Tag Archives: Presidential Power

Was Obamacare Worth It? Some Democrats Think Not.

I’m up today at US News with a new post that serves as a sequel of sorts to an earlier post I wrote discussing the impact of Obama’s policy agenda on Democrats’ loss of control of Congress. In recent days Democrats such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer have openly questioned whether Obamacare was worth the political price paid for its passage.  Drawing on data compiled by Middlebury College student Tina Berger, I showed that during Obama’s six years as president Democrats had lost more than 25% of the seats they had started with when Obama first took office. That was the second greatest proportion of seats lost, exceeded only by Eisenhower, during a president’s time in office during the post-Hoover modern presidential era. A primary cause of the loss of partisan support, I suggested, was Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform despite its controversial nature and uneven political support.

In response, the New York Times Brendan Nyhan wondered whether the erosion of Democratic support might vary across the two congressional chambers, with losses greater in either the House or the Senate. The short answer is no – he’s lost about equal support across his presidency in the Senate and the House, at least in terms of modern rankings, as the following graphs constructed by Berger indicate.  Here’s the percentage of House seats lost:

HouseAnd here’s the Senate seats lost:

 

SenateClearly Obama has been an equal opportunity president.

Mo Fiorina, meanwhile, pointed out that rather than speculate regarding why Democrats lost so many seats, I could have cited some research that points directly to Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform as a primary cause of Democrats losing control of the House and, I would add, contributing to the loss of the Senate too.  In my U.S. News post, I make amends by delving a bit more deeply into that research.  The gist of it suggests that health care and climate change legislation might have cost Democrats some 20-40 House seats in 2010.

Sill, this is not necessarily meant to suggest that pursuing health care reform was a mistake. As I discuss in the U.S. News post, the key issue is whether Obama, in deciding whether to embark on health care reform, fully anticipated the political cost his party would pay for doing so. This is the crucial point the late, great presidency scholar Richard Neustadt makes in his classic work Presidential Power: presidents ought not to be judged solely on their ability to achieve a treasured legislative objective. They must also be assessed on whether they understood the likely consequences of achieving that objective on their future bargaining prospects. Did Obama understand that in pursuing health care reform he would likely cost his party its House majority and, perhaps, control of the Senate as well? These are not easy questions to answer, of course; when making these decisions presidents are operating under conditions of great uncertainty. Surely Obama could not have anticipated the botched rollout of Obamacare, for instance. Still, Neustadt’s analysis suggests that these are questions any president must ask before embarking down the legislative road of significant policy change. In the case of health care reform, it’s not clear to me whether Obama tried hard enough to find an answer.

The Real Lesson of Watergate

Beginning today, I’ll be posting at U.S. News & World Report’s online site once a week (typically on Friday) under the editorial direction of my former Middlebury student Rob Schlesinger and his team.  Since they prefer that I not crosspost their material here, I’ll link directly to the U.S. News site – you can read my full post there, but I still invite comments on particular posts here.

Today’s U.S. News post, not surprisingly, tries to correct misperceptions regarding the root cause of the Watergate scandal:

Tomorrow I’ll be back here with another trip to the archives – this one from the Nixon presidency, so keep this site bookmarked.

 

No, the Presidency Has NOT Become More Difficult

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote an interesting column two days ago under the headline “It’s Virtually Impossible to be a Successful Modern President.” Cillizza begins his piece like this: “Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail.”

Both those statements are wrong, of course. As I and other presidency scholars have written repeatedly, the presidency is not a very powerful office and it is certainly not the most powerful job in the world.  Indeed, even among elected chief executives in modern democracies, the presidency is one of the weaker offices. The primary reason, of course, is because the Framers wanted it that way, as indicated by their decision to embed the presidency within a constitutional system of shared powers. That’s why presidents cannot dismiss Congress, call for new elections, or even count on the support of a legislative majority to pass legislation – all expectations that many prime ministers in other nations possess. And, with the ratification of the 22nd amendment, presidents lucky enough to win reelection serve most of their second term as defacto lame ducks. As Brendan Nyhan notes in his column today, however, this weakness has not stopped individuals from exaggerating the president’s potential degree of control over events.

But what of Cillizza’s second claim? In part, both Cillizza and Ronald Brownstein, whose article here provides some of the evidence on which Cillizza bases his claim, rest much of their case about presidential weakness on the belief that America is an increasingly divided nation. As I’ve argued elsewhere,  however, the evidence that Americans are polarizing along ideological lines is weak – most of what analysts claim to be a growing ideological divide is more accurately described as party sorting. In short, there’s not much support for the claim that modern presidents are dealing with a more ideologically polarized public.

The more empirically valid charge is that modern presidents must deal with a very polarized Congress – the most partisan  polarized Congress since the 19th century. Both Cillizza and Brownstein argue that it is very difficult for presidents to get legislation passed through a Congress that is so deeply polarized along partisan lines. But the link between partisan polarization and legislative productivity is more complex than this simple narrative would have one believe. Nelson Polsby, in his classic work How Congress Evolves, describes how a cross-partisan conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans stymied the passage of liberal legislation from 1937 until the mid-1960’s. More generally, building on Polsby’s observation, studies show that too little polarization in Congress is as counterproductive to legislative productivity as is too much. This is because under conditions of limited partisan polarization, we often see great divisions within parties (see Polsby’s description of the Democrats during the era of the conservative coalition), and little difference across them – exactly the conditions that James MacGregor Burns complained about in his classic study of American political gridlock in the early 1960’s.  Evidence shows that legislative productivity under these conditions of weak polarization is as limited as under the deep polarization in Congress presidents confront today.

Moreover, there is other evidence one can cite that undercuts the premise of Cillizza’s and Brownstein’s argument. For instance, we might think that if the presidency was so much more difficult, presidents would find it harder to win reelection. However, our three most recent presidents – Clinton, G. W. Bush and Obama – all successfully won reelection. In contrast, three of their four immediate predecessors: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and G. W. Bush, did not. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson did not pursue a second full term in 1968 because of political opposition and declining support, and Nixon resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment, making Ronald Reagan the only one of those six previous presidents to serve two full terms. No wonder scholars complained of a “tethered” presidency at the start of Reagan’s first term!

Finally, consider the severity of the issues facing recent presidents. Yes, 9-11 ushered in the Age of Terrorism, and all the difficulty that entails for presidents’ efforts to fulfill their commander-in-chief functions. But the consequences of making a mistake in the fight against terrorism, while enormous, are arguably not any greater – and probably less significant – than what the post-World War II presidents confronted during the height of the Cold War. It is for this reason that Neustadt, in the final edition of his classic work which was issued as the Cold War came to a close, cautions against looking back on those years with rose-colored glasses. He writes, “From the multicentered, interdependent world now coming into being, environmentally endangered as it is, Presidents [and pundits!] may look back on the Cold War as an era of stability, authority and glamour. They may yearn for the simplicity they see in retrospect, and also for the solace. Too bad.” Although acknowledging that governing in this new age has its own set of difficulties, Neustadt reminds us that there are compensations for outliving the Cold War: “[T]he personal responsibility attached to nuclear weapons should become less burdensome for Presidents themselves, while contemplation of their mere humanity becomes less haunting for the rest of us. To me that seems a fair exchange.”

To me too. Yes, the presidency is difficult. But there’s little evidence that it is harder today than in previous presidencies during the post-World War II modern era.  Indeed, one might argue that the job has become slightly easier, although I doubt that is any solace to Barack Obama.

P.S. This post attracted its fair share of readers, so I’ll follow up with some additional discussion focused on recent evaluations by pundits of Obama’s presidency.  If you are interested in getting notifications of new presidential power posts, I post notices on twitter at: https://twitter.com/MattDickinson44

Or contact me at dickinso@middlebury.edu and I’ll put you on the anonymous distribution list.

UPDATE: Jonathan Bernstein weights in on the issue here: http://bv.ms/1xbKij5

Why Obama Continues Bush’s Foreign Policy

Against the backdrop of today’s joint Obama-al Maliki press conference it is worth noting that perhaps the strongest portion of Obama’s presidential record so far has been his handling of foreign policy. Public opinion polls give the President much higher marks for his conduct of foreign policy than of domestic issues, and some of his most notable policy successes – killing Bin Laden, overthrowing Gadhafi – have taken place abroad. The irony, of course, is that Obama’s success in this policy realm has come largely by building on the foundation laid down by his predecessor George W. Bush rather than dismantling it. And when Obama has sought to deviate from the path charted by Bush, more often than not he’s been unsuccessful.  Continuity, then, and not change, has been the byword of Obama’s foreign policy.

The most immediate reminder of this will occur at the end of this month, when after nine years, the last of the U.S military forces in Iraq will return home.  At its peak, the U.S. had over 170,000 troops in Iraq – now it is down to about 6,000. (The U.S. will retain a sizable force of military trainers and other civilian support staff, in addition to its diplomatic corps, although the exact size and composition is a matter still under negotiation.)   The troop withdrawal, of course, is based on the status of forces agreement negotiated by Bush with the Iraqis – an agreement the Obama administration had hoped to amend to allow some U.S. military forces to remain in Iraq to prevent a return to the sectarian violence that plagued the country in recent years.  The Iraqi government, however, proved unwilling to do so on terms acceptable to the U.S., and so Obama will largely adhere to Bush’s original withdrawal schedule.  In terms of electoral politics, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing – the U.S. military presence in Iraq was not very popular, and the military withdrawal allows Obama to keep a campaign promise to wind down the Iraqi war.

There are many other areas of continuity between Bush and Obama in the conduct of foreign policy.  Obama has expanded Bush’s use of drones as both offensive weapons in the War on Terror, but also in intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance operations.  Although Obama purportedly closed secret CIA prisons holding suspected terrorists, he continues the policy of rendition under which suspected terrorists can be sent to foreign prisons for interrogation.  He has authorized the use of military commissions to try some terrorists, and – with the courts’ consent – supports the Bush policy of holding enemy combatants indefinitely without charge. Despite opposition from both conservative Republicans and many Democrats, he signed a four-year extension of the Patriot act which, among other provisions, provides federal authorities roving wiretap power to listen in on conversations of foreign suspects even when they change phones or locations, and gives the government the authority to investigate foreigners who have no known affiliation with terrorist groups. (To do so, however, requires approval from a secret federal court.)

In some instances, Obama has out-Bushed Bush in the conduct of the war on terror.  In Afghanistan, of course, Obama built up the U.S. military presence in order to stabilize a rapidly deteriorating situation there, and thus lay the groundwork for an earlier U.S. withdrawal.  To date, Obama appears committed to the withdrawal schedule although his commanders on the ground are fighting a rearguard action in order to extend the U.S. presence there. Perhaps the most notable foreign policy success, of course, was the killing of Bin Laden, which required violating Pakistan’s airspace. And, in perhaps the most dramatic example of Obama’s willingness to push the limits of his authority, he authorized the assassination of an American citizen overseas who was suspected of actively working as a terrorist.

When Obama has sought to step back from Bush-era policies governing the War on Terror, however, he has often been unsuccessful.   After months of wrangling with Congress, Obama has implicitly admitted that Guantanamo Bay prison will not be closed, and in fact will continue to hold high value targets who may be caught in the anti-terror campaign. His effort to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civil court collapsed in face of domestic opposition from New York officials.  And even Obama’s decree banning the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique is now under reconsideration in the Republican House.

What explains this continuity in foreign policy between a Republican and a Democratic President? Why was Obama largely unsuccessful when he did try to break with his predecessor’s policies? At the most fundamental level, it reflects the common pressures both Bush and Obama feel, as chief executive and commander in chief, to protect the nation against attack. Political scientists have long debated whether the president wields a greater panoply of powers in the foreign versus domestic realm.  Depending on who one consults (and when), presidents are either characterized as imperial (think FDR, Nixon or Bush) or imperiled (Ford or Carter) in their ability to conduct foreign policy.  I’ve long argued that this debate misses the crucial aspect of foreign policy that differentiates it from domestic issues as seen from the president’s perspective:  because the repercussions of a foreign policy failure are far more damaging not to just to him (someday her) – but to the nation, presidents feel they have no choice but to expand their foreign policy powers as much as political constraints allow.  Put another way, they don’t feel nearly as powerful in foreign affairs as they think they should be to meet expectations. From the perspective of one sitting in the Oval Office, the constraints on the president’s ability to protect the nation feel far more onerous because the burden of responsibility that weighs on the president is so much greater.

Because Bush was the one in power when 9-11 occurred, he endured most of the political fallout resulting from his desire to meet the new expectations associated with fighting a different type of war.   The ensuing debate over how to balance the desire to give the President the powers necessary to prevent another attack with the need to hold him accountable for utilizing those powers was politically costly to Bush, but in the end a framework for balancing energy and accountability was developed.  That debate continues today, but mostly in fine tuning the measures negotiated between Bush, Congress and the courts in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. The most recent manifestation, of course, is Obama’s threat to veto the military authorization bill because it limits his flexibility in handling suspected terrorists. Obama’s opposition to a provision in the bill allowing Americans captured on American soil to be held in military custody without charge is only partly motivated by a concern for civil liberties. Of greater concern to Obama are the limits the bill places on him in his ability to prosecute the War on Terror.

In this desire for maximum flexibility, Obama is no different from Bush.  Indeed, Bush did not just bequeath Obama hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against the backdrop of a global war on terror – he also handed over a set of policy tools, forged in heated debate between our governing institutions,  for fighting those wars.  For the most part, Obama has chosen to use those tools because, as did Bush, he feels more than does anyone else the pressure to protect the nation from another terrorist attack.

When it comes to foreign policy, presidents may appear to be imperial – but they feel anything but.

United Flight 93 and the Limits of Presidential Power

The 10th year anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks reminded Americans once more of the heroism of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.  Those passengers, it will be recalled, overpowered their hijackers and almost certainly prevented the flight from reaching its intended target: the Capitol building.  One of the more remarkable revelations that came out of the recent media coverage of the 9-11 anniversary is that the two National Guard pilots initially scrambled from Andrews Air Force base with orders to intercept the doomed Flight 93 took to the air essentially unarmed. Lacking the firepower necessary to take down the civilian aircraft, the pilots were prepared to ram the plane in what some journalists labeled a “kamikaze” mission.

Although this revelation received widespread media coverage, the more important story  regarding those military flights, and of the shoot-down orders more generally, as revealed in the definitive report issued by 9-11 Commission (formally the National Commission on Terrorist Strikes Upon the United States) has not received nearly the coverage it deserves. And it is another reminder of just how limited the power of the presidency is – even at the height of a national emergency.

When the 9-11 attacks occurred, standard orders required the permission of the President and Secretary of Defense to shoot down civilian aircraft.  The directive was based on the not unrealistic assumption that in the typical hijacking there would be some time to assess the situation. That is, there would be no effort by the hijackers to try to hide the plane, never mind convert it into a suicide weapon. At the worst, it was presumed that a hijacked plane might be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction.  As we know, those assumptions proved disastrously incorrect.  In fact, the hijackers on all four plans turned off the transponders by which the FAA identified aircraft on radar screens.  The result is that even when the civilian authorities notified the military that suspected hijackings were underway they could not tell them where the planes were. Following standard operating procedures, the fighter planes flew to designations off the coast while waiting for information regarding the location of the hijacked planes.

In the confusion that followed, efforts to work through the chain of command were hampered by poor communications between key decisionmakers and a basic lack of information, not least regarding how many planes were hijacked and where they were located.   In recreating the sequence of events from that fateful day, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney recalled an initial conversation, which the 9-11 commission estimated took place at about 10 a.m., or roughly one hour and 15 minutes after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, during which Bush authorized Cheney to give orders for the military to shoot down any civilian airliner that did not respond to commands.  However, the documentation for this initial conversation is sketchy, leading some to argue that Cheney went ahead and issued shoot down orders shortly after 10 on his own, and then retroactively sought the President’s authorization.  It is clear from the records the Bush gave (re)authorization for a civilian shootdown in a second (or perhaps initial) conversation with Cheney at about 10:23.  By this time the fourth and final hijacked plane, Flight 93, had already crashed, although no one in the military chain of command knew this.

Conspiracy theorists, of course, have long speculated that the military actually did shoot Flight 93 down, which made the recent revelations that the initial interceptors were unarmed all the more significant. But the real story is actually far more interesting because, for all the debate regarding who really authorized the shootdown of civilian flights, the reality is that the military never relayed that order to the first interceptors that went up.  The military received word of the hijacking at 8:37, and the first interceptors were ordered scrambled out of Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts at 8:46, just as American 11 struck the North Tower.  As it turned out, the 9 minutes of warning was the most the military would have with any of the hijacked flights; military air defense had no advance warning on the three others flights before they crashed.

The President and Vice President had no way of knowing this of course.  At 10:31, through means still not entirely clear, the shootdown order from the President was disseminated through the North American (NORAD) air defense military chain of command when, according to the Commission report, “General Larry Arnold instructed his staff to broadcast the following over a NORAD instant messaging system: ‘10:31 Vice president has cleared to us to intercept tracks of interest and shoot them down if they do not respond per [General Arnold].’”

This simple, direct order from the commander in chief at a time of a military emergency caused – again quoting the 9-11 commission – “considerable confusion over the nature and effect of the order.”  And it was not passed along.  That’s right. The President’s direct order, relayed through the Vice President authorizing the shooting down of civilian airliner was never passed on to the pilots in the air.  Here’s the key passage from the 9-11 Report:

“The NEADS commander told us he did not pass along the order because he was unaware of its ramifications. Both the mission commander and the senior weapons director indicated they did not pass the order to the fighters circling Washington and New York because they were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance. In short, while leaders in Washington believed that the fighters above them had been instructed to “take out” hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the pilots were to “ID type and tail.”

But what about the second group of interceptors launched from Andrews air force base – the ones on a “kamikaze” mission?  Surely they had shoot-down orders?  No, they did not.  In fact, they were not even scrambled under NORAD order. As the 9-11 Commission explains: “The Vice President was mistaken in his belief that shootdown authorization had been passed to the pilots flying at NORAD’s direction. By 10:45 there was, however, another set of fighters circling Washington that had entirely different rules of engagement.”  Those fights had been launched at 10:38 from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in response to information passed to them by the Secret Service – not NORAD command.  But rather than take the air with orders to shoot, they instead operated under “weapons free-a permissive rule of engagement.” The local commander, General David Wherley was told to “send up the aircraft, with orders to protect the White House and take out any aircraft that threatened the Capitol. General Wherley translated this in military terms to flying “weapons free”-that is, the decision to shoot rests in the cockpit, or in this case in the cockpit of the lead pilot. He passed these instructions to the pilots that launched at 10:42 and afterward.”

In effect, then, the decision whether to shoot down the civilian airliner was the pilots to make – the President’s clear directive notwithstanding. Of course, neither Bush nor Cheney even knew that fighters had been scrambled out of Andrews – that order came from the Secret Service and therefore fell outside the military chain of command.

It is tempting to think that, in a crisis situation that involves national security, ultimate authority lies solely with the President.  Surely the President feels the weight of responsibility in these situations more keenly than anyone else.  In a sense, when national survival is at stake, he comes closest among all elected officials to embodying national sovereignty. The mistake – one that even presidential scholars are susceptible to – is in thinking this heightened sense of urgency increases his actual power to control events.  Alas, the President’s ability to fulfill his constitutional obligations still depends on the actions and judgments of score of individuals, both civilian and military who, although ostensibly in the direct line of command leading to the President, nonetheless must make, often under conditions of intense pressure and with limited information, their own judgments regarding how to respond to the President’s orders.  That is, they view his orders from their own vantage points, and act accordingly.  It is why even in the most urgent matters of national security, presidents rarely can be said to exercise command authority.  And in more mundane matters, the idea that presidents act “unilaterally” is more myth than reality.

And what of United Flight 93?  Given the confusing response to the President’s shootdown orders, it seems the debt we owe to the heroism of the passengers and crew on that flight on September 11, 2001, is even greater than many of us had perhaps realized.   Had they not acted, there’s no certainty anyone else would have been in a position to bring down that plane.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated an incorrect time for the first strike on the World Trade Center.  In fact, the north tower was struck by American Flight 11 at 8:46 a.m. I have corrected the timeline in the post above.