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.

Fenno’s Paradox, or Why You Should Ignore That Poll That Says We Hate Our Member of Congress

This WashingtonPost/ABC poll finds that, “for the first time ever”, a majority of those surveyed disapprove not just of Congress, but of their own member of Congress.  What does this portend for the fall midterm election?  As I write in my latest U.S. News post here, it probably means a lot less than some pundits would have us believe.  A rough back-of-the-envelope statistical guesstimate based on past results to this question suggests roughly 87% of incumbents will still win reelection this fall.  If you want to know why, Richard Fenno explained it all back in 1972.

 

 

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.

IS, Noah, Watergate and Woodchucks

This week’s Sunday Shorts:

President Obama’s decision to engage in an open-ended air campaign designed to prevent the militant group Islamic State (IS) from expanding its territorial hold in Iraq has, predictably, been lambasted by critics on the Left and the Right. Progressives see it as a potential first step down the slippery slope of greater military involvement and a violation of Obama’s campaign pledge for a full disengagement of U.S. military forces from Iraq. Conservatives argue that it is too little, too late because it does nothing to prevent the Sunni extremist group from solidifying its territorial hold and using it as a base to destabilize the Mideast and, eventually, launch terrorist attacks against the United States. Lost in the storm of partisan handwringing, however, is any mention that Obama’s current policy roughly approximates the two “no fly zones” the U.S. and allies established after the first Gulf War ended in 1992, and which they enforced until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Those two no-fly zones were designed to protect the Kurdish minority in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from attack by Saddam’s Hussein’s forces.  The difference is that the Islamic State lacks Hussein’s air capacity, but the intended effect is the same. And it was criticized as well, and for similar reasons. It is a reminder that the situational context is often more important than partisan principles when it comes to determining a president’s foreign policy choices. And it raises the distinct possibility that Obama’s current open-ended policy of targeted air strikes may be in place for a very long time.

In this earlier post, I argued that, without substantial congressional pressure, President Obama has no intention of showing his decisiveness by firing CIA director John Brennan despite Brennan’s admission that the CIA had accessed Senate Intelligence committee files.  Consistent with my argument, pundits are beginning to turn their ire on Congress for failing to apply that pressure.  For conservative pundits in particular, that lack of action is further reason to pursue other avenues to hold the President accountable, such as a legal suit. Whether Congress intends to apply that pressure remains to be seen.  My guess is members of the Senate Intelligence committee led by Senator Dianne Feinstein may barter Brennan’s survival for White House concessions regarding redactions to the Senate report on U.S. interrogation and rendition policies.

Speaking of suing the president, in this previous post I made the argument that the House Republicans’ vote to authorize Speaker Obama to do just that made perfect political sense, even though it was unlikely to gain any traction in the courts. Here’s the reason why:

As you can see by the breakdown in partisan support, Republicans who run on this issue in the upcoming midterms are banking on turnout from their base, while at the same time expecting a lower turnout from the Obama coalition which draws much more heavily on voters less likely to participate in a midterm elections.  So they see suing as a winning political issue.

Meanwhile, Timothy Noah has written an almost entirely speculative piece on whether Richard Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in, complete with misleading headline. Noah concludes that he did. To my knowledge, there is no evidence to support Noah’s assertion, with the exception of a claim by Nixon aide Jeb Magruder many years after the fact that he overheard Nixon authorize the bugging of Larry O’Brien’s phone in the Democratic party headquarters. However, this contradicts Magruder’s earlier claims and is not supported by any evidence from tapes or phone records. Indeed, Noah’s assertion seems undermined by the recordings of Nixon discussing the break-in, which on the whole indicate complete puzzlement on his part regarding why anyone would do something so stupid.

So, if there’s no evidence Nixon orchestrated the Watergate break in, this leads to the obvious question: who ordered Noah to write this opinion piece? I am skeptical that he would do something like this on his own. Was it Rachel Maddow? The head of MSNBC? Democratic political operatives trying to use Nixon against the Republicans this fall? Noah is clearly just the fall guy – some enterprising journalist needs to follow the viewers’ clicks trail to see who really benefits here.

Finally, what does it feel like to be President? I imagine it’s often something like this:

woodchuck

Have a great Sunday!

UPDATE 9.45 Monday:  A couple years back Jonathan Bernstein took on the “Did Nixon order the Watergate break in?” question and had pretty much the same reaction then as I did yesterday to Noah’s post:  http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com/2012/06/why-dnc.html