Class Temperament?

President Theodore Roosevelt, the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, possessed “a second class intellect, but a first class temperament.” (Some historians think Holmes was describing TR’s nephew Franklin, but no matter.) If pundits are to be believed, President Obama suffers from the opposite condition: he has a first-class intellect, but a temperament that, as recent events indicate, seems ill-suited to acting with the urgency and decisiveness necessary to deal with crises both home and abroad.

In previous posts I’ve dealt with the question of Obama’s character, and the relative role of intellect versus temperament more generally as a determinant of presidential effectiveness, but the issue has resurfaced recently due in no small part to efforts by Republicans to frame this midterm election as a referendum on the Obama presidency. In particular, they have cited what they see as the President’s inability to deal with crises in a timely, effective fashion – a failing they attribute to his passive demeanor and lawyer-like decisionmaking tendencies. Obama’s passive temperament, they argue, too often leads to decisionmaking paralysis, with the consequence that the administration has been slow to act on a succession of crises, ranging from the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria to the Russian-backed Ukrainian separatist movement to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Josh Green’s recent column criticizing Obama’s handling of the Ebola outbreak neatly encapsulates this recurring theme: “The White House response to this latest national crisis had already run a familiar course: the initial assurance that everything was under control; the subsequent realization that it wasn’t; the delay as administration officials appeared conflicted about what to do; and the growing frustration with a president who seemed a step or two behind each new development.”  Moreover, Green argues, this pattern of too little, too late is all too familiar: “If all this feels frustratingly familiar, many former White House officials agree. The difficulty in formulating a response echoes the fitful efforts to address the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the advance of Islamic State, the rollout of healthcare.gov, and even the shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo.”

In response, Obama’s defenders, such as the Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, argue that the President’s detached, analytical manner is in fact a temperamental strong suit that prevents him from overreacting to events for the sake of appearances. As an example, Yglesias points to Obama’s willingness to ignore his advisers’ advice to give up on health care reform in the aftermath of Scott Brown’s surprise Senate victory.

What are we to make of these conflicting views? Part of the problem is that our view of Obama’s “temperament” is invariably colored by broader assessments of his presidency. In this regard, Green’s critique is not new – pundits have been criticizing Obama’s “no drama” persona since at least the 2010 midterm “shellacking” that cost Democrats control of the House, and the criticism figures prominently in recent memoirs by former administration officials. At the start of Obama’s presidency, however, these very traits were viewed by pundits as a welcome alternative to his predecessor George W. Bush’s impetuous, even reckless decisionmaking style. As William Buckley’s son Christopher put it in 2008 when he announced that despite his conservative heritage he was voting for Obama: “He has exhibited throughout a ‘first-class temperament,’ pace Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s famous comment about FDR.” (Never mind that Holmes was probably referring to the other Roosevelt.) In contrast, it was Obama’s opponent John McCain who, Buckley believed, seemed temperamentally ill-suited to be president.

But there is a deeper problem with the analyses by Yglesias, Green, Buckley and others: it is that they overstate the degree to which temperament and character can help predict presidential effectiveness. This is not to say that a president’s temperament has no bearing on a president’s performance. It is to say, however, that when it comes to explaining why presidents make the choices they do, temperament rarely plays a controlling role. Consider Green’s critique of Obama’s handling of recent crises: are these “fitful efforts” really a function of the President’s temperament? Or do they reflect a combination of difficult problems, incomplete information, and uncertain (and often complex) solutions that are only partially, if at all, under Obama’s control? Would a president with a different set of temperamental traits – say, Bush’s “decisiveness” – proved any more effective at handling the Ebola outbreak?  (This presumes, of course, that one accepts it has been mishandled in the first place.) As I’ve discussed on several occasions, it is hard to distinguish the two presidents’ handling of the War on Terror in its broad outlines despite the apparent gulf separating their respective temperaments.

Part of the issue here is that pundits don’t have the luxury of peeking behind the curtain to see whether and how temperament influences presidential behavior. The celebrated presidential scholar Richard Neustadt once proclaimed that the presidency was no “place for amateurs”. At the time he wrote this line in 1960 he was thinking about President Dwight Eisenhower who, despite remaining personally popular during two terms in office, appeared unwilling to risk that popularity in pursuit of controversial policies, such as civil rights. But subsequent research indicates that Eisenhower, despite the criticism of his passive, detached decisionmaking style, was in fact far more engaged and influential behind the scenes than his public demeanor seemed to suggest, particularly in the foreign policy realm. Neustadt acknowledged as much in subsequent editions of his study of the presidency. Future scholars may yet find evidence of Obama’s “hidden hand” leadership.

But a more fundamental problem is determining what aspects of a president’s temperament matters, and when. Anyone who has listened to the Cuban Missile Crisis tapes (as I have) can’t help but be struck by how President Kennedy resisted the pressure from almost all his advisers, including his brother Robert, to take out a Soviet-controlled surface-to-air missile site after it shot down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane. It often seems that JFK is the only one in the room who fully contemplates the ramifications of a U.S. military attack on Cuba. Of course, this was the same JFK who less than two years earlier had approved the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion designed to topple the Castro regime. It was the same JFK who engaged in reckless dalliances throughout his presidency with a string of women that, among other effects, left him open to blackmail from his FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.  It was the same JFK who throughout his presidency sought ways to assassinate Castro through any means possible.

My point is that it is too easy to point to temperament as the deciding factor in explaining presidential behavior, never mind why some presidents succeed and others do not. This is because it is hard to observe aspects of temperament in play during a presidency. But even when biographers and others peel back the curtain to document a presidency after the fact, it remains very difficult to separate out the impact of a president’s temperament from the myriad other factors that influence why a president acts as he did. In crucial instances, as in the Cuban Missile crisis, a president’s temperament may be the deciding factor in determining how events play out. But it is more often the case, I believe, that because presidential choices are often so constrained by factors outside their control, temperament has little bearing on whether presidents succeed or not. This won’t stop Republicans from citing Obama’s “crisis of competence” as a reason to vote out Democrats come November. But it should make voters think twice about accepting that particular argument.

Addendum 9:13 p.m. Josh Green tweets me to point out that, in fact, he did “peek behind the curtain” via his interviews with White House aides.  That’s a fair point.  Moreover, as I noted in my original post, former administration officials like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates have noted Obama’s lawyer-like tendencies.  So this aspect of Obama’s “temperament” is well noted, if these sources can be trusted.   It does raise the question, however, just how important this aspect of his personality is in terms of explaining how the President has responded to various recent crises.  It is impossible to fully answer that question in the course of a single blog post, but I’ll try to give it another shot in a post on Monday.

Does the Ebola Czar Wear Any Clothes?

Ron Klain formally stepped into his new job as Ebola “czar” today as media reports provided a few more details regarding the extent of his authority. Predictably, conservatives, who had been pushing Obama to appoint someone to take the lead in coordinating the government response to the Ebola outbreak, criticized Klain’s appointment, with some calling him a “political hack” who lacks any medical background.  Just as predictably, Obama’s supporters like Ezra Klein gushed that “Ron Klain is a great choice” because he has the bureaucratic experience necessary to make the governmental trains run on time. Both perspectives miss the point. As I noted in my earlier post on this topic, the success of previous czars had very little to do with their professional backgrounds, and everything to do with how their “czarships” operated. In this regard history suggests there are two keys to Klain’s being an effective czar. The first is not to duplicate the jobs of those already charged with dealing with the Ebola outbreak. That means not taking on operational duties and resisting the urge to create a “czar bureaucracy” layered on top of the existing governmental agencies. The second key is that it must be clear that Klain speaks for the President and, preferably, directly to the President, without any middleman.

So far, if media reports are to be believed, Obama and Klain seem to understand the first key.  Evidently Klain will not become the public face of the Obama administration’s Ebola response – that function will reside with the CDC director.  Instead, Klain will work behind the scenes as a hands-on coordinator. As one report puts it, “He’s said to be the behind-the-scenes director making sure decisions are tracked and carried out quickly, pulling all the various points of view together without distraction or indecisiveness.” At the same time, however, it appears that he will be reporting to the President through two of Obama’s White House aides, which is not ideal.

Of course, it is far too early to come to any firm conclusion regarding his effectiveness. Keep in mind that Obama has two objectives in appointing Klain. The first, obviously, is to insure that the Ebola outbreak is contained and there are no further cases here. But there is an important political component to Klain’s appointment as well. Republicans have been using the Ebola crisis as part of their midterm “crisis” narrative that tries to paint Democrats in general and the Obama administration in particular as lacking the administrative competence to deal with a number of interlocking issues, ranging from rise of the Islamic State (IS), the terrorist threat associated with a porous border and now the Ebola outbreak. In this vein, Scott Brown, who is locked in a close race with incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen for a New Hampshire Senate position, has explicitly linked the Ebola outbreak with the lack of border security, and tied both to the threat of a domestic attack by the Islamic State. In an interview with a New Hampshire radio station (see below), Brown said: “We need a comprehensive approach and I think that should be part of it. I think it’s all connected. For example, we have people coming into our country by legal means bringing in diseases and other potential challenges. Yet we have a border that’s so porous that anyone can walk across it. I think it’s naive to think that people aren’t going to be walking through here who have those types of diseases and/or other types of intent, criminal or terrorist. And yet we do nothing to secure our border. It’s dangerous. And that’s the difference. I voted to secure it. Senator Shaheen has not.”

Brown reiterated that point, albeit without directly mentioning Ebola, in his recent debate with Shaheen.

Will this strategy work? Brown is willing to try; one of my Middlebury students from New Hampshire reported receiving a phone call from the Brown campaign asking whether she was concerned about getting Ebola. I expect more Republicans to inject the Ebola issue into their campaign narrative in the remaining two weeks. So far, however, while public concern about Ebola is on the rise, most people surveyed in this Pew poll express confidence in the government’s ability to deal with this issue and most do not express much worry that they will catch the disease.

Not surprisingly, however, given the campaign dynamics, concern about Ebola has risen faster among Republican voters than it has among Democrats or even independents.

From a political perspective, then, Obama is hoping that Klain’s appointment will help quell some of the Republican-stoked concerns regarding the Obama administration’s managerial competence – at least for the next two weeks! But it’s not clear how much of an impact Klain’s appointment will have in this regard, since so many Democrat incumbents have decided they want no part of the President in the closing days of the campaign. Instead, they are running on a record of local constituency service and personal biography. This has clearly been Shaheen’s strategy so far.  So, while it appears at this early date that Klain is properly decked out to fulfill his coordinating role, when it comes to influencing the midterms  the Czar’s garments may still be a bit threadbare.

As New Hampshire Goes?

There is no Senate race here in my home state of Vermont this year, and our lone House member Democrat Peter Welch appears poised to cruise to reelection against a slate of largely unknown candidates. However, there are important races going on either side of the Green Mountain state in upstate New York and in New Hampshire that are providing a fascinating and instructive window into the electoral dynamics that are driving House and Senate races across the country.

Next door in New Hampshire, there are two House contests and one Senate contest that collectively are being labelled “bellwether” races that should tell us something about the state of politics in the nation.  In the state’s first congressional district, former congressman Republican Frank Guinta is trying to recapture the seat he won in the 2010 Tea Party “shellacking” that gave the Republicans control of the House. Guinta’s opponent is incumbent Democrat Carol Shea-Porter who beat Guinta in 2012, 49.8%-46%, with 4% going to the Libertarian candidate. Polling has been all over the map in this race, but on the whole it suggests the race is too close to call. Indeed, veteran handicapper Stu Rothenberg lists the New Hampshire race as one of the ten pure tossup House races in this election cycle.

Regionally NH-1 occupies the southeastern portion of the state. To the north and the west lies New Hampshire’s second congressional district, currently held by Democrat Ann Kuster who also defeated an incumbent Republican, Charlie Bass, in 2012, by 50.2%-45%, with the Libertarian candidate again taking about 4%. This time around, however, Kuster is being challenged by Marilinda Garcia, a veteran New Hampshire statehouse representative who as a woman and the daughter of an Italian immigrant mother and a father of Hispanic heritage is being touted as one of the Republican Party’s rising stars. This district historically leans a bit more Democratic than does NH-1, and Rothenberg currently has it “leaning Democrat”, but polls show Garcia within striking distance, with at least one – in the field in early October – putting her ahead of Kuster.

Finally, there is the marquee Senate matchup between Democratic incumbent Jean Shaheen and her Republican rival and former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. Polls have Shaheen ahead by about 2.5%, but that margin has closed – Shaheen was leading in polls by more than 7% in mid-summer – and the most recent poll actually shows Brown clinging to a 1% lead. In contrast to the House races, the outcomes of which probably won’t affect Republican control of the House, the Brown-Shaheen contest is almost a must win for Democrats if the hope to retain their Senate majority.

Note that Obama took New Hampshire in both of his presidential races, but despite its increasingly blue shading, the state retains its reputation for containing a sizable voting bloc of flinty, anti-tax, libertarian leaning Republicans, which is why it provides such an interesting window into 2014’s political dynamics. The three Democratic incumbents have, for the most part, adopted a similar strategy – run as hard and as fast as they can away from the President and the Democratic Party, and instead emphasize their local roots, constituency service and their ability to get things done by working across the political aisle if necessary. In this vein a Shaheen television ad which I’ve seen repeatedly in recent days has her touting her success in bringing home the bacon in the form of local projects she has sponsored Meanwhile, her other ad tries to paint Brown as a carpetbagger in the hock to Wall St. interests.

In contrast, Republicans are trying to bind the incumbents to President Obama as closely as they can, as exemplified in this Karl Rove Crossroads-funded piece which just began airing this week in New Hampshire, courtesy of Rove’s decision to launch a $3 million ad buy in the Granite state..

One of the centerpieces of the Republican campaign is to remind voters of Shaheen’s vote in favor of Obamacare.

Rather than run from that vote, however, Shaheen is instead trying to turn it to her advantage by arguing that the policy is sound, even as the rollout was botched.  Brown has also attacked her for being slow to recognize the threat posed by IS, while playing up his own national security credentials. As you might expect, the campaign has turned nasty in recent days, with Shaheen’s camp rolling out a questionable claim that Brown supported a Senate bill that would have allowed employers to deny women coverage for mammograms – a claim Politifact claims is “mostly false.” More recently, she has aired ads designed to create skepticism about Brown’s claims to be pro-choice. Needless to say, Brown is pushing back against these efforts to paint him as “anti-women”.

Not surprising, outside money is pouring into all three races. As is usually the case, the three incumbents have been able to outraise and outspend their challengers by substantial amounts, but Republicans are counting on support from the Republican congressional party committees as well as outside groups like Rove’s Crossroads PAC and the Club For Growth to overcome that funding deficit.

Ultimately this race may come down to the women’s vote. As the controversy over the mammogram and abortion ads indicate, Shaheen is hoping to focus on issues related to health care and reproductive rights in an attempt to capitalize on the traditional Democratic advantage with women. However, the recent focus on terrorism and IS has opened up the possibility that Brown might be able to attract support from so-called “security moms.” In this vein it is worth noting that Shaheen’s Republican Senate counterpart Kelly Ayotte took 55% of the women’s vote in the 2010 off-year election. Look for Brown to increasingly focus on foreign policy issues in the remaining weeks of the campaign. He still faces an uphill battle – Drew Linzer’s model still has Shaheen with a 69% probability of winning reelection – but the polls are trending in Brown’s direction. My read is that this remains Sheehan’s race to lose, but the combination of lower midterm turnout, increasing concern over foreign policy, and the influx of outside money is giving Brown a chance to overcome the carpetbagger stigma and pull off an upset.

In my next post I’ll look at New York’s 21st congressional district – the scene of a fascinating three-person debate this week.

 

The Amateur Politician

In Vermont, anyone can run for Governor, and they frequently do. I was reminded of this after watching last Thursday’s gubernatorial debate  which put all seven candidates on the same dais for the first time. It was quite a show!  You can watch it here (hit the “featured” button at the top and scroll down the items listed on the right hand side of the page to go directly to the debate).

The cast of characters include two-time Democratic incumbent Governor Peter Shumlin. In Thursday’s debate, Shumlin reiterated his intent to move ahead with a single payer government-financed universal health coverage plan in Vermont, arguing that by lowering health care costs it will boost the economy. So far, however, he has conspicuously avoided explaining how it will be funded. Whenever Shumlin speaks at these debates, I struggle to resist leaping up and yelling “You lie!” at the television.

If you squint just right, he almost looks like Dustin Hoffman.  In that vein, I have one word of advice for Shumlin: “Plastics.”

Shumlin’s main rival is Republican Scott Milne.

He is the owner of a local travel agency who has never held elected office. It shows. His primary platform appears to be to oppose everything Shumlin supports without clearly standing for any alternative. So, Milne would pull the plug on Vermont’s single-payer health plan but if other states are willing to try such a plan and it proves successful, then Milne is willing to revisit the issue. “When you straddle a thing, it takes a long time to explain it,” Will Rogers once proclaimed. Milne’s problem is that no one can stay awake long enough to hear his explanations.

The five other candidates on the ballot include an aging socialist, an earth activist and hemp promoter, a woman with a big hat, a libertarian, and an independent who appears to be a character from Duck Dynasty.

Peter Diamondstone is the Liberty Union candidate, but he made it clear at the outset of the debate that he’s running as a Socialist. Diamondstone, who is nearing 80 years old, is a frequent candidate in Vermont for statewide office, having run previously – and unsuccessfully – for offices ranging from Attorney General to Governor to Senator.

If you look closely at the PBS video above of Thursday’s debate, you’ll see that Diamondstone appears to be wearing “jorts” (jean shorts.)  This must be some sort of Socialist statement.

Cris Ericson, another repeat candidate for elected office, stood next to Diamondstone at Thursday’s debate, decked out in a very large hat. Just to cover her bases, she is also running for Congress this year. Here is a shot of her from a previous campaign.

Perhaps her most memorable moment Thursday night came when she accused the Governor of violating the civil rights of a diabetic Vermont transportation worker by shutting down Vermont rest areas, thus making the poor worker go an extended period without being able to pee in a proper facility.  I noticed moderator Stewart Ledbetter trying, with limited success, not to smile too much during Ericson’s civil rights speech.

Dan Feliciano is the Libertarian candidate  who stood out during the debate for both his serious mien and his clearly stated agenda.

No one can complain that Feliciano’s positions are muddled.  He demonstrated single-minded opposition to the single-payer system and a clear embrace of free-market principles.  He seemed almost too sensible to be in the debate.

Bernard Peters, a retired Vermont transportation worker who would fit well as a cast member on Duck Dynasty, is running as an independent.

He stood out on Thursday for his folksy homilies which fit well with his self-proclaimed “grassroots campaign.” His primary concern is to overturn the recently passed lake shore protection act, which he characterized as the “biggest landgrab by the state of government. since they took land from the Indians.” He also wants to reduce regulations that discourage business growth or “they’re going to pass us by like roadkill on the interstate.”

Finally, there is Emily Peyton. She is the “organic” candidate – her platform is captured concisely on her candidate webpage, where – along side pictures of ripe fruit – she pledges “allegiance to the Earth, and to the Beings with whom we share her.” Emily is a “founding member of Hempfully Green! A consulting group for hempcrete construction and other hemp-related products.” I don’t rule out the possibility that she was using her product during the debate.

Who is going to win this race? No incumbent governor has lost a bid for reelection in Vermont since the early 1960′s, and polls currently show Shumlin with about a 10% lead over Milne.  However, Shumlin is polling below 50% at this point, so I’m not prepared to give the race to him quite yet.  Still, unless someone can amp up Milne’s demeanor, I don’t see how he is going to excite enough voters to defeat a sitting governor, however vulnerable the incumbent might be.

Many years ago the political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote a very famous study of the “Amateur Democrat” in which he argued that political party regulars were being replaced by “amateurs” who believed “that principles, rather than interest, ought to be both the end and motive of political action.” Judging by Thursday’s debate, the amateurs have a long way to go.  But that is fine with me.  I like living in a state where politics remains more of an avocation rather than a profession, and where people of all types can run for office.  Who knows?  Someday I might want to run for Governor too.  It’s nice to know my voice would be heard.  But first I’ll need to buy some jorts and grow some facial hair.

Dear Nate Silver: IT’S NOT MY FAULT!

Once again I am reminded of the power – both good and bad – of social media.

My post today discussing the results from the latest Senate forecast models is up here at U.S. News.  I should point out that I very much appreciate the opportunity to post there – it enables me to reach a wider audience and generates more feedback here at my regular Presidential Power site. So I encourage you to check the U.S. News site out on a regular basis – it includes some great writers, including former Middlebury student Rob Schlesinger.

But you should also know that I don’t write the titles to my posts there, and I certainly don’t get to create the twitter feed U.S. News uses to publicize the posts. So, when a tweet goes out from U.S. News linking to my post, as it just did, that reads “No, Nate Silver can’t predict who will win the Senate http://ow.ly/CAl3Q via @MattDickinson44”, and when CBS news correspondent Major Garrett retweets it to his more than 111,702 followers and when pollster Frank Luntz then forwards the link to his 48,000 followers, including Nate Silver, in this way – “@USNewsOpinion Them’s fightin’ words. (@MattDickinson44 vs. @NateSilver538)” – just remember: IT’S NOT MY FAULT!

In fact, if you read the post (please do!) you’ll see that I actually did not single out Nate Silver in any way that could be perceived as a knock on his forecasting abilities. Instead, I pointed out that the purely poll-based forecasting models have, over the last month, begun converging with the models that include fundamentals, exactly as I predicted they would in my previous post here. My other point, however, was that even though all the major forecast models that I follow are now giving Republicans a better than 50% chance of gaining enough seats to take a Senate majority, that is not the same thing as saying Republican control come November 4th is now a lock. Because so many of the Senate races remain close, with polling averages of less than 3% difference between the two candidates, and because the outcomes of those close races will affect who has a Senate majority, I don’t think the forecast models can really tell us right now who will control the Senate. With less than three weeks to go there still too much variability in the polling and, with the races so tight, the possibility that an unpredictable event will influence the outcome becomes greater. This isn’t a critique of the models – indeed, most of them (the Washington Post model is a notable exception) favor the Republicans by relative slim margins at this point, as this table indicates (purely poll-based forecasts in italics).

Picture1Put another way, the models are simply not precise enough for us to have much confidence regarding who will control the Senate on Nov. 4 based on the data we have today.

Two years back Nate Silver and I had a very constructive exchange regarding his presidential forecast model. (Interestingly, Sam Wang – whose forecast model Silver recently critiqued, also joined in on that previous exchange.) My major critique then was the lack of transparency in Silver’s model, which made it difficult for others to decipher the logic driving his predictions. For political scientists, forecasting is primarily a means to achieve a better understanding of elections more than it is an opportunity to showcase our forecasting skills, so it is imperative that we know how forecasts are constructed in order to assess their results. Since my earlier critique, however, Silver has come a long way toward showing us some of the moving parts in his models, as his post here explaining his Senate forecasts demonstrates. The ideal in this regard, however, is Wang, who generously provides the code for his forecasting model at his Princeton Election Consortium site.

So, please, take a peek at my latest post at U.S. News. And if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because I’m ducking the incoming twitter blast that is surely coming my way.

Addendum 8:44 p.m. Frank Lunz responds to my twitter-based defense: “ 5m5 minutes ago

Yes, I too have had my own headache with a clickbait headline this week.”  Here’s the background to his experience with what he calls clickbait.