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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President Griswold? The Nation Lampoons Vacations

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

So, if I vowed not to engage in this debate, why am I writing this post? Because I’m on vacation and needed an easy writing day. However, rather than repeat myself, I’ve decided simply to repost my last discussion of this issue – this came out August 19, 2011 under the title “Vacation Advice to the President: Avoid the Nude Beach”:

If it’s August, I know three things will happen:

1. France will essentially shut down;

2. I’ll be late writing my APSA paper;

3. The President will be criticized for taking a vacation.

And right on cue, the lead story in most media outlets today centered on the critical reaction to the First Family’s departure for a 10-day stay at Martha’s Vineyard. It is, of course, now customary for the political opposition to rail against the President’s willingness to take time off while the country’s future is at stake. And at taxpayer’s expense, no less! (Never mind that the lodging is paid for privately – what about all those security and transportation costs!) President Bush’s travels to his Crawford, Texas ranch elicited the same indignant reaction, as did Bill Clinton’s vacations (which often included trips to Martha’s Vineyard as well), George H. W. Bush’s frequent stays at the family compound in Kennebunkport (where he terrorized the locals in his speedboat) and Ronald Reagan’s regular trips west to his California ranch to clear brush, and ride horses with Nancy.

I don’t know when taking a vacation started becoming bad politics, although I think it began with Reagan’s trips to California. Of course August is always a slow news month, which makes it easier to justify running the “Should the President Be on Vacation At a Time Like This?” story. Although this is the Obamas’ third trip to Martha’s Vineyard, the attacks on him seem more intense this time. I think this is for at least two reasons. First, the stock market’s recent roller-coaster ride has entered another downward plunge, amid continuing reports of weak job growth. Second, we are deep into the invisible primary season, and his vacation timing and locale provides ample fodder for Republican candidates out on the campaign hustings to scold the president for his seeming obliviousness to the plight of the common man. For example, consider Mitt Romney’s remarks from two days ago: “if you’re the president of the United States, and the nation is in crisis, and we’re in a jobs crisis right now, then you shouldn’t be out vacationing.”
Of course, the choice of locale doesn’t help. Much of the criticism centers on the message the President seems to be sending by staying in opulent vacations digs hobnobbing with the glitterati at a time when almost 1 in 10 Americans lack jobs. As one columnist put it, “Which begs the question – why did the president go ahead with his vacation despite the worst approval ratings of his presidency, plunging stock markets, falling consumer confidence, and overwhelming public disillusion with his handling of the economy? I think the answer lies in Obama’s professorial-style arrogance, and a condescending approach towards ordinary Americans.”

Forgive me if I don’t share the outrage. The reality is that presidential vacations aren’t like the ones you and I take (if I ever took one)! Sure, there’s some recreational downtime. But it’s mostly much of the same daily grind: the intelligence briefing, the meeting with staff, the constant stream of memoranda and official documents. In terms of intensity, I think it’s a lot closer to vacationing with Clark Griswold and his family: things are always going wrong, and the stress level is very high.

Moreover, Obama’s “vacationing” no more frequently than did his immediate predecessors. Indeed, at this point, Obama’s vacation time (I don’t count time spent at Camp David) seems about average for presidents. By one count, in their first year as president, Reagan (42 vacation days) and both Bushes spent more time on vacation than did Obama, while Clinton and Carter spent less. (I’ve never been to Plains, GA, but perhaps the locale partly explains Carter’s aversion to vacationing? Or maybe Democrats just work harder.)

In any case, Obama has a ways to go to match his immediate predecessor’s vacation time. Across his eight years as president Bush took 77 vacation trips to his Texas ranch, spending 69 days there during his first year alone. By comparison, Obama only vacationed 26 days during year one of his presidency. And this doesn’t count the more than 450 days Bush spent at Camp David. Similarly, Clinton spent 171 days “on vacation” during his eight years. Keep in mind as well that Obama has two kids, and something tells me they have some say in the vacation decision.

But there’s a more important reason why I’m not sympathetic to the “no time for vacation” crowd. History suggests that these trips help presidents cope with the burden of being president. And if they cope better, the nation benefits as well. Have you seen before and after pictures of the President? He’s clearly aged at a rapid clip since taking office. It’s worth remembering that at one time presidential vacations were viewed in a more positive light. Franklin D. Roosevelt made forty-one trips to his cabin in Warm Springs, Georgia during his presidency, often spending a week or more in a working vacation. He had purchased the property there shortly before reentering politics, in large part because he believed the warm springs to be therapeutic. Aides noted that Roosevelt invariably came back from these working vacations reinvigorated. (We now know, of course, that he spent his last visit to Warm Springs secretly rendezvousing with his former mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, who had to be quickly secreted away when the FDR suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died). Of course, media criticism of FDR may have been muted because the visits to Warm Springs could be linked to the foundation he established there to treat polio victims.

But Harry Truman made 11 separate trips to the “Little White House” in Key West Florida, often staying three weeks or more at a time. (Here is an exterior shot of the building which is open to visitors).

key-west-white-house

During the day he would sit by the beach, while aides played volleyball, in between work sessions. (The shorter guy holding onto the post is presidency scholar [and my dissertation chair] Dick Neustadt, author of Presidential Power, for which this blog post is named).

 

truman-team

Most evenings Truman played small stakes poker (he was reputed to be a middling player) in a small room with close friends. (Truman sat in the corner with his back to the wall. The table is still there, complete with playing cards, if you want to visit.) Today, of course, the thought of the President gambling with his cronies at “seaside resort”, while the stock market dropped 500 points, would elicit howls of outrage from the chattering class. But somehow the republic survived Truman’s trips. As I suspect it will survive the next ten days.
Unless the President has a Clark Griswold moment (pardon his French!).

Now, back to my paper. Au revoir!

 

Small States, Malapportionment and Electoral Independence

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

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

Rest in peace, Jim Jeffords.

Why I Love Politics: Jeffords, Perry and Zakaria

This Sunday’s Shorts:

Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve received more email and twitter responses regarding my posts about allegations that Fareed Zakaria is guilty of plagiarism than I have about any of my Michael Brown-related posts. The OurBadMedia website that published the original accusations against Zakaria has now posted a second set allegedly “showing how Zakaria blatantly and repeatedly plagiarized in not just what is his most popular book, but two different cover stories for the magazines he used to serve as editor for, Foreign Affairs and Newsweek.” As yet, however, as Politico’s Dylan Byers notes, the charges do not seem to be gaining much traction in the national press, in contrast to the allegations from two years ago which led to Zakaria’s suspension. This may be because it is not clear that this is outright plagiarism or – as some readers have suggested – it may be that media members are reluctant to condemn one of their own. Among those on my twitterverse feed, however, most of the comments are along these lines: “Wait, @MattDickinson44, are you seriously pretending this might not be plagiarism???? pic.twitter.com/WbEyTN2Wg9” Whatever the merits of the charges, the bottom line remains this (my students, take heed!): when in doubt, quote and cite!

In this era of a polarized punditry, it was perhaps surprising to see agreement among pundits on the Left and the Right regarding Texas Governor Rick Perry’s recent indictment, and it is not just because of his mug shot. While it may not be the case that, as a RedState pundit claimed, “If Perry has the right team in place, which it looks like he does, he can ride this Democrat overreach into the top slot of the 2016 GOP primary”, this does seem to be an instance of a Democratic prosecutor trying to criminalize a political act. Or, as one columnist drawing on legal expertise put it, the “Rick Perry indictment is the dumbest thing since Rick Perry.” The Perry campaign wasted no time on milking the charges for political gain, with everything from campaign ads to t-shirts publicizing what they claim is partisan-driven prosecutorial excess.

Still, not everyone sees this as a win for Perry. And, in fact, if the charges do stick – most legal experts think this is farfetched – it’s hard to see how Perry’s presidential aspirations will be helped. In the meantime, however, he’s wasting no time in trying to capitalize on this free publicity.

Finally, former Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords’ funeral was held yesterday. Almost every one of his obituaries led with reference to his decision in 2001 to bolt the Republican Party and caucus with Senate Democrats, thus giving Democrats a Senate majority. While it is probably not true that his decision “singlehandedly bent the arc of politics” – Democrats retained their majority for a mere 18 months – it did create a national sensation at the time of his announcement. In announcing his decision, Jeffords stated that, “I have changed my party label, but I have not changed my beliefs. Indeed, my decision is about affirming the principles that have shaped my career.”  He may have meant that.  However, left unsaid in the countless obituaries was just how far Jeffords’ voting record moved left during his remaining four-plus years as a Senator. In fact, in the years after he declared as an independent, his voting record was consistently more liberal than not just every Senate Republican’s – it was to the left of most Senate Democrats as well. I will go into more detail about this in a separate post, but it is a reminder that small state Senators typically have a deeper electoral cushion than do their large-state colleagues, and hence more flexibility in how they cast their votes.

Jeffords, Perry and Zakaria.  You can’t make this stuff up.  It’s why I love politics.

 

 

A President’s Dilemma: Race, Riots and Midterm Elections

With recent polling suggesting a slight hardening of opinion against demonstrators in Ferguson, we take our WayBack machine to September 1966, as President Lyndon Johnson struggles to balance pressure from activists advocating stronger leadership on civil rights against a growing backlash among moderate voters triggered in part by a series of race-related riots in urban areas. Heading into the fall midterms, Democrats running for office grew increasingly concerned that Johnson’s handling of civil rights was going to be a drag on the party’s fortunes.

On September 6, 1966 several thousand people rioted in the Summerhill neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia after Atlanta police shot a black male suspected of being a car thief. White House Fellow Tom Johnson spent a week in the Southeast gauging political sentiments among opinion leaders in that period, and filed the following report with LBJ’s senior White House aide Bill Moyers.  Johnson drew two important conclusions from his meetings with opinion leaders during his trip: First, they felt the “President is not playing ‘fair’ on civil rights issues” and second, “The President should not come into the Southeast before the November elections.” Here are the first two pages of the three-page memo to Moyers:

race relations 9.66(1)

LBJ Johnson memo 2

What, according to these opinion leaders, should LBJ do to change the political calculus? “Treat Negro rioters with rebuke equal that given white troublemakers in past.”

Note that the “Carmichael riot” cited in the second page of the memo refers to the Summerhill area riot in Atlanta. Stokely Carmichael, a leader of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), had been accused of inciting the riot in the immediate aftermath of the police shooting. (At this time SNCC had spearheaded a voting rights drive in Atlanta with the goal of electing a black to the Georgia legislature, but there was disagreement with SNCC regarding what role whites should play in the movement. That presaged a split in the civil rights movement regarding the most effective tactics for furthering the movement’s goals.)

As Johnson’s memo makes clear, not all of the displeasure with LBJ was due to civil rights; Johnson’s memo also notes the first signs of growing unease with the U.S. escalating military presence in Vietnam, and rising concern over inflation. All three issues proved increasingly intractable, and in combination helped fuel the end of the Democrat’s New Deal coalition and the rise of the “Republican majority”. In the 1966 midterm elections, Republicans gained 47 seats in the House, and three in the Senate, although Democrats retained majorities in both chambers. It was a harbinger of things to come. With the exception of Carter’s four years as president, Republicans – bolstered by support from an increasingly Republican south together with white, middle- and working-class Northerners (the so-called Reagan Democrats), would hold the Presidency for the next two decades, and control the Senate too from 1981-87. Despite losing popular support in presidential elections, however, Democrats were able to hold on their House majority throughout this period in part due to the increasing importance of incumbency which helped shelter party members from national currents.

It is far too early to draw firm conclusions regarding the implications, if any, of the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent Ferguson demonstrations on national politics.  But as the Johnson memo to Moyers reminds us, and as President Obama knows all too well, the effort to balance protection for civil rights with concern for law and order is an exceedingly difficult task – one for which presidents are unlikely to win any political rewards no matter what their stance.