Tag Archives: Obama

Obama and FDR: Why No Socialism in the United States?

The responses to my blog on FDR and Obama prompts me to reconsider a question famously asked by the political theorist Louis Hartz in his classic work The Liberal Tradition in America: Why no socialism in the United States?  Hartz’ much debated answer, greatly simplified here, is that because American political development skipped a feudal period, our political culture lacks any sense of class consciousness.  Most of us consider ourselves to be the members of the broad, undefined middle class. (As evidence of this, I always ask students in my introductory American politics course how many come from middle class backgrounds. Invariably every hand goes up.)  As a result, our politics is dominated by an almost irrational commitment to Lockean liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights and limited government.  Hartz, like many political scientists, eventually went mad.  But his question remains relevant today, as the response to my last blog suggests.

Some of you will recall the fervent efforts by conservatives during the 2008 presidential campaign to unearth Obama’s “socialist” leanings (see here), and Obama’s equally fervent efforts to deny any ideological kinship with socialism. More recently, of course, critics of the proposal to rescue the banking industry by having the government buy up bank assets argue that it is a form of socialism – a charge proponents of the bank rescue plan deny.  These exchanges are a reminder that, unlike in most of the world, socialism remains a dirty word in American politics.

To explain the American aversion to socialism, political scientists usually point to two factors. One is the Hartzian notion that American’s commitment to liberalism – particularly individual rights – discourages the development of a strong central state.  A second explanation, however, points to American political institutions, particularly federalism and the sharing of powers at the national level between two chambers of Congress and the president. American federalism, in which authority is shared concurrently between states and the national government, made the development of a strong working class party rooted in national labor unions more difficult because political parties developed and are organized primarily at the state level. This makes coordinating political action more difficult.  So some states develop progressive parties, but others do not. And our system of shared powers, with a legislative body based on local representation, provides many points of access for intense minorities to intervene in the legislative process. In particular, this allows businesses with a vested economic interest in limited government to block efforts to pass legislation increasing the size of the social welfare state. Think back to the effort by small business and insurance companies to block health care reform during the Clinton presidency.

More broadly, this American aversion to socialism makes us an exception in the world.  Consider the following two charts. First, note that as a proportion of GDP, we spend much less than many nations on government programs.

%GDP on Government

And we spend much less on social welfare programs.

% GDP social welfare

Our political culture is also exceptional – we allow for much more individual expression, but we also retain a strong emphasis on traditional values, such as religion.  This makes us an outlier among most nations of the world, as the following chart suggests.  Notice the location of the United States as a function of expressive and traditional values:

All this is a long prelude to the issue raised by Liz in her response to my discussion of the Obama/FDR comparison.  She suggests that Obama might yet be an FDR-like “transformative” president if he is able to persuade Congress to pass social welfare policies that are now common in many industrialized nations.  I confess that, given the dire economic circumstances facing the country now, the focus of my critique of the FDR/Obama comparison was on the creation of jobs and the revitalization of the American economy.  But perhaps my focus is misplaced.  Perhaps, as Liz suggests, Obama may yet push the Democratic Congress to expand the social welfare state through the adoption of policies such as paid parental leave, a government-run, single-payer health care system, nationalized banking system and other statist policies.   If so, he might yet go down in history as one of the greater presidents.  In a later post I will give my thoughts on Liz’ suggestion, but I am curious to hear from you first.

What do you think?  Will Obama, working through the Democratically-controlled Congress, succeed in expanding the social welfare state?  And, if so, will he be the next FDR?

Assessing Obama’s Inaugural Address

Evaluating Obama’s inaugural address is an inherently subjective process, of course, and no two people will necessarily render the same judgment. Moreover, as several of you pointed out in your very insightful comments to my most recent post, evaluations may change, depending on how the Obama presidency plays out.  Nonetheless, the chattering class has rendered their initial assessments, and the consensus seems to be that although it was an effective speech -  above “average” for these types of addresses – it did not quite rise to the level one might hope for given the quality of several of Obama’s previous speeches and the significance of this particular occasion (see, for example, here and here and here and here and here.)

If this is true, what might explain why Obama’s speech is not generating the type of acclaim associated with the first inaugural addresses of FDR, Reagan or JFK? One can cite a number of plausible explanations. To begin, it was a relatively lengthy address compared to its more celebrated counterparts; at 2,421 words, it was only slightly longer than Reagan’s first inaugural, but almost 30% longer than FDR’s, 80% longer than JFK’s, and 3 ½ times longer than Lincoln’s second inaugural. In part, this length made it harder to remember a single memorable line. Instead, the pundits cited different “takeaway lines”.  I thought the reference to his father’s facing racial discrimination was the most memorable line – “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall; and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”  But others have cited different lines. In short, there was no equivalent to “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country”.  Second, the speech read as if the author (and here I suspect the hand of Obama’s chief speechwriter, 27-year old Jon Favreau) had sought inspiration from some of the best inaugural addresses; I saw allusions to passages from inaugural addresses by FDR, JFK, LBJ,  Lincoln and – gasp – even a (non-inaugural) speech by Jimmy Carter.  (If you were in my presidency course, surely you blanched when Obama cited a “sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.”  Shades of Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech that claimed Americans suffered from “a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.”  For Carter’s critics, of course, the crisis was high gas prices and rising unemployment – not a flagging American spirit! Of course, Favreau wasn’t alive when Carter gave that speech…. .) More generally, because these previous speeches accentuated different themes, drawing on all of them obscured Obama’s message rather than clarifying it.

In the end, however, I believe the major reason why Obama’s speech missed the mark is because there was no central overarching principle around which the words could cohere.  Instead, the speech made two essential claims about Obama’s presidency: “we are not Bush” and “change is coming”.  But it avoided specifying the hard choices that will constitute that change. Instead, Obama split the differences; he reached out an unclenched hand to dictators AND threatened terrorists with destruction; promised to protect liberties AND maintain national security; to regulate the marketplace without endangering capitalism; to remind us what government can do while emphasizing our historic commitment to private volunteerism; emphasized the role of religion in our nation without forgetting a shout out to “nonbelievers”.  By appearing to embrace all things, then, the speech ultimately emphasized none.

This is in sharp contrast to the “great” inaugural addresses: all emphasized a single specific theme that translated into a clear course of action. Roosevelt challenged the Congress to attack the economic crisis, and threatened to act unilaterally with bold experimentation if Congress failed to do so. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s wordsmith, remembered that JFK eliminated almost any reference to domestic policy in order to focus on Americans’ need to sacrifice to win the Cold War.  For Reagan, of course, it was a direct attack on the New Deal and big government.  These speeches, then, told the American public what their presidency was about, and what to expect in the coming months and years.

In part, this lack of a single theme might reflect the contrasting messages Obama sought to convey. On the one hand, the inauguration celebrated the election of the first African-American president. On the other, it was a sober reminder that we live in perilous times.  It was hard to play to both emotions in a single speech.

But the lack of a central theme might also signify a potentially deeper problem with Obama’s presidency: as yet, he does not know what it will be about. Change, yes – but in what form?  We forget that until 9/11, the Bush presidency was still struggling to turn a vague commitment toward “compassionate conservatism” into a governing stance.  The terrorist attacks gave his presidency a much different overriding purpose.

It may be that this is unfair to Obama; that although pragmatism and moderation does not lend itself to great speechmaking, it is the ideal approach to governing, particularly in the highly polarized partisan setting. Nonetheless, I can’t help believing that ultimately, Obama will need to grasp the nettle and begin making the hard choices that will define his administration.  If he does, we may yet look back on Tuesday’s speech and find the as-yet unrecognized clues revealing the essence of the Obama presidency.  We might then view it as a truly memorable inaugural address.

Obama the Centrist: Should We Be Surprised?

In an earlier post I noted the growing unease among left-leaning bloggers regarding Obama’s initial appointments and policy statements. His national security and economic teams are filled with either Clinton-era holdovers or those who espoused the very policies in Iraq or on economic issues that Obama promised to change.  And Obama’s few public statements, such as his equivocating response at his most recent press conference regarding whether he would stick to his campaign pledge to pull out combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, have done little to assuage these fears.

That unease has now spilled over into the mainstream punditocracy, with recent columns by Frank Rich (see here) , Bob Herbert (here)  and David Corn (here) among many expressing concern that Obama’s message of change has been sacrificed on the altar of competence, credentials and continuity.  That sentiment is concisely captured in the lead passage from yesterday’s article at the website Politico (see here): “Liberals are growing increasingly nervous — and some just flat-out angry — that President-elect Barack Obama seems to be stiffing them on Cabinet jobs and policy choices. Obama has reversed pledges to immediately repeal tax cuts for the wealthy and take on Big Oil. He’s hedged his call for a quick drawdown in Iraq. And he’s stocking his White House with anything but stalwarts of the left. Now some are shedding a reluctance to puncture the liberal euphoria at being rid of President George W. Bush to say, in effect, that the new boss looks like the old boss.”

Without judging the merits of Obama’s initial appointments or policy statements, let us concede that they are far more centrist and moderate than one on the Left might expect from an agent of “change.”  The question becomes: should we be surprised?

The answer, I suggest, is no. Presidency scholars have long understood that one can often discern clues regarding a president-elect’s personality and likely governing style by closely examining their pre-presidential political behavior, focusing particularly on those experiences that come closest to mimicking the exercise of executive functions.  For example, Jimmy Carter’s efforts while President to pressure Congress by taking his message to the people came as no surprise to those who studied his use of similar tactics as Governor of Georgia. Similarly, longtime observers of Ronald Reagan’s tenure as California governor were not surprised when he proved unwilling as President to push conservative legislation on hot-button issues such as restricting abortion, mandating school prayer or rolling back affirmative action; despite his conservative rhetoric to the contrary Reagan had proved much more moderate when dealing with a Democratically-controlled legislature in California.  And who was surprised by Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal, given the history of “bimbo eruptions” characterizing his political life?

To be sure, this process of predicting behavior based on past executive experience is not foolproof and is often easier done in retrospect than prospectively. For some events (see 9-11), there is no equivalent prior experience. Moreover, the process becomes more difficult when, as is the case with Obama, the president-elect has little prior executive experience. The difficulty becomes how to sift through an individual’s prior experiences – much of which seems of little relevance to the presidency – to discern those that are most telling for predicting presidential behavior. One approach is proposed by political scientist James David Barber, who suggests we should pay particular attention to the strategy an individual employs to achieve his “first independent political success” – a political goal or position of political prominence. Barber describes this period as “the time of emergence, the time the young man found himself” and suggests that the tactics used to achieve this success become a key component of the individual’s operating style throughout their political life.   .

What is Obama’s analogous moment?  When did he achieve his first public prominence on the national stage? I would argue that it is not his half a term in the Senate, most of which was spent in preparation for his presidential campaign, nor his prior three terms in the Illinois state legislature. Nor is it in his much-discussed role as community organizer, which is more akin to a legislative than executive function.  Instead, if we want to understand his preference for surrounding himself with established, credentialed Ivy Leaguers, and his accent on continuity and moderation rather than dramatic change, we should examine his time at Harvard Law School from 1988-92, particularly his successful effort to become the first African-American to head the Harvard Law Review. It was his first electoral effort, and the publicity from that experience led him to publish his memoir Dreams from My Father in 1995 which ends at the point where he enters Harvard Law. In addition to the publicity, Obama learned valuable lessons from this experience regarding how to navigate through polarized waters, and how to appear to be many things to many people.

The story of Obama’s efforts to become an editor and then president of the Review cannot be fully described in a post of this length, although I hope to devote a separate post describing his strategy.  A good description of this period is provided in this Frontline piece (view here).  Suffice to say he won election at a time when the law school was highly polarized between the Left and the Right on issues such as faculty promotion to tenure, race, and affirmative action.  Classmates recall him as someone who exercised effective leadership, but not by expressing his own views on these issues. Although sympathetic to the Left’s perspective, he proved effective at playing his cards very close to his vest, and finding a middle way between polarized factions. Once selected to head the Harvard Law Review, there was an expectation of those on the Left that he would align himself with them, by championing their politics and appointing them to key editorial positions. Instead, Obama reached out to conservatives including members of the Federalist Society; he emphasized meritocracy rather than ideology in his appointments, and in so doing disappointed many on the Left.

In short, we see that all the hallmarks of his leadership style, as manifested to date as president-elect, were honed or at least were evident in his first political success at Harvard Law.  So we probably shouldn’t be surprised that his initial appointments seem to emphasize competence and continuity more than progressive change.  Indeed, the real surprise would have been if he veered away from the style that proved so successful in his political life to date.


Obama and the Iraq Withdrawal Campaign Pledge

Governing, as President-elect Obama is undoubtedly discovering, is different from campaigning. The issues suddenly appear more complex, the solutions less obvious, and the political players are less easily identified as either supporters or opponents. Governing does not mean the end of politics, but the political process becomes exceedingly more complicated, in large part because it is a repeated game in which the president’s choice on any single issue must be considered in light of its probable impact on other, many as yet unknown, decisions.

To illustrate, consider Obama’s stance on the Iraq war. More than any other issue, it was his opposition to this war, beginning with his claim that he would have opposed the resolution authoring military force in Iraq, which brought him the support of the netroots and the Democratic left that proved so crucial to his election. Even before that, as a member of the Senate beginning in 2007, he introduced legislation that would have removed all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by March 2008. Having declared his candidacy for presidency, however, and in light of the evidence that the troop “surge” which he opposed was contributing to growing stability in Iraq, Obama modified his position, if not his underlying principles, by embracing a plan to remove all combat troops from Iraq within a 16-month period, or by mid-2010. When he showed signs of modifying that pledge during the campaign, McCain accused him of “flip-flopping”, at which point Obama reiterated his initial pledge to support the 16-month timetable. He stuck to this pledge even after meeting with General Petraeus, the author of the surge strategy, who opposed the Obama timetable. The AP report of Obama’s meeting with Petraeus stated, “Noting that the job of president and that of Gen. David Petraeus were different, Obama said he was setting ‘a strategic vision of what’s best for U.S. national security’ that he believes must include a mid-2010 target for removing American combat forces.”

Now that he is president, however, he inherits a status of force agreement negotiated by the Bush administration that, on its face, differs from the Obama campaign pledge. The Bush-negotiated agreement, which was recently ratified by the Iraqi parliament on the eve of the expiration of the U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S. presence in Iraq, allows U.S. military forces to remain in Iraq until the start of 2012, although under gradually tighter restrictions, including the removal of US combat troops from urban areas beginning next June.

From Obama’s perspective, however, this much is clear: the agreement continues the U.S. military presence for up to three more years, or more than 1 ½ years longer than what Obama promised on the campaign trail. As such, it is sure to add more fuel to the fire started by the netroots on the left who are convinced that Obama has backed away from his campaign pledge to be an agent of change. As one of the netroots argued in reaction to the news about the status of force agreement: “Why should Obama obey it? To honor the good word of George W Bush to his puppet government?  I don’t get it.” Note that the agreement is still subject to a nationwide referendum next summer. And much of the implementing details are still to be worked out. Nonetheless, it will fall to Obama, as president, to oversee the implementation or modification of this agreement from the U.S. side. Certainly he will be asked about it during the transition period. As a result, he faces some decisions. Should he:

  1. Stick to his campaign pledge by having the Democratic majority in Congress renegotiate the status in force agreement to reduce the American occupation to no more than 16 months, effectively removing all U.S. combat troops by June 30, 2010, rather than December, 2011. Remember, Obama has argued that it is wrong for Bush to negotiate a status of force agreement that must be ratified by the Iraqi parliament, without also asking congressional approval, particularly an agreement that involves the use of military force. So he can justify his decision to bring this to Congress. His rallying cry should be, “I wasn’t elected to continue four more years of the failed Bush-Cheney policies, but instead to bring change to Washington.” By renegotiating the agreement to bring it in line with his campaign pledge, he gains the added benefit of mollifying the netroots on the Left who have grown increasingly suspicious of his ideological leanings.
  2. Buy some time by claiming that, although he opposes the Bush-Cheney policy, he will not, once in office, act in haste to revoke the agreement until he has time to consult with members of his foreign policy team. One of his first actions as president will be to send members of that team to Iraq, to assess the situation in consultation with our military on the ground there. Any decision in Iraq must be made in the context of our overall strategy for fighting global terror, which will also necessitate lengthy conversations with our allies. Until this takes place it would be unwise to move too hastily to revoke or renegotiate the Iraq agreement. In the interim, Obama will hope that the declining civilian and military death toll and apparent growing stability in Iraq will continue, thus allowing him to bring troops home at an accelerated pace, even if the Bush agreement remains in place. Alternatively, the Iraqis might reject the agreement next summer through the referendum process, in which case Obama has political cover for bringing the troops home earlier.
  3. Claim victory by arguing that the Bush agreement, by laying out a timetable for troop withdrawal, is consistent “with the principles underlying my campaign pledge”, even if it allows U.S. troops to remain in Iraq “a while” longer. Note as well that for several years Bush resisted all efforts to adopt a timetable for withdrawal, and it was only after pressure from Obama during the campaign that the Bush administration finally reversed itself and signed the status of force agreement laying out the troop withdrawal guidelines. By accepting the status in force agreement, Obama also signals his willingness to work within the broader network of agreements that govern relations between foreign nations, in contrast to Bush’s penchant for acting unilaterally. Obama should then immediately shift the focus to Afghanistan, citing it as the main front in the war on terror. Let Iraq recede from the limelight, and quietly implement the Bush policy.

So, which will it be? Which would you recommend (or would you opt for something else, or a combination of these choices?)  Obama must choose – even if that choice is to make no decision.  He no longer has the luxury of basing his candidacy on ill-defined “change” – he is now the “decider-in-chief”. His Iraq withdrawal pledge was the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, but implementing it may look a lot different from the perspective as president than it did when running for office.

In thinking about the difference between campaigning and governing, I’m often reminded of the comment by the celebrated campaign strategist and Ragin’ Cajun James Carville who, in discussing how to implement health care reform at the start of the Clinton presidency in 1993, famously observed: “I now see this as real. When I do a campaign and f—k up, someone just loses. But if you f–k up, you f—k up the country.”


Putting Obama’s Victory in Historical Context

Was Obama’s victory a “transformative” moment in American politics?  It was, certainly, in terms of what it says about our ability to actually live up to one of our most cherished ideals: the notion that access to the White House is open to anyone, regardless of race.   It’s hard to overstate the significance of that!  In the immediate aftermath of the election, however, too many in the media are conflating the hugely important symbolic significance of Obama’s election with the belief that we have undergone a wholesale restructuring of the electoral landscape that opens the way for Democratic dominance of electoral politics for a generation to come.  I see few signs that anything of this significance has occurred.  Instead, the election results seem to reaffirm what one might call “normal” presidential politics.

To be sure, the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign can point to some significant accomplishments in this most recent campaign.  Most notably, Obama’s proportion of the popular vote (roughly 52.4%) is the highest for a Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and it is more than a 4% gain from John Kerry’s performance 4 years ago. (By the way, Obama’s vote total was almost exactly what the political science forecast models predicted back in August – I’ll devote an entire separate post to patting myself and my colleagues on the back in this regard.)  And the Democrats padded their majorities in both the House and the Senate, picking up from 20-23 House seats and 6-8 Senate seats (all pending final results, resolution of the Stevens mess, etc.)  So this was a decisive victory.

But upon closer inspection, there are elements of Tuesday’s results that should concern Democrats and which make it clear that this did not represent a fundamental restructuring of the political landscape. First, despite the much publicized increase in voter registration, overall turnout in 2008 among eligible voters was not much – if at all – higher than in 2004. Although preliminary numbers indicate Democratic turnout went up by about 2.6%, Republican turnout dropped 1.3%.  So Obama’s margin of victory owes quite a bit to lackluster Republican participation.  Second, despite an increase in African-American support, Obama was still not able to match Clinton’s ability to break the Republican stranglehold on the South. Recall that in 1996, Clinton won more electoral votes (379) in large part due to his electoral strength in the South; he took Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana, in addition to Florida.  Third, Obama wasn’t able to close the deal with those bitter, gun-toting, bible-thumping Reagan Democrats that did support Clinton (and Carter). Although Obama won Ohio, he did so with a smaller total vote than Kerry received there in 2004, and he lost West Virginia. In those states where Obama did expand the electoral map, notably in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, he did so primarily on the strength of upper-income suburbanites and African-American voters.

Finally, Democratic gains in the House – somewhere between 20-23 seats as of this writing – fell short of pre-election expectations, suggesting that Obama’s “coattails” were no greater than that of previous presidents.

We shouldn’t overplay these weaknesses. I will look more closely at demographic trends among voters, as revealed by exit poll data, in a separate post.  But they suggest that the Democrats, if they play their cards correctly in the next two years, are poised to build on some of the strengths revealed in this election, particularly among young voters, women, and suburbanites.  But these gains are likely to come as they did on Tuesday – incrementally, through the normal ebb and flow of electoral politics, rather than through any single “transformative” electoral moment. The Democrats are in the majority, but they are far from being entrenched as the majority party. Essentially, they have regained ground lost to the Republicans since 2000, putting them back on rough parity with their strength at the start of Clinton’s presidency in 1993. In Clinton’s first two years, Democrats controlled 57 seats in the Senate, and controlled the House 258-176: almost identical to what their numbers will be in the next congressional session.  Lest Democrats get overconfident, remember that after Clinton’s first two years they lost control of both houses to the Republicans for over a decade. That should give Democrats pause for thought!

In short, I see no evidence that the nation has become predominantly blue, or that this was a “transformative” election in the basic political sense.  But, if the Democrats don’t reprise the Clinton’s first-term mistakes by overreaching on the mistaken belief that they have an electoral “mandate”, they could conceivably build on the electoral trends revealed on Tuesday to once again become the dominant political party, much as they were for most of the New Deal era.  They just aren’t there yet.

A final, sobering, thought. Four years ago, Karl Rove – on the heels of George Bush’s reelection based on an increased vote total from 2000, and continued and expanded Republican control of Congress – openly speculated that the Republicans were on the verge of replicating the realignment of 1896, when McKinley’s election ushered in thirty-years of almost uninterrupted Republican dominance of American politics.  The emerging Republican dominance, Rove predicted, would be predicated on a new “compassionate” conservatism that melded a diverse coalition of suburbanites, Latinos, evangelicals, and a growing middle-class dominated by soccer Moms and young entrepreneurs.  The Democrats seemed increasingly marginalized, with their dwindling base largely restricted to cultural elites, African Americans and labor unions.  Geographically, the Democrats seemed to have lost the American heartland. Rove’s analysis was shared by many Democrats and those in the media.

It is a stark reminder just how quickly political “transformations” can end.