The Corona Virus: What Questions Should Trump Ask?

In my previous post, I revisited the effort by another president – Gerald Ford – to address a different potential pandemic.  This was the 1976 swine flu case, documented so ably by Richard Neustadt and Harvey Fineberg.  I ended the narrative at the point when Ford decided to follow the recommendations of his health experts by adopting a strategy first laid out by CDC (Center [now Centers] for Disease Control) head David Sencer.  That strategy is summarized below, in an excerpt from the memo Sencer drafted that was signed and forwarded by Assistant Secretary of Health Theodore Cooper to Ford.

One of four options Sencer, via Cooper, presented to Ford, and the one Ford adopted.

As noted in the previous post, Ford largely adopted Sencer’s recommendation. Congress, acting quickly, and in bipartisan fashion, overwhelmingly voted to appropriate the requested money, and the vaccination program was underway.  What followed, in Neustadt’s words, “was a long series of unanticipated or underestimated troubles.”  To begin, it was not always clear who led the immunization program; although Sencer oversaw actual coordination, both he and Cooper were name co-directors, which somewhat blurred public perception regarding responsibility.  Second, in testimony before Congress, Cooper stated that immunization would be offered to 95% of Americans, echoing Ford’s promise to inoculate practically every man, woman and child.  However, although the CDC asked manufacturers to produce 200 million doses (the U.S. population was then about 215 million), manufacturers warned that they would not be able to meet that goal in the required time frame.  By late fall, they had produced about 165 million doses, which meant had the epidemic hit during the next flu season, a substantial portion of the population would still be unprotected, despite assurances to the contrary. In a related issue, early tests on children showed that one dose was not enough to confer immunization, and so they were left out of the initial immunization effort.

In June, Albert Sabin, who had stood next to Ford when the President announced his backing for mass immunization, now recommended stockpiling the doses, rather than moving immediately to implementation of the vaccine, fueling skepticism among some doctors regarding the wisdom of the program.  Sencer and Jonas Salk, however, argued for immediate implementation, fearing that to wait might risk losing valuable time to combat an actual outbreak of swine flu.

Meanwhile, manufacturers were balking at producing the vaccine because their insurers would not protect them against lawsuits.  Ford was forced to ask Congress to step in and provide guarantees, which it did, albeit reluctantly, and not until August.  At this point vaccine production began, but it meant widespread vaccinations were not started until October 1, almost three months after the target date laid out that spring.  And when immunization did begin, it was almost immediately halted to investigate the deaths of three adults immediately after they have received the vaccination. It turned out they had died from unrelated causes, but the incidents made some citizens reluctant to get immunized. 

Nonetheless, through October and November, some 45 million Americans were vaccinated – an unprecedented number historically. However, in December, vaccinations were halted again as doctors began receiving reports of a severe side effect in some individuals: paralysis or even death, termed Guillain-Barre syndrome.  Scientists poured over the data, and by January concluded the probability of death from the vaccine was about one in two million, and of paralysis about one in one hundred thousand.  By this time, however, not a single case of swine flu had appeared and, with public confidence in the program shaken, further immunizations were not undertaken and the program, at least publicly, seemed largely discredited. 

Ford, of course, was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.  Although some in the press had insinuated that the vaccination program was politically motivated, designed to cast Ford as a decisive leader, it is not clear that how it unfolded played a significant role in Ford’s defeat.  In any event, both Cooper and Sencer were replaced by the incoming administration.   

What are the lessons?  It is important to note that Neustadt does not argue that Ford’s decision to follow his experts’ advice and pursue mass immunization to prevent a swine flu pandemic was wrong.  But he does suggest that Ford was not well served by his advisers, and that the President did not probe deeply enough into the assumptions underlying his health experts’ advice.  In their post-mortems, both in the report to Califano and the public version of that report, Neustadt and Fineberg raise the following questions – all relevant to any inquiry into President Trump’s response to the coronavirus.  (In addition to the books I cited in my previous post, you might also enjoy Neustadt’s discussion of this case in his Thinking in Time, coauthored with Ernie May.)

1. Did Ford fully understand the motivations underlying the push by health professionals for mass immunization?  While their paramount concern was to prevent a swine flu epidemic, Sencer and others also saw an opportunity to bolster public perceptions regarding the efficacy of preventive medicine.  How much that played into their willingness to push for widespread immunization is unclear, but certainly it was something for which Ford should have been aware.

2. There were several unexamined assumptions built into the CDC’s decision to push for mass immunization.  Those included the prevailing belief that major shifts in flu viruses tended to occur at relatively fixed cycles, and that a swine flu outbreak in 1976 was not inconsistent with that pattern.  Moreover, those shifts were invariably followed by pandemics.  These assumptions turned out to be incorrect.  

3. As noted in the previous post, it was presumed that producing – but stockpiling – the vaccines was too risky, since delay might allow the virus to spread too far before effective action could occur.  Among the health specialists, the idea of stockpiling seems not have been fully considered, but Ford might not have realized that stockpiling was not given serious thought.

4. Finally, there were several assumptions that went unexamined and proved to be wrong.  This included the belief that the vaccine would produce no serious side effects and that there would be no liability issues; that children would be immunized with one dose; that the media would largely follow the experts’ lead and assume that mass immunization was a public health necessity; and that physicians would fall in line without questioning the recommendations of federal health officials.  Although all of these were incorrect, none were questioned, it appears, by Ford or his advisers.

Underlying all of this was an evident lack of understanding regarding just how much the health specialists did not know about the swine flu.  With memories of the 1918-19 “Spanish” flu hovering in the background, it was easy to accept the experts’ assurances that a swine flu outbreak was “probable” without pushing to clarify just what probable meant.  In fact, as noted in the previous post, estimates varied widely among even the most well-versed epidemiologists, ranging from one in five to one in fifty.   Simply put, no one could be sure, and so the default position became to anticipate the worst.  But that left the Ford administration, to say nothing of his health experts, unprepared to address the possibility that nothing would happen.  As an historical analogy, the 1918 pandemic served better, in Neustadt’s words, as a “warning light” rather than as the most likely outcome in 1976.  It also helped support the case made by advocates of mass immunization than it did the politicians who had to deal with the political repercussions of getting it wrong.

Having warned of the misuse of historical analogies, it would be a  mistake to say that the corona virus is, in broad outlines, a reprise of the swine flu case.  It clearly is not.  For starters, health officials, and politicians too, are dealing with a pandemic now – not the threat of one.  But at one point Trump and his advisers were in a similar position as Ford:  relying on medical experts to provide recommendations for addressing a potential pandemic.  And it seems clear, based on the comments of Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and Deborah Birx, the Corona Response Coordinator, that there is a lot that experts do not understand about the corona virus.  Did Trump and his advisers probe that uncertainty?  Are they doing so now? More generally, are they pushing their health experts to make implicit assumptions explicit, and to make clear what is presumed, as opposed to clearly known?  Looking forward, Trump faces critical decisions, beginning whether, and when, to reduce strict social distancing as a step toward restarting economic activity. He, or his successor, will also likely face questions pertaining to undertaking a nationwide vaccination program of magnitude as great as the undertaken by Ford. Understanding what questions to ask experts is crucial for presidents to fully understand the ramifications of the different options they are given. Without that probing, it becomes far too easy to simply adopt what experts say is the preferred course of action.

The media, understandably, acting with the benefit of hindsight, has already zeroed in what they judge to be missteps in Trump’s response, attributing those mistakes to administrative incompetence, or worse. That is the media’s role, of course, but this Monday-morning quarterbacking is often too simplistic to aid in understanding why Trump made those decisions. Nor does it help Trump and advisers make better ones moving forward.  For that, we need the type of analysis produced by Neustadt and Fineberg in the swine flu case – one that gets underneath the instant analysis produced by op ed writers and cable news pundits designed to elicit page views and social media clicks, and instead critically analyzes the alternatives presented by advisers to Trump dating back to the start of the pandemic, the assumptions built into those alternatives, and the degree to which Trump and his immediate aides probed the advice and information they were getting.   It’s not too late to learn from the current crisis in order to make effective policy choices moving ahead. But it requires those in power to ask the right questions.           

The Epidemic That Never Was

President Trump is not the first president to find himself embroiled in controversy regarding the threat of a global pandemic.  In 1976, Gerald Ford found himself struggling with some of the same issues confronting Trump.  Fortunately,  Richard Neustadt and Harvey Fineberg were tasked with analyzing Ford’s response to the threat. Their report, which was submitted to Joe Califano, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW – the precursor to HHS) in 1978, has subsequently been published in full. Neustadt and Fineberg also wrote about the affair in a separate book – the title of which I’ve used for this post – covering the same material.


The Neustadt-Fineberg Report to Califano

The swine flu story is fascinating by itself, but it also offers some useful insights into the struggles that Trump has confronted in fashioning an effective response to the coronavirus pandemic.  As we shall see, some of Trump’s difficulties could have been anticipated by a careful study of the Ford swine flu case.  In the rest of this post, I lay out the facts of the case.  In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss the recommendations Neustadt and Fineberg derived from their swine flu study and try to apply those to better illuminate Trump’s predicament.  Let’s begin with an overview of the story.  

In January 1976, several recruits lodged in Army barracks at Fort Dix in New Jersey began complaining of a respiratory illness. A few were hospitalized, and one – who refused hospitalization – died after an overnight hike.  Cultures taken from the hospitalized men turned up evidence of a virus that local doctors couldn’t immediately identify. But when the sample was analyzed at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), alarm bells sounded among the epidemiologists there.  In four cases, including the dead soldier’s, the respiratory illness was caused by the swine flu.  Subsequent testing of soldiers’ antibodies revealed that some 500 had been infected by this illness. In response to the preliminary lab results, the CDC director David Sencer convened a meeting of experts from HEW, the Public Health Service, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute of Health, among others – all agencies familiar to those following the coronavirus pandemic.

The health specialists were not surprised by evidence that the swine flu had resurfaced, but they were concerned – a concern predicated on four factors. First, they feared the four recruits had been infected via person-to-person transmission – something not seen with swine flu for several decades.  Second, they believed swine flu had been the primary source of the flu during the decade after World War I but as far as anyone could tell it had since confined itself to pigs.  This meant anyone under the age of 50 would have had no exposure, and no immunity, to the disease.  Moreover, since the surface proteins of this virus differed from the dominant strain of flu then circulating, it was unlikely (they thought) that exposure to other strains of flu would mitigate the impact of contracting the swine flu.  Finally, and perhaps most crucially, a version of swine flu had produced the 1918 global pandemic that caused 20 million deaths worldwide.  Although many of those had succumbed to bacterial pneumonia, which was now treatable with antibiotics, a significant portion had been killed by the flu itself.  The prospect that the Ft. Dix cases signaled the onset of another global flu pandemic was unsettling, to say the least.

The first order of business was to determine whether and how far the disease had spread. During the next several weeks, testing and inquiries of other health organizations, including the World Health Organization, found no evidence, beyond those soldiers infected at Fort Dix, of swine flu infection anywhere else. Reconvening in early March, Sencer and his colleagues now faced a difficult decision, driven by a deadline.  If they were to proceed to develop a vaccine for the swine flu, that process had to be set in motion now, in time for a possible pandemic in the next flu season because of the lengthy lead time needed to produce the vaccine.  But no one knew whether there would be a pandemic; among the experts, guesses – and they were essentially guesses – varied widely.

Guided by Sencer, the health specialists decided to err on the side of caution, reflecting in part their dominant professional ethic: to prevent harm. The logic behind their decision was deceptively simple: how could they fail to act when they had the chance to prevent a potential pandemic, however remote? Accordingly, they moved ahead with a proposal to vaccinate the majority of the population against swine flu in time for the fall flu season. It was Sencer who wrote the 9-page action memorandum that recommended that the Ford administration ask Congress for $134 million to fund the development and distribution of the vaccine nationwide.  Under the plan, the federal government would buy the vaccine from private manufacturers, test its effectiveness and set dosage levels, the states would distribute it, and public health agencies and private physicians would administer it.  Significantly, it does not appear that the health professionals gave much thought to manufacturing the vaccine but then stockpiling it pending further evidence regarding how widespread the swine flu might be. This may again reflect their innate caution – if they waited for confirmation through testing, the disease might have spread too far for the vaccine to be as effective. Better to be proactive and produce the vaccine with the goal of immunizing everyone.

By most accounts, Sencer’s memo, which was transmitted to his superiors at HEW, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and eventually to President Ford at the White House, drove subsequent decisionmaking.  This was, in part, because it dovetailed with the health specialists’ professional interest in publicizing the merit of disease prevention to the broader public. What better way to demonstrate the efficacy of preventive medicine!  Ford’s political advisers, however, including officials in HEW, the OMB and members of Ford’s White House domestic council, approached the issue from another perspective.  They immediately realized that the political system would demand that the administration do something; inaction, in their view, was not an option.    

The situation was further complicated because it was a presidential election year. Ford, who had assumed the presidency upon Nixon’s resignation in 1974, was in the middle of a tough nomination challenge from Ronald Reagan when the memorandum hit his desk in late March.  On March 23, the day after Ford met with health officials to discuss Sencer’s memo, Reagan won a surprise victory in the North Carolina primary. As it turned out, the election would color the media’s narrative regarding Ford’s motives in responding to Sencer’s memo.

In a meeting with the health specialists, Ford was warned about the dangers of inaction, but also the repercussions if they went ahead with full-scale vaccination only to see no pandemic occur.  He would be accused of being an alarmist and a spendthrift and would surely face consequences in November’s election if it appeared he had overreacted. Even if the vaccination program was put in place, however, it would likely not prevent widespread deaths from a swine flu pandemic.  As one adviser put it – using words that Trump would surely appreciate – Ford was in a “no win” position.

Perhaps of greater significance, however, is what Ford was *not* told.  To begin, he was not warned about potential side effects from the vaccines and the liability issues that might raise.  Moreover, no one fully conveyed the impact on his political credibility if he decided to go ahead with mass vaccination during an election year.  Already, reporters at major news outlets who got wind of the story were quoting unnamed sources in the CDC saying the vaccines were unnecessary.  To some journalists, the entire effort seemed a political ploy by Ford to boost his reelection chances. In a subsequent interview with Neustadt and Fineberg, Ford made no mention of political calculations, saying instead that he felt he had to err on the side of caution for health reasons.  As he recalled, “If you want to get 216 million immunized this requires the imprimatur of the White House.”  But certainly some of his advisers felt that Ford would get a political boost by acting decisively to protect the public’s health.  That sentiment may have blinded them to the political cost of doing so.  

On March 24, Ford met at the White House with a blue-ribbon panel of health experts – many of whom mistakenly thought Ford had already decided to pursue widespread vaccination, and that the meeting was just for show. Ford, however, wanted to be sure he heard from health specialists who might oppose Sencer’s recommendation.  None did, at least not at the meeting, despite Ford’s offer to meet separately with individuals who wished to voice dissent.  Shortly after the meeting, Ford stepped outside and flanked by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin – national heroes for their work developing the polio vaccine – announced his request to Congress for appropriations to fund a mass vaccination program to prevent a recurrence of the 1918 flu pandemic.  The press, however, cast a jaundiced eye on Ford’s announcement; on the nightly news covering Ford’s decision to request the money, all three major broadcasts quoted open sources saying the mass vaccination program was not justified.  

Within a month, Congress voted overwhelmingly in bipartisan fashion to appropriate the requested money, and the program to develop the vaccine was underway.  What ensued next was a series of unanticipated problems that plagued and eventually, in the eyes of many, discredited the entire effort to vaccinate the nation against the swine flu.  I take those up in the second part of this story, as well as the lessons Neustadt and Fineberg draw, before applying those to the current effort by the Trump administration to combat the coronavirus.  What, if anything, can the swine flu case teach us regarding Trump’s response to the coronavirus?

Trump, Covid-19, and the Rally ‘Round The Flag Phenomenon

As the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases goes up, so too does President Trump’s approval rating.  This is not a coincidence. As of today, the RealClearPolitics “poll of polls” has Trump’s approval at 47.3%, the highest since he took office, and just 2% below his 49.3% disapproval number.  That gap is the smallest it has been since Trump’s inauguration. One week ago, the gap was -7.9%.

RCP “Poll of Polls”

For the denizens of Twitter, and for those whose primary source of news is cable talk shows and editorials in the NYC-Washington DC media axis, the upward trend in Trump’s approval may seem baffling, particularly given their steady drumbeat of stories criticizing the administration’s response to the corona virus. But it shouldn’t be. Trump is benefiting from a “rally ‘round the flag” effect  – the same phenomenon that has boosted support for previous presidents in times of national crisis.  First documented by political scientist John Mueller in a study focusing predominantly on Cold War military events. Mueller’s finding has subsequently been confirmed, and developed, in several additional studies that provide a clearer portrait regarding the basis of the rally effect.

The primary source of this phenomenon is rooted in presidents’ relatively unique position in the American political system. At the most basic level, presidents – as the only elected official with a national constituency – are the closest we have to the individual embodiment of national sovereignty.  The impact of that role is heightened by the fact that in the U.S., the President plays a ceremonial function in additional to his (someday her) partisan political position.  As such, when circumstances threaten the nation’s sovereignty, he benefits from his stature as both political head of government and chief of state by becoming the focal point of public concern about events. 

But the impact of rally events is not felt universally across all members of the public. Matthew Baum finds that the most partisan members of the public are the least likely to respond to a rally event. The reason is that they are the most politically aware, and their  opinions are more likely to exhibit greater ideological constraint, which lessens their likelihood of changing attitudes toward the President in response to events.  More moderate, less politically aware voters, in contrast, are more responsive to the rally event.  Interestingly, Baum finds that partisans are more likely to rally behind a president of the opposing party in response to a unifying event.  The reason is that support from this group has more room to grow, since more of them have a lower opinion of the president to start.

William Baker and Jon O’Neal, meanwhile, find that the rally effect is greater when the President actively solicits support for his action through public statements, and if that action receives bipartisan support. So it is not the event itself so much as the President’s framing of that event, and the reaction among other elites to his framing, that seems to drive the size of the rally response.

We can see, then, why Trump’s approval ratings have gone up.  First, he has appeared on an almost daily basis, often in prime time, to give press conferences documenting his administration’s response to the corona virus. Keep in mind that although that response has been harshly criticized on cable shows, only about 12 million people watch these shows regularly. That is far fewer than the almost 140 million who voted in the 2016 presidential election – most of whom do not use op eds or talk shows as their primary source of political information. 

Moreover, Trump has been flanked at these press conferences by non-partisan medical experts, including Tony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, a physician who previously served as President Obama’s U.S. Global Aids coordinator.  While Trump often uses the events to take jabs at political rivals, and to praise his own administration’s response, most of the information that is transmitted by others at these press gatherings centers on specific policies the administration has taken to combat the virus.  Most people are reacting to the information related to how to combat the virus, rather than the partisan frame in which it is discussed on cable television by Trump and his critics.   

Most importantly, Trump’s policies, if not his framing, have attracted support at all levels of government.  The most visible example is the $2.2 trillion economic relief package, which sailed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by Trump yesterday.  Despite Trump’s best efforts to step on his own bipartisan message, for now at least he is reaping the benefits of the administration’s highly visible response to the Covid-19 pandemic, one that in its broad outlines is attracting generally positive reviews nationally, as measured by polls. 

Why does it matter if his approval ratings go up? Studies show that as presidents’ popularity increases, so too does their likelihood of winning reelection. For example, Alan Abramowitz’s incumbent-centered election forecast model estimates that Trump will gain about 2.5 electoral votes for every 1% increase in his approval rating, as of the June before the election.  Other forecast models show a similar positive relationship between a president’s approval ratings and his reelection prospects.

Of course, that assumes that Trump’s higher approval ratings will persist until June.  There is good reason to suspect that won’t be the case. George W. Bush received an initial boost in approval after invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power.  But as the Iraq war dragged on, and U.S. casualties mounted, his support dropped steadily, as shown here.

Bush Rally Events During His First Six Years

More generally, studies document that most rally effects are short-lived, and barring additional events, presidential approval typically reverts to the pre-event level.  In the event of a sustained rise in the death toll caused by the coronavirus during the next several months, one could envision a similar drop in Trump’s approval, particularly if that leads to a renewal of the partisan polarization among political elites that Trump has confronted through most of his first term in office. This is almost certain to happen as the presidential election campaign comes back into focus, and Joe Biden ramps up his attacks on Trump’s handling of the pandemic.  

Note also that the jump in approval Trump is experiencing, while significant, is not as large (as yet) as what other presidents have experienced after rally events.  For comparison purposes, Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley find that highly publicized international incidents of short duration, coupled with a presidential statement explaining the U.S. role in that event, can boost a president’s approval rating by about 8%. (Note that their study predates the increase in party sorting since the 1990’s which may dampen the size of a rally event.)

An additional consideration is how the administration’s response to the coronavirus will impact the economy. Most election forecast models include a measure of aggregate economic performance as one of their explanatory variables.  Abramowitz, for example, finds that a 1% drop in GDP can cost incumbents nearly 20 electoral votes.  Should the economy fall into an extended recession, despite the passage of the stimulus bill, it could very well jeopardize Trump’s reelection chances, assuming past performance is a reliable indicator.

Most forecast models don’t kick in until midway through the election year, or later, so it is far too early to make useful predictions. Moreover, the public response to a a pandemic may not be the same as how it historically has responded to a military incident abroad, or domestic terrorism at home. So we must be cautious in predicting its electoral effects. For now, Trump appears to be benefiting from a rally-‘round-the-flag effect, at least as measured by approval ratings.  Whether, and how long, it will last, remains to be seen. 

The Scene From South Carolina: Part I

After skipping the Nevada caucuses due to teaching obligations (and limited funding) we are back on the campaign trail, spending the last three days in sunny and warm(er) South Carolina leading up to today’s crucial primary vote in the Palmetto state.  Our impression, after attending rallies, and talking to locals, is that this is Joe Biden’s race to lose, but it is an impression based more on what we are not seeing at other candidate rallies rather than overt signs of support for Joe – in fact, we have yet to make a Biden event, although are scheduled to attend what we assume will be his victory party tonight on the South Carolina campus in Columbia.

At this early stage in the race for the Democratic nomination, each contest is viewed as more crucial than the previous one.  But even by these standards, South Carolina is particularly significant.  In 2016, African-Americans made up more than 60% of the Democratic electorate in the Democratic primary here, and it proved the beginning of the end of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, as the results were the first confirmation that he could not win the black vote; according to exit polls, Sanders received only 14% of the black vote, a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the 2016 campaign.  Unless he can dramatically improve that total today, his candidacy is likely to struggle again, although much depends on whether any other candidate can consolidate the black vote.

Joe Biden, meanwhile, has staked his presidential campaign on winning South Carolina, and doing so decisively by drawing on black voters.  Not surprisingly, his ads down here are narrated by Barack Obama, and they overwhelmingly show him on screen with the former President.  I have been arguing since Biden’s 4th place finish in Iowa, followed by a disappointing 5th place result in New Hampshire,  that pundits are wrong to write his candidacy off, and that we really wouldn’t know until South Carolina just how strong his candidacy is.  At the same time, count me as skeptical that Bernie Sanders, despite his front-runner status, has demonstrated that he can win the Democratic nomination by doing well in states with a substantial population of racial minorities.  So South Carolina is a crucial test for both candidates – one whose importance transcends the 54 delegates at stake (35 allocated across 7 congressional districts, 12 allocated statewide, and 7 superdelegates).  

We started our latest campaign trip by flying from Boston into Charlotte, North Carolina on Thursday night, and driving down for an afternoon lunch on Friday at the Palmetto Pig in Columbia, South Carolina’s capitol, with Tom Steyer.  Steyer has been flooding the airwaves down here with ads, and the RCP poll has him locked in a battle for third place with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.  Both are trailing Biden, who looks to be consolidating support, and Sanders, who polls suggest  – as in the previous contests – is matching his 2016 performance, but not showing much evidence of expanding it.

The Palmetto Pig also gave us our first opportunity since 2016 to sample South Carolina barbecue, which we have been assured by locals is far superior to anything Texas has to offer.  While Tom worked the small luncheon crowd, we chowed down on fried chicken – saving the barbecue for later – and listened to the locals discuss his candidacy. 

Eventually Tom worked his way to our table, and we noted that we had seen him in New Hampshire art one of his events.  When I jogged his memory by reminding him that we were neighbors with a local climate activist – Steyer’s signature issue is battling climate change – and that our kids attended school together, he immediately referenced the activist’s child’s name.  “You thought I was kidding about knowing them, didn’t you?” he said. 

Steyer is a very personable guy, who comes across as incredibly sincere in his desire to combat climate change, and is earnestly working to develop a movement to achieve that goal.  At the same time, however, there’s a sense that he is coming to these issues from a position of wealth, and that he’s not always sure of the practical political steps that are necessary to draw support to his cause.  The Well Known Vermont Politician and I find Steyer a lot like a rich kid who wants to be part of the regular crowd, but isn’t quite sure how to fit in.  I’ll develop this point in a second post when I report on his visit to a historically black college in Columbia.  

Meanwhile, after finishing up with Steyer, we headed over to Finlay Park where Sanders was holding an outdoor rally. 

It was the first candidate rally that required us to pass a security check to enter the enclosure.  Immediately after clearing the gate, an organizer came over to ask us to sit on the stage behind Bernie.  Having attended multiple Bernie events, we realized this would require us to fake sincere enthusiasm, stand frequently, wave signs like a maniac, and generally act like Bernie was the Second Coming (which he is, according to multiple Bernie Bros who have attacked me discussed his candidacy with me on social media.)  We declined the offer, and instead watched the event next to the media stand.  As we waited for Bernie to arrive, we were treated to music by the hip-hop duo from Texas (as they repeatedly told us) named Blackillac who revved up the crowd with a high-energy performance. As soon as they left the stage, the sound system played Simon and Garfunkel’s American.  I couldn’t think of a better juxtaposition of music to demonstrate who actually supports Bernie.

Ignore the Thumb

After the requisite warm up speakers, highlight by a frail-looking Danny Glover, a wickedly funny Killer Mike, and the always energetic Nina Turner, Bernie came on to deliver the standard Bernie riff.  As always, Bernie is “sick and tired” of a number of things, including: “billionaires trying to buy elections” and the outsized influence of the 1 percent more generally; student debt; ½ of people living “paycheck to paycheck”; and homelessness.  Except for a couple of deviations that I discuss below, his speech was the standard one that I’ve reported in previous posts, so I won’t elaborate in much detail here.

For a 78-year old man who suffered a heart attack not long ago, he remains remarkably energetic.  His speech deviated from his NH version in a couple of significant ways.  First, it began with an extended attack on Donald Trump’s decision to hold a counterrally in Charleston South Carolina which was designed, according to Sanders, to “meddle in the Democratic primary.”  It is a reminder that South Carolina holds an open primary, which allows independents to vote in either the Democratic or Republican contest, and that Sanders does well among those independents who have soured on the party establishment.  It appeared he was hoping to draw them into the Democratic race on his behalf.  At the same time, he pushed back against pundits’ claims that he couldn’t win the general election; here Sanders cited the multiple polls showing him defeating Trump in a one-to-one matchup.

The second deviation was a much more explicit outreach to racial minorities than what we heard in New Hampshire.  He began by describing the multiracial nature of his support, and how his candidacy depended on boosting turnout to record levels in South Carolina, particularly among blacks and Latinos.  After touting his proposals to expand health care (“ending the international embarrassment that the United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee universal health care as a human right”); eliminate student debt; raise the minimum wage; and push a Green New Deal, Sanders touted his positions on criminal justice reform.  He promised to end cash bail, eliminate private prisons, end the war on drugs and instead legalize marijuana, and expunge the records of those convicted of marijuana possession.  He also discussed restarting DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and pursuing immigration reform.

Sanders concluded by reminding listeners that this was “the most consequential election” of this generation, and that they shouldn’t underestimate the power of the 1% – Wall St., the military-industrial complex, and Big Pharma – to thwart the wishes of the majority.  He urged audience members to canvass on his behalf. “If we stand together and keep our eye on the prize, all the money in the world won’t stop us.”

All told Bernie spoke for about ½ hours to a very receptive, mixed race audience of just under 800 people.  It leaned toward the young side, although there was certainly a spectrum of ages in attendance. Given the outdoor location, however, we were somewhat surprised that the crowd wasn’t bigger.  Moreover, although they were clearly receptive to Bernie’s message, the event lacked the high-pitched energy that one might expect from a candidate poised to pull an upset.  This was a gathering of the faithful come to pay homage to their standard bearer, and from that perspective it was a success. But I didn’t come away from the rally convinced Bernie was pulling in new voters from beyond the coalition that had supported him in 2016.  We’ll know soon enough, however whether that impression is wrong.

After finishing up with Bernie, we headed out to a Tom Steyer rally at Allen University, a historically black college, where one of the more unusual scenes in the Democratic race so far took place. That will be the subject of my next post.  To whet your appetite, I leave you with a picture of a spellbound Kat Taylor watching her husband on stage. Soon she would join him back on stage, along with rapper Juvenile, to make some awkward history.

In Honor of Neustadt’s Centennial, We Celebrate Presidents Day

It is Presidents Day – when I traditionally post my column commemorating the late, great presidential scholar Richard E. Neustadt. This year seems a particularly appropriate time to do so, however, since we are in the centennial of Neustadt’s birth on June 26, 1919. I’ve been fortunate to participate in several events commemorating Neustadt during his centennial, including this very touching tribute by five of his former students and colleagues: Graham Allison, Harvey Fineberg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Gore and Roger Porter.

Of course, as I’ve written previously, many students of the presidency, and pundits more generally, believe that President Trump has rendered the notion of presidential weakness, which is the core of Neustadt’s argument in his classic work Presidential Power, largely irrelevant, or at least misplaced. In their view, Trump’s willingness to shatter traditional norms of presidential behavior, from his use of social media to drive media coverage to the politicization of the Justice Department to a foreign policy that seems based on personal whim, is proof that he acts free from the constraints that shackled his presidential predecessors.

A full assessment of these claims is beyond the scope of a single blog post. However, I suspect Neustadt would have a different reaction. He almost certainly would view Trump’s actions to date as largely confirming his model of presidential power. To understand why, it is worth reviewing Neustadt’s argument. To do so, we need first to understand something of Neustadt’s background, and the context in which he wrote Presidential Power.

Interestingly, Neustadt came to academia through a circuitous route that, unfortunately, is rarely used today. After a brief stint in FDR’s Office of Price Administration, followed by a tour in the military, he returned to government as a mid-level career bureaucrat in President Harry Truman’s Bureau of the Budget (BoB) in 1946, gradually working his way up the ranks until he was brought into Truman’s White House in 1950 as a junior-level political aide.  While working in the BoB, Neustadt took time to complete his doctoral dissertation at Harvard (working from Washington), which analyzed the development of the president’s legislative program. When Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952, Neustadt faced a career crossroads. With the doctorate in hand, he decided to try his hand at academia.

When he began working his way through the presidency literature to prepare to teach, however, he was struck by just how little these scholarly works had in common with his own experiences under Truman.  They described the presidency in terms of its formal powers, as laid out in the Constitution and subsequent statute.  To Neustadt, these formal powers – while not inconsequential – told only part of the story.  They gave the President a seat at the governing table, but with no guarantee that he (someday she) could dictate the menu. To fully understand what made presidents more or less effective, then, one had to dig deeper to uncover additional sources of the president’s power. With this motivation, he set down to write Presidential Power, which was first published in 1960 and went on to become the best-selling scholarly study of the presidency ever written. Now in its 4th edition, it continues to be assigned in college classrooms around the world (the Portuguese language edition came out a few years back.)

Neustadt’s argument in Presidential Power is distinctive and I certainly can’t do justice to it here.  But his essential point is that because presidents share power with other actors in the American political system, they can rarely get things done on a sustained basis through command or unilateral action. Instead, they must persuade others that what the President wants done is what they should want done as well, but for their own political and personal interests.  At the most fundamental level that means presidents must bargain. The most effective presidents, then, are those who understand the sources of their bargaining power, and take steps to nurture those sources.

By bargaining, however, Neustadt does not mean – contrary to what some of his critics have suggested – changing political actors’ minds.  As I have written elsewhere, Neustadt rejects the notion that presidents rely on “charm or reasoned argument” to convince others to adopt their point of view. With rare exceptions, presidential power is not the power to change minds. Instead, presidents must induce others “to believe that what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their interests, not his.” That process of persuasion, Neustadt suggests, “is bound to be more like collective bargaining than like a reasoned argument among philosopher kings.”

At its core, Presidential Power is a handbook for presidents (and their advisers). It teaches them how to gain, nurture and exercise power. Beyond the subject matter, however, what makes Neustadt’s analysis so fascinating are the illustrations he brings to bear, many drawn from his own personal experiences as an adviser to presidents. Interestingly, the book might have languished on bookstore shelves if not for a fortuitous event: after his election to the presidency in 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked Neustadt to write transition memos to help prepare him for office. More importantly for the sale of Neustadt’s book, however, the president-elect reportedly was photographed disembarking from a plane with a copy of Presidential Power clearly visible in his jacket pocket.  Believe me, nothing boosts the sale of a book on the presidency more than a picture of the President reading that book!  (Which reminds me: if you need lessons about leading during a time of crisis, or simply advice on how to organize your White House, President Trump, I’d recommend this book. Don’t forget to get photographed while reading it!)

But it takes more than a president’s endorsement to turn a book into a classic, one that continues to get assigned in presidency courses today, more than two decades after the last edition was issued.  What explains Presidential Power’s staying power? As I have argued elsewhere, Neustadt’s classic work endures because it analyzes the presidency institutionally; presidential power, according to Neustadt, is primarily a function of the Constitutionally-based system of separated institutions sharing power.  That Constitutional grounding makes Neustadt’s analysis of continuing relevance. And while many subsequent scholars have sought to replace Neustadt’s analysis with one of their own, for the most part they end up making his same points (although they often don’t acknowledge as much) but not nearly as effectively.

Neustadt was subsequently asked to join Kennedy’s White House staff but – with two growing children whom had already endured his absences in his previous White House stint – he opted instead to stay in academia. He went on to help establish Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote several more award-winning books, and continued to advise formally or informally every president through Clinton. After the death of Bert, his first wife, he married Shirley Williams, one of the founders of Britain’s Social Democrats Party (and later a Baroness in the House of Lords), which provided still another perspective on executive politics. He also continued churning out graduate students (I was the last doctoral student whose dissertation committee Neustadt chaired at Harvard.) When I went back to Harvard in 1993 as an assistant professor, my education continued; I lured Neustadt out of retirement to co-teach a graduate seminar on the presidency – an experience that deepened my understanding of the office and taught me to appreciate good scotch.  It was the last course Neustadt taught in Harvard’s Government Department, but he remained active in public life even after retiring from teaching.  Shortly before his death he traveled to Brazil to advise that country’s newly-elected president Lula da Silva.

What might Neustadt make of the Trump presidency?  That is a topic worthy of a separate post, or two or three.  But I suspect that in contrast to many of my political science peers, who have expressed a fear that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies pose a threat to the Constitutional order, Neustadt would have a different concern:  that Trump’s inexperience – compounded by his initial decision to surround himself with equally inexperienced aides – has led to an exceptionally weak presidency, one unable to provide the energy and institutional stiffening that Neustadt believed was indispensable for making our system of shared powers work toward solving national problems.  To be sure, that weakness might yet lead a frustrated president to lash out against his political enemies, and to engage in extraconstitutional actions that could further weaken the presidential office. If so, my colleagues’ fears may yet be realized. For now, however, I suspect Neustadt would worry not that Trump’s presidency was too powerful – but that it was not powerful enough.

Elsewhere I have written in some detail about how Trump’s initial missteps during his first weeks in office, from the hiring of Steve Bannon to the ill-fated “Muslim” travel ban to the decision to follow the Republicans’ lead and attempt to roll back Obamacare cut short any honeymoon he might have had, and contributed to the eventual loss of the House in 2018, and any hope of passing any more of his legislative agenda. Or, consider the emergency declaration Trump issued a year ago which allowed him to shift appropriated moneys to fund the building of a wall along our southern border. At first glance this appears to be an illustration of effective unilateral action. However, Trump issued it only after failing to persuade the Democratically-controlled House to appropriate money for the proposed border wall in the amount he requested, and after the nation endured a 35-day partial government shutdown that failed to gain Trump any additional traction. Although Trump has subsequently used the emergency to reallocate appropriated money toward funding the wall, the maneuver is not without risks – as are most instances in which presidents act “unilaterally” through “command” authority to achieve objectives. The long-run repercussions on his sources of influence remain at best uncertain. All this is consistent with Neustadt’s warning that unilateral efforts to achieve presidential objectives are typically a sign of weakness, not strength and that in the long run they frequently undercut a president’s sources of bargaining power – particularly his public prestige and professional reputation, to say nothing of his formal powers. It remains to be seen how this latest effort to exercise command authority will play out, but I suspect it will prove less durable than if Trump had effectively bargained to achieve his wall funding.

None of this would please Neustadt, of course. As he noted in the conclusion to his classic work, “a President’s success in that endeavor [the pursuit of power] serves objectives far beyond his own, and far beyond his party’s…an expert search for presidential influence contributes to the energy of government and the viability of public policy.” The key word in that passage, however, is “expert.” Neustadt warned that “an expert in the White House does not guarantee effective policy, but lacking such an expert every hope is placed in doubt.” He was writing, at least in part, with Eisenhower in mind – a president about which Neustadt later revised his perspective, at least in foreign affairs – but it is hard, when reading Neustadt’s advice to “Men in Office” not to apply his analysis to the current President, and to find Trump’s understanding of his sources of power falling short of Neustadt’s standards.

As Neustadt was all too well aware, evaluating presidents from a distance is a difficult exercise, fraught with uncertainty. It is why his initial analysis of presidential power, based on his first-hand experience peering over Truman’s shoulder, and on talking to those who occupied similar positions under FDR and Eisenhower, proved so penetrating. It may be that when Trump’s presidency undergoes similar scrutiny, a different story will be told. Until then, caution is the word.

But today is not the time to fret about the status of Trump’s presidency or the future of the nation. Instead it is a time to celebrate the legacy of the foremost scholar of the presidency, in commemoration of his 100th year! So, take a moment tonight to hoist a glass of your favorite beverage in honor of Richard E. Neustadt, our own Guardian of the Presidency. If you are interested in learning more about him, there’s a wonderful (really!) book, now ordered electronically, edited by Neustadt’s daughter and that blogger guy from Middlebury College (see here). It contains contributions from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Gore, Ernie May, Graham Allison, Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harrison Wellford, Harvey Fineberg, Jonathan Alter, Chuck Jones, Eric Redman, Beth Neustadt and yours truly.

Here’s to you,  Dick!