Tag Archives: Obama

On A Wing and a Prayer: What Tim Tebow Can Teach Obama

When it comes to leadership, what can President Obama learn from Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow? Apparently, quite a lot. At least that’s the claim Matthew Dowd makes in this recent National Journal article. Dowd argues that Obama has lost his leadership mojo: “Take a look at Obama’s latest interview.  It does not make you feel better about where we are heading.  You don’t feel like we are going to win under his leadership.  He points fingers and refuses to admit his own mistakes or weaknesses.  I often wonder where is the Barack Obama of the 2007 and 2008 campaign.  That Obama was much more like the leader we need at this time.  He offered hope, he had soaring rhetoric, he offered a change from the bitter politics in Washington, and he made us feel we could win.”

The cure for Obama’s leadership ills, Dowd argues, is to steal a page from the Tebow playbook and begin “quarterbacking our country” in “Tebow style”.  And what is that style? “Tebow is the kind of leader for his football team that our country needs at this crucial moment … . [N]o matter the outcome, Tebow has shown what faith, and confidence and humility can do for a team of limited skills that was losing consistently before. This is exactly what President Franklin Roosevelt and President Reagan understood about leadership…What citizens and businesses need is a leader who can raise us all up to a level we didn’t know we had in us, give us confidence in ourselves, give us a common goal to work toward, and make us believe in and have faith in ourselves again.”

I confess that my first time through I thought this might be one of the most inane columns I have ever read. Upon second reading, however, I was convinced of it.  Now, having calmed down a bit, I realize my first and second impressions were exactly right.

Look, as someone who writes what has become essentially a daily blog post, I’m sympathetic to Dowd’s likely motivations in writing this piece. He realized that Tebow is now a national story, and he was probably looking for column material that would attract the maximum google hits. So, we probably shouldn’t take this too seriously. In that vein, let’s play along with Dowd’s logic and see whether Obama has anything to learn from Tebow.  To anticipate my conclusion, the short answer is: No.  Here’s why.

Let’s begin with the most important point: Tebow doesn’t call his own plays!  That’s right – Tebow is miked up and receives direction from the sidelines (and, perhaps, from up above as well – but that’s another story.)  It’s possible, I suppose, to do the same with Obama – but who would be calling the shots? Biden?  Michelle?  If we follow the Tebow football metaphor, why not Bill Belichick? Of course, had Belichick been in charge since day 1 of Obama’s presidency it’s likely that unemployment would be at 4%, Democrats would still control Congress and Obama’s approval would be close 75%. And all with a cabinet composed of political retreads and unknowns.

Still I suppose it’s not too late to bring Belichick on board now. Of course, his first move would probably be to sit Obama. I can hear the press conference now:

Question:  “Coach Belichick, why is the President on the inactive list for this week’s game?”

Coach Hoodie: “Coach’s decision for the good of the team. Clinton gives us a better chance to win, so I made the switch. The President’s record being what  it is, I just thought it was best to make the switch now. That’s it.”  Clinton, of course, would then lead the Democrats to an improbable comeback in 2012, when they reclaim Congress and she gets 8 years. Obama would become a regular on the Rachel Maddow show.

Reason two: Tebow is getting bailed out by his field goal kicker. Who’s going to hit one from beyond 50 yards with time running down for Obama?  Hillary?  Personally, I prefer Kathy Ireland, but that’s purely for aesthetic purposes. Hillary probably has better distance.

But I digress.  My point, I hope is clear.  Dowd would have us believe that Obama’ s struggles have something to do with defects in his leadership style.  In Dowd’s words:  “I do think this Tebow boomlet is about faith.  And it’s about confidence.  And leadership.  And humility — a humbleness born of strength and conviction.  It is about Tebow’s faith in his own teammates.  It is about his faith and confidence in his own organization.  It is about him acknowledging his own weaknesses and failings and mistakes and understanding that if his team looks good, then he looks good… This economy, and our country, do not need more programs out of Washington, D.C., or legislation from Congress, or tax cuts for the wealthy, or more spending on government stimulus.  What citizens and businesses need is a leader who can raise us all up to a level we didn’t know we had in us, give us confidence in ourselves, give us a common goal to work toward, and make us believe in and have faith in ourselves again.

It seems this is a leadership lesson we keep having to learn over and over again through our country’s history.  It is so easy to forget how successes were achieved along the way by Kennedy-style exhortations such as ‘we are going to the moon.’ It is so easy to default into failing Washington-style, us-against-them, to try and get short-term political success. But maybe a quarterback who seems as much boy as man can show us all, including the candidates for president, how to win and how to get our country back on track.”

Oh, please. Obama’s “failings” to date have nothing to do with a faulty leadership style, and everything to do with a sluggish economy that has failed to create jobs – a failure rooted in a fiscal meltdown that predated his time as the nation’s “quarterback”.  And while Obama’s “quarterback play” hasn’t been faultless (see my previous post) the fact remains that he is playing the game under rules set down more than two centuries ago that limit his play calling, and facing a cohesive opposition party that controls half the playing field. It’s going to take more than a wing and a prayer to win this one. Indeed, the whole “us vs. them” football metaphor is misleading. The truth is that in the last week alone Congress has passed both a major appropriations bill and a military authorization bill, and in both cases the legislation had enough bipartisan support to overcome opposition from the extremist wings of both parties.  The lesson, I think, is clear: bargaining and compromise, and not Kennedy-style exhortations, are what constitutes real leadership in this political system.  Or, to use the football metaphor, Obama should skip the fourth-quarter dramatics and inspirational speeches and instead pursue a strategy of “three yards and a cloud of fuss.”  It is amazing how inspirational success – even minor success – can be.

As for Tebow Time – today, he confronts the Devil himself. Let’s see  how that turns out.

 

Ranking the Presidents: Will Obama Make It To Mt. Rushmore?

Where does Obama rank among the presidents? Is he destined for Mt. Rushmore (move over, TR)?  Or will he be placed with Andrew Johnson, Buchanan, Pierce, Harding and George W. Bush at the bottom of the list?  Or somewhere in between?  Siena College recently came out with their fifth ranking of the presidents but their first to include Obama. The rankings are based on evaluations by 238 “presidential scholars”, who rated each president in 20 categories, ranging from executive ability to handling of various policies to “luck”.

According to these experts, Obama now stands as the 15th greatest president, primarily on the basis of his imagination (6th best), communications skills (7th) and intelligence (8th). This is none too shabby, as progressives on several websites (see here, for example were quick to point out. (Much of their glee, I suspect, is because Obama is rated much higher than his predecessor, George W. Bush!)   What prevented Obama from ranking even higher, apparently, were concerns about his “background”, which evidently refers to education, experience and family history.

What are we to make of these rankings?  I have no qualms with attempts take the measure of a president – it is a quintessentially American endeavor, right up there with choosing the all time baseball team. Indeed, Richard Neustadt begins his classic work on the American Presidency by writing, “In the United States we like to ‘rate’ a President. We measure him as ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ and call what we are measuring his ‘leadership’.”

Nor do I necessarily think it premature to rate Obama; as Neustadt notes, “We do not wait until a man is dead; we rate him from the moment he takes office. We are quite right to do so.”  Every four years that ranking takes on particular importance.

Of course, it is quite possible that Obama’s current ranking might change considerably in the next two-to-six years.  Think back to Lincoln two years into his presidency.  The South was winning the war in part because Lincoln’s generals were incompetent, his own party was split over his leadership, his assertion of strong wartime powers probably violated the Constitution and his public support was at low ebb.  It is likely he would have ranked at this time near the bottom of the list of presidents, behind his predecessor Buchanan.  Or, to take a more recent example, recall Bill Clinton’s presidency two years in, when he felt the need to assert that his role was “still relevant” after failing to pass health care and watching the Republicans come to power in the 1994 midterm elections.

Note that we need not engage only in hypotheticals when discussing how presidential rankings can change. Siena actually rated George W. Bush one year into his presidency – the same Bush who is now often called one of the worst presidents in history, and who stands 39th (of 44 presidents) in the current Siena poll.  Where did he rank in 2002?  At number 23, placing him squarely in the average rankings.  How times – and rankings – have changed!

So while it may be premature to rate Obama, I am not against trying to do so as long as we remember these rankings are provisional.  Nonetheless, I do have a problem with the Siena rankings, and with most of the parallel efforts, dating back to the initial ratings of presidents sponsored by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. in 1948.   It’s the failure to rigorously conceptualize the criteria on which these evaluations are based.  That failure makes it difficult for me to judge whether presidents are rated based on their actual influence over events, or on the events themselves, or on some other criteria.

To see what I mean, consider some of the 20 categories included in the Siena rankings.  For example, Franklin Roosevelt ranks first among all presidents in his “handling of the economy”.   On what is this based?  The reality is that well into his second term, Roosevelt’s policies had failed to end the Great Depression – in fact, in 1937, the nation entered a mini-recession that wiped out a portion of the economic gains made during FDR’s first term.  In the end, it was the massive spending of a wartime economy that finally ended the Depression. Now, one can argue that FDR’s New Deal program helped lessen the severity of the Depression, and that some of his specific actions, such as declaring a banking holiday, saved entire industries from collapse. But I can’t help thinking that his rating is based more on the severity of the economic crisis he inherited than in his actions in ending it.  Indeed, is it even fair to evaluate presidents on the basis of their “handling of the economy”, considering just how little influence over economic processes presidents exercise?

Or, consider the ability to “avoid crucial mistakes.”  Lincoln was rated 2nd best in this category, just behind Washington.  Some might think, however, that Lincoln’s decision to resupply Ft. Sumter, which happened to trigger the Civil War, might fall in the category of “crucial mistake”.  Certainly Lincoln did not foresee the consequences of this initial act.

A second problem with the Siena rankings is the failure to differentiate the significance of different categories.  So, a president’s “luck” is apparently weighted equally with their “executive ability” or “communication ability” or “ability to handle the economy”.  And to what does luck refer, anyhow?  Lincoln – who was killed in office – was rated the 13th luckiest president.  Really?  Never mind the assassination – he took office only to see 13 states decide to secede.  I hate to see the fate of an “unlucky” president!  Clinton is rated the 10th luckiest – is that because he survived impeachment?  What about getting impeached in the first place?  How lucky was that?  One might argue that it was supremely unlucky for him that Monica Lewinsky held on to the stained dress!

And what about “integrity” – George W. Bush is rated only 39th in this category.  Why the low ranking?  It might be because people object to his stretching (breaking?) the constitutional limits of his authority.  But another president who pushed/broke his constitutional limits, Abraham Lincoln, is rated first in integrity.  Are people judging integrity on the degree to which they agree with the president’s policy objectives?

Bush is also only rated 36th in “background”.  Again, I have no clue why he is rated so low – he attended Yale, and Harvard Business School, served as Governor of one of the largest states in the Union, and his father was the President of the United States.  Perhaps he would have been better prepared graduating from Eureka College and working in the movies?  (In Reagan’s defense, he served two terms as California governor.  And Eureka College may be on par with Yale.)

There is also the problem of evaluating presidents who served in significantly different eras.  For example, how does one compare Lincoln’s “communication” ability (he ranks second) with FDR’s (he is rated first), given the differences in technology that governed their respective communication strategies?  For that matter, given the difference in the scope of their responsibilities, is it fair to compare a 19th century president with someone who serves in the 21st?

Now, it may be that the 238 presidential scholars were able to come to some agreement on what these categories mean, and on their relative importance.  One way to measure this agreement is to see the standard deviations in their rankings.   That is, how closely do the ratings cluster around the mean in each category?  A small standard deviation would suggest that there was basic agreement among the evaluators.  But Siena doesn’t provide this statistic, so we have no way of seeing how much agreement there was within and across categories.

In another post I’ll present my own criteria for evaluating presidents, and make some effort to explain the rankings made by others. For now, we are left with this question: will Obama make it to Mt. Rushmore?  I have no idea. My best guess, almost two years into his presidency, however, is that he has a better shot if he does what Mike Norris did: don a Presidential Power “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt and take a road trip.

Do You Know What Today Is?

It’s the 84th day of the Obama administration. And do you know what’s significant about this, the 84th day, of the Obama administration? Nothing. That’s right. The 84th day of any administration has no intrinsic significance. Accordingly, no rational person would use the 84th day of an administration as a yardstick by which to assess that administration’s progress. It’s a bit like assessing the manager of a baseball team two games into the season. It’s like evaluating a marriage during the honeymoon. It’s like assessing my presidency course after one class (ok, that’s different – you pretty well know you are doomed after the first class).

And yet the punditocracy will have us believe that the 100th day of Obama’s administration, which is only two weeks away, serves as a meaningful marker for assessing his presidency to date. Consider the following comment in today’s Boston Globe story covering Obama’s Georgetown economic speech (see article here): “The speech came as Obama nears his symbolic 100-day mark in office, important because that has become a traditional marker by which to judge new administrations.”

Really? “A traditional marker”? Says who? Well, the NY Times says so, since they are running a semi-regular featured titled “100 Days Starting the Job from FDR to Obama”. CNN agrees; at their website, they run an ongoing column measuring progress during Obama’s first 100 days (see here). Indeed, more often than not, you will see most major media outlets discussing the 100 days as if it was a significant milestone in any presidency.

The origins of the 100 days yardstick, as I’ve discussed before, date back to FDR’s first term, when he took office in March, 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, however, no president since has come to power under remotely similar circumstances, and so expectations that they will accomplish what FDR and the Democratically-controlled Congress did at that time are historically misleading. Consider how much has changed since 1933. To begin, FDR’s term began several months before that of the newly-elected Congress, which wasn’t normally seated until December, almost 9 months after the president took office. Roosevelt, however, called the new Congress into a special emergency session, where they proceeded to spend the next three months passing a series of legislation that has gone down in history as FDR’s First New Deal. Interestingly, the impetus for calling the special session was the need to pass special banking legislation to avoid a full collapse of the banking industry. Once Congress convened on March 9th and passed the banking emergency act, however, FDR was persuaded to keep the Congress in session, and between March 8th and June 16th together they drafted and passed fifteen major legislative proposals into law. This included the Agricultural Adjustment Act that placed a floor under farm prices and provided farm subsidies, the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance system, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority to develop hydroelectric power and help farmers in the Tennessee Valley. Some acts, such as the National Industrial Recovery act that essentially allowed businesses to act in monopolistic fashion to raise prices and set wages, under government supervision, were later declared unconstitutional.

Some of the legislation has particular relevance today. More than 40% of the nation’s 4 million homeowners faced foreclosure when FDR took office. To prevent a housing meltdown, FDR and Congress created the Homeowners Loan Corporation. It was charged with making loans, and refinancing existing mortgages, often by replacing risky mortgages with longer, fixed rate ones to reduce the foreclosure threat. This led to the establishment of the Federal Home Administration (FHA) and the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) which helped provided a secondary market for mortgages and led to a vast increase in home ownership in this country. Finally, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and the PWA (Public Works Administration) were established to create government-back employment opportunities

But it would be a mistake to view this as a “legislative program” developed through careful design (despite FDR’s fireside chat arguing the contrary – see here). Instead, Roosevelt and his “brains trust” largely played without a playbook, tackling problems one by one as they needed to be addressed, but without an overarching philosophy beyond the willingness to try anything. Often FDR pursued policies – as in cutting the veteran’s benefits from the federal budget while at the same time increasing expenditures on emergency spending programs – that can only be viewed as contradictory. In the end, if the First New Deal did not succeed in ending the economic depression, it did at least appear to right the foundering ship of state. More importantly, as I’ve argued elsewhere, he forever changed the public’s expectations regarding the government’s role in maintaining economic growth and a social safety net.

Here’s a timeline of FDR’s 100 Days, using documents at the Presidency Research Project (see here).

March 4th 1933 FDR Inauguration

March 6th Bank Holiday

March 9th Emergency Session of Congress. Passage of Emergency Banking Act.

March 10th Economy Act sent to Congress

March 12th First Fireside Chat

March 13th Banks begin to reopen

March 16th Farm Bill sent to congress to remedy lack of purchasing power of farmers.

March 20th Economy Act Passed into law cutting Veteran’s benefits (a huge chunk of the federal budget at the time) by 50%. Although FDR’s budget director was pleased with this, Roosevelt later began moving away from balanced budgets as a way to combat the Depression.

March 21st Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) bill sent to Congress.

March 22nd Beer-wine revenue bill sent to Congress.

March 27th Farm Credit Administration created by Executive Order. (This essentially merged 9 separate agencies.) Farm Mortgage Relief Act proposed.

March 31st CCC passed into law. Initially designed to create 250,000 jobs among unemployed young adults. Created more than 2 million by the end of the program in 1942. CCC workers worked in largely rural areas, clearing deadwood, establishing trails and shelters, working on flood control and fire suppression and stocking fisheries.

April 5th Farm Mortgage Relief passed into law.

April 7th Beer sales were legal for the first time since Prohibition began in 1920. Tax revenues began flowing into government.

April 10th Congress sent legislative proposal for Tennessee Valley Authority.

April 19th In reaction to the slumping value of the dollar, FDR takes the US dollar off the gold standard.

May 7th Second Fireside Chat. Reviews progress after 60 days.

May 12th To combat unemployment the Federal Emergency Relief Act creates FERA, with $500 million, ½ directed to the states, ½ available as matching funds for state programs. This later became the Works Progress Administration.

Agricultural Adjustment Act and Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, to reduce $200 million worth of surplus production (accomplished by ploughing crops under, set acreage aside to lie fallow, and livestock reductions).

May 18th Passage of TVA: 650 mile navigable water way to be built from Knoxville TN to Paducah KY, with construction of dams, power plants, fertilizer production, intended for direct economic benefit on 7 state area affected.  Often hailed as a model of a new public/private partnership.

May 27th Federal Securities Act passed, established the Securities and Exchange Commission, headed by Joseph Kennedy, father of future president John Kennedy.

June 5th Senate and House by Joint Resolution abrogate the gold clause in private and public contracts, and back paper currency as legal tender.

June 13th Homeowners’ Loan Corporation enacted, empowered to refinance mortgages, make loans, and advance cash for tax payments and repairs.

June 16th Several key pieces of legislation passed, including:

-The Banking Act of 1933, aka “Glass-Steagall” Act passed into law. This legislation created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and protected bank deposits up to $5,000, separated commercial from investment banking, forced banks to get out of the business of financial investment, banned the use of bank deposits in speculation. It was the repeal of portions of this act during Clinton’s presidency that some believe contributed to the current economic crisis.

-The National Industrial Recovery Act, including Title 2 creating the Public Works Administration. The NIRA had three parts. Title I suspended the provisions of anti-trust legislation on price fixing, and a enacted a tremendous boost to industrial trade unions by promoting collective bargaining. Title II allocated $3.3 billion for public works, to build and repair federal buildings, roads, bridges, and dams. Title III consisted of a list of Congressionally-initiated projects.

-The Farm Credit Act. Legislation which concluded the process begun when FDR issued an executive order establishing the Farm Credit Administration. This provided easier refinancing of farm mortgages, and brought foreclosures to a halt.

When this special session of Congress ended, someone compared the period of legislative productivity to Napoleon’s celebrated 100 days after he left exile in Elba and briefly regained power in France in 1814. And so FDR’s “100 Days” were immortalized, with the unfortunate result that every successive president’s first 100 days is inevitably compared to FDR’s. But what president since Roosevelt has taken office with unemployment at 25%, with the banking system on the brink of collapse, with deflation threatening farmers’ livelihood, the nation’s housing system near a total meltdown? – well, you get the picture. There existed a real possibility that the nation’s economic – and by extension the political – system was on the verge of collapse. Even the most dire descriptions of the current economic crisis pale in comparison.

We can see (I hope) that measuring Obama’s progress using the 100 days yardstick is an utterly asinine exercise, and worse – it is counterproductive because it creates unrealistic expectations for what presidents can reasonably hope to accomplish three months into their presidency. More often than not, presidents set themselves up for failure by promising – as Clinton did with health care reform in 1993 – to pass major legislation within 100 days of taking office. When they inevitably fail to succeed in meeting the artificial timetable, they are taken to task by the media (never mind that the yardstick is wholly a media creation!). And yet in two weeks, we will be inundated with “100 days” stories comparing progress (or lack thereof) during the Obama administration with progress during previous presidencies. And the Obama White House, while ostensibly downplaying any significance to the day, will nonetheless dutifully roll out talking points demonstrating just how much has been accomplished on his watch so far.

Well, such foolishness may suffice for the Times or CNN, but I’m warning you now – come the 100th day there will be none of this nonsense on this blog. You deserve better. And you’ll get it here. I expect to devote that entire day to a discussion of Mark (‘The Bird”) Fidrych’s short but spectacular baseball career. Let me begin by noting that he graduated from my high school.

Now that’s something to celebrate.

Independents and Obama: How Polarized is the Public?

In the last several posts I have been presenting evidence indicating that rather than the “post-partisan” presidency promised during his campaign, Obama has in fact proved every bit as polarizing as his immediate predecessors.  With hindsight, some of you are now arguing that there was no reason to expect Obama to be anything but a partisan president, but a careful read of his campaign speeches clearly indicates that he held out hope for a change in the tone of Washington politics, in addition to a change in policy direction.  And, contrary to what many of you are now saying, at the time of his election not a few of you believed he would in fact bring not just a new policy direction, but also a new more civilized mode of political discourse on Capitol Hill.  Indeed, if I heard a variation of the following refrain from colleagues and students once, I heard it 100 times: “I’m really optimistic that Obama’s election will finally end the partisan bickering in Washington.”  Admit it – you were one of those who believed, weren’t you?  (You know who you are!)

Of course, this was never likely to happen, as I quietly tried to suggest in my earlier blog postings and talks during the transition and aftermath of the inauguration.  My goal in harping on this theme is not to cast myself as a latter-day Cassandra. Instead, it is to make three broader teaching points. (After all, that’s the point of this blog!)  First, there was an inherent tension in Obama’s promise to bring policy change AND to lower the degree of partisan bickering on Capitol Hill.  He was unlikely to accomplish both objectives and, in the end, not surprisingly chose partisanship and policy change over bipartisanship. To do otherwise – to pursue a more bipartisan strategy – would have required an enormous expenditure of political capital. Second, the polarized politics that have characterized presidential-congressional relations are not due primarily to the actions of any single president, but instead are largely the result of the confluence of several long-term trends in American politics. By understanding why polarization exists, we are less likely to be disappointed by Obama’s failure to change that tone – it really has little to do with his skills or style of leadership.  Similarly, once we understand the sources of polarization, we are better able to adopt a more realistic assessment of previous presidents’ culpability for the current state of affairs.  Third – and this is one of the main reasons why I write this blog – Obama’s failure to usher in the era of the post-partisan presidency reminds us that presidents possess much less influence than pundits and journalists would have us believe. Ours is not a presidential form of government so much as it is a congressionally-centered system.

Some of you are now arguing that partisanship may be a good thing, or at least less worrisome, as long as policy change occurs.  I will devote a separate post examining this question, in part by looking at the production of legislation under various partisan permutations. But note that partisanship is not without its costs.  Eventually, a polarized debate on Capitol Hill will filter down to the public, and we will see Obama’s popularity approval ratings exhibit the same polarized division that characterized Bush’s support.  Indeed, this is already happening; in the aftermath of congressional passage of the economic stimulus bill followed by the first budget resolution – both of which took place with almost no Republican support – we already see Obama’s popularity exhibiting Bush-like characteristics.  According to Amy Walter at the National Journal the latest Diageo/Hotline poll shows that just 19 percent of Republicans thought more government involvement in the economy is a good idea, compared with 79 percent of Democrats. “Asked if they think the stimulus plan will be successful in turning the economy around, 72 percent of Republicans said no while 86 percent of Democrats said yes” (see article here).

Of course, it may not be surprising that Republicans – only 9% of whom supported Obama in the election – are registering disapproval of Obama in increasing numbers, based in large part on his economic policies, while Democratic support remains high.  But what of the key swing group, the independents? By the end of Bush’s presidency, only about 30% of independents approved of his job as president. Obama won the independent vote in November by 52-44, and so far, his support among this group remains strong. According to the March 30-April 5 Gallup Poll (see table below),  his approval among independents is 60% – almost exactly what it was on inauguration day and pretty much where it has remained ever since.

However, Walter, citing the Diego poll, notes that those independents who said they “strongly” approve of the job Obama is doing dropped 13 points between the end of January and the end of March. She also notes that that independents’ support for Congressional Democrats is softening as well: “From the beginning of March to the end of the month, the approval ratings of congressional Democrats among independent voters dropped 10 points, from 48 percent to 38 percent. Same goes for the generic ballot test. In our most recent poll, independents gave a slight edge to Republicans (26 percent to 23 percent) — a 6-point drop for Democrats since early March.”

As yet, the drop in independents’ support for Democrats has not translated into an increase in their support for Republicans now in Congress. Walters notes that, “Just 26 percent of independents approve of the job Republicans are doing in Congress (a 4-point drop since early March). The 26 percent that Republicans are getting in the generic matchup is unchanged since early March as well.”  We see, then, that among independents, support for Obama is strong, but potentially softening.  However, most of the erosion in independent support seems focused on the Democrats in Congress.  Whether and to what degree that will extend to a loss of support for Obama depends, I believe, in large part on perceptions regarding the economy.  Polarization within the public becomes a major problem, I argue, when it includes a loss of support among independents, and not just Republicans.

So, why does polarization exist? One reason is the efforts by well-meaning reformers to reduce the influence of money on elections. Many of you will recall that in his 2004 run for the Democratic nomination for president, Howard Dean trumpeted the fact that a huge proportion of his campaign contributions came in small amounts, often under $200.  In 2008, Barack Obama picked up on this theme, arguing that he was broadening popular participation in elections by attracting financial support from those who represented the “average”, less wealthy voter, rather than the “fat cats” who typically funded campaigns.  In their view, the internet was “democratizing” presidential campaigns. As my colleague Bert Johnson’s research reveals, however, this is not what was happening – at least not in the way that the Dean-Obama campaigns would have us believe. Their fundraising strategy did not mobilize the less partisan, middle-of-the-road voter.  In fact, it benefitted from – and may actually have contributed to – the increased partisan polarization that characterizes American politics today.  To understand why, and to appreciate some really innovative research, I want to devote the next post to Bert’s research on campaign finance.  He tells a fascinating – and counterintuitive – story that merits a full discussion, and helps illustrate two of Dickinson’s three laws of politics: “Money always finds its way to candidates” and “For every positive benefit from a political reform, there is an equal and unanticipated negative reaction.”

“There Is No There, There”: Obama and the Polarized Congress

 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent broadside blasting President Obama for his failure to fulfill his promise to govern in bipartisan fashion is merely the latest such charge leveled by leaders of both parties on this topic. Predictably, Democrats responded that it is Republicans who are being obstructionist by refusing to meet Obama’s bipartisan overtures halfway.

Neither perspective is correct. Instead, as I have argued since before Obama’s inauguration, there was never much probability that we would see a decline in the partisan polarization that has characterized presidential-congressional relations during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, Obama’s best intentions to the contrary notwithstanding.  Change, in this case, means more of the same.  And the reason has almost nothing to do with Republican desires to “wreck” Obama’s presidency any more than the polarization during Bush’s presidency can be blamed on Democratic efforts to thwart his leadership. Nor should we accuse Obama – as many critics have – of  pulling a bait and switch on American voters; although many Republicans view his calls for a more bipartisan relationship as insincere, I think he was (and continues to be) strongly committed to finding a middle ground on which Democrats and Republicans can come together to address the nation’s problems.

The problem, of course, is that there is no such middle ground on most issues, particularly those pertaining to the economy and the budget. Democrats and Republicans are polarized because they do not agree on how best to solve problems related to the economic recession, health care, the energy crisis, or cap and trade emissions policies, to name only a few pressing issues. Faced with this lack of agreement, Obama is essentially powerless to broker a bipartisan compromise on any of these fronts.  If he moves Right to attract Republican votes, Democrats rebuke him.  If he sides with his party, Republicans accuse him of bargaining in poor faith.  Given these two unpalatable options, I have predicted from Day 1 that Obama would, on most polarizing issues, opt for going with his party majority, just as George Bush ultimately opted to govern primarily (albeit not exclusively) through the Republican majority, until he lost that majority in 2006. .

But what of the 2008 election results?  Didn’t they indicate Americans’ desire for change in the form of a more bipartisan governing stance?  Participants at a recent talk I gave on a paper I wrote about the lack of bipartisanship under Obama made essentially this claim in taking my argument to task. Republicans’ obstructionism, they argue, runs contrary to prevailing public opinion. Americans voted for change, and Republicans are out of line for not recognizing this. This line of reasoning fundamentally misreads how our political system works and what the 2008 election results signify. Ours is not a parliamentary system whose members are selected from party “lists”.  Nor is it a “presidential” system in which the president’s election dictates what voters believe Congress will (or should) do.   Rather, we are governed by a congressional system, in which Senators and Representatives represent geographically distinct locales.  And for most Republicans (and not a few Democrats) the most recent elections did not signal a commitment to bipartisanship if that meant abandoning party principles.  Consider the following graph.

It shows the relative influence of “local” versus “national” forces on midterm congressional elections during the period 1954-2006.  Most notably, even in 2006, which most pundits interpreted as a midterm election that was largely a referendum on the Bush presidency, the impact of “local” factors dwarfs “national” factors in explaining House results. (I urge those interested in how these figures are calculated to email me at dickinso@middlebury.edu and I’ll take you through the process. I’m currently working to calculate the 2008 results and will present them when I can).  The same pattern is revealed when looking at presidential election years; local forces typically outweigh national forces in determing the outcomes of House elections.  Note, in particular, the 2004 election.

The point, I hope, is clear: members of Congress respond to different political incentives than does Obama because they represent different constituencies. Even in years when national tides run strong, as in 2004 and 2006, the primary influences on House elections are still local forces.  So while it is true that most voters want Obama to govern in bipartisan fashion, they also want their elected Representative or Senator to stick up for local interests.  And that often means espousing party principles, at the risk of appearing partisan. That’s why Obama failed so miserably at keeping earmarks out of his budget proposal – his interests were trumped by the interests of members of Congress looking to the needs of their own constituents.  Given these incentives, Obama decided to declare victory and move on, rather than upholding his campaign pledge to end the use of earmarks and opposing the bill.  It was a pragmatic decision.

As further evidence of the difficulty Obama faces in developing bipartisan congressional voting coalitions, consider the following data (see here).  Congressional Quarterly has calculated that only 19% (83) of the 435 House districts split their vote by supporting a member of one party for the House and the presidential candidate of the opposing party. Similarly, exit polls indicate that only 19% of individual voters in House elections split their ballot in this manner. The number of House districts with split votes is the second smallest number since 1952, trumped only by the lowest number that occurred four years earlier, in 2004, when only 59 districts (14%) split their vote as Bush won reelection along with a 232-member House Republican majority.  In short, the two most recent presidential elections have returned the smallest number of split districts in the last half century of national elections.  Put another way, there is a dwindling number of districts in which a House representative has any incentive to work with a president of the opposing party.

To quote the well- known political scientist Gertrude Stein, when it comes to the moderate middle in Congress, “There is no there, there.”

In the next several posts I will present more data developing this basic point:  voters may wish for bipartisanship in the abstract, but the signals they send in specific elections often belie that wish.  We may decry the lack of bipartisanship in national politics today. But the cure means reducing, if not eliminating, the ability of members of Congress to represent their constituents’ interests, as indicated in their votes.  In opposing Obama on many domestic issues, Republicans aren’t being obstructionist – they are being effective representatives, just as Democrats believed they were representing their districts when they used the threat of filibusters to bring Senate consideration of Bush’s judicial nominees to a grinding halt when Democrats were in the minority.

This is not to say that bipartisanship will never occur during Obama’s presidency. In fact, we have already seen signs of it, contrary to what the pundits who claim Republicans will never support Obama would have you believe.   I will develop this point in greater detail in another post, but in the areas of prisoner rendition, surveillance techniques, troop levels in Iraq and the strategy in Afghanistan, Obama’s choices have been largely consistent with Bush’s, and have attracted broad Republican support even at the risk of offending the Far Left of the Democratic Party.  The reason, of course, is that voters in Republican-represented districts largely support Obama’s initiatives in these areas.  But it is also the case that Obama has a bit more freedom to maneuver in these areas, because – as yet – they involve actions that do not require a congressional vote.

Can Obama govern in bipartisan fashion?  Yes – but only when Republicans believe their constituents will support Obama’s policies, and Democrats do not oppose such initiatives. For reasons I have described in multiple posts, the incentives for members of Congress in both parties to do so have declined in recent years.

It is easy for pundits to blame the lack of bipartisanship on Republican obstructionism.  But it is also wrong.  Republicans, as Democrats did when Bush was president, are for the most part simply responding to the political incentives set in motion by the Framers more than two centuries ago when they established the system of congressional representation and elections.