The Debt Deal: Does Obama “Sing Soprano”?

Regular readers know I’ve been posting with unusual frequency during the last several weeks.   That’s what a debt crisis will do for a blog that analyzes  presidential politics.  One byproduct of that frequency (and, I hope, the strength of my analyses) is that readership has picked up. A lot.  Today, thanks in part to the cross posting at Salon of my last post on the debt deal, there are several thousand new readers.

That’s not necessarily a good thing.  While I welcome  a broader audience, it’s clear from the comments that many of you don’t understand what this blog is about.  So I want to take a moment to introduce myself, and the Presidential Power blog site.  (Regular readers bear with me – I’ll return to our regular programming, starting with an analysis of today’s House vote to approve the debt agreement, in a moment).

This blog is situated at the intersection of political science – particularly presidency-related research – journalism and popular opinion.  The focus  is on national institutions, primarily the presidency.  My goal is simple: I use political science to analyze presidential politics.  This is an independent analysis – no one pays me to do this. I don’t solicit advertising. I have no incentive to drive up my audience (I don’t “tweet” my latest post).   I’m not affiliated with any party, institution, group or point of view.   I don’t get paid to do this – I have a day job that (barely)  pays the rent.   So I get to write what I want, when I want.

So why do I post?   My primary goal is to teach my students.  By “students”,  I mean not just those who sit in my classrooms now. I’ve been teaching for more than 25 years, beginning at Harvard and now at Middlebury, and in that time have seen many of my students move on to positions in government, including dozens who have worked in the White House  and in Congress (and a few who are working there now).   They are my primary audience.  Many of them are on the subscriber list to this blog and, while they can’t comment publicly, they do respond privately to these posts. Over time I’ve built up a certain credibility with them.  They expect me to analyze current events, but from the perspective of political science, not political punditry.  That means going beyond what is considered “newsworthy” to explain the fundamentals that drive political events – including debt negotiations.  Journalists, by reasons of economics and training, must focus on the trees. I get to describe the forest first, before analyzing the trees.

This approach also means acknowledging when political science has very little to say about a particular topic; my audience trusts me to tell them when I am venturing into the realm of punditry.  As you shall see, that happens fairly frequently.

But teaching is a two-way street.  That’s where my readers come in.  I learn from them and I use what they teach me not just in my blog posts, but also in my research and classroom teaching.  My inspiration in this regard comes from my dissertation chair at Harvard: Richard Neustadt.  Neustadt, a former White House aide who wrote the preeminent book on presidential power, had no interest in solving puzzles for puzzle’s sake.  He had a more ambitious goal: to explain the sources of presidential power or, as he defined it, “to expose the problem for a President …who seeks to buttress prospects for his future influence while making present choices.”   He did so because that pursuit of power affects not just presidents – “it is crucial for us all.”  That is my goal as well.  I write about the presidents’ pursuit of power because, as Neustadt put it, “Presidents and their staffs seek advice; they need it; they deserve the best the rest of us can offer.”  As do we all.

I do so, however, from no particular political perspective.  Because I focus on the essential problem confronted by all presidents – how to wield  effective influence on governmental outcomes – my advice is as useful to Democrats as it is to Republicans.  In rendering this advice,  I have been fortunate to have been trained by some of the nation’s best scholars – particularly Mo Fiorina, Paul Peterson and Mark Peterson, in addition to the rest of the Harvard Government Department.  (Go ahead – google those names).  Be forewarned – if you meet anyone of them, they will deny knowing me – especially Fiorina.

So, what does this have to do with you?  Simply put, I don’t care if you believe, as one person put it when responding to my most recent  post that “The author’s PHD certainly stands for Piled High and Deep, because he is full of it. Obama didn’t cave, he capitulated. He is in the political trouble he’s in because he’s the weakest leader since Jimmy Carter and probably worse. It’s a wonder he doesn’t sing soprano, because he has no man-package whatsoever.”  What my readers want to know is why do you think this? What evidence do you have to support your assertion?  For example,did you talk to Michelle about the President’s, er, “man-package”?    How do you know if he sings soprano?  And we could extend the discussion.  For instance, if Hillary Clinton had been elected president, presumably she would be lacking a “man-package”.   Should that disqualify her from the presidency?   What if she has perfect political pitch, albeit in the higher octave range?

I hope you see my point.  I’m not interested in debating your political values.  I actually don’t care what they are.  But I don’t want this site to devolve into “Daily Kos” lite where participants enjoy the fellowship of like-minded congregants, and pounce on any apostate “trolls” who dare speak against the holy creed.  Nor do I want to become a “johnny one-note” -a  Paul Krugman who  repeats the same message again, and again, and again. This site aims higher, and so far we’ve been able to carve out a relatively unique niche in the blogosphere.  We have a dedicated readership of students, journalists, government officials – and laypeople. You are welcome to join in but, please, respect the prevailing ethos here.  I’m not interested in debating your values.  But I do want you to confront the assumptions – often wrong assumptions – on which they are based. You never know – you might learn something.  I might too.

A final warning: humor plays a big role here.  You need to pay attention, because it is used to make a broader point.  When I talk about Michele Bachmann’s “hot flashes” – I’m not really talking about hot flashes. But if I have to tell you that, you probably don’t want to lurk here.

Ok?  All ready to have your world view challenged?  Then let’s turn to today’s vote.  That’s the subject of my next post.

(P.S. If you want direct email notification of new posts, send me an email and I’ll put you on the subscriber list.  Your email address remains confidential).


  1. As a student of political science (with some interdisciplinary applications – the horror!), I very much appreciate your unabashed embrace of a subject-focused approach. I have enjoyed your work for a while now, and I’m very pleased to see you posting with more frequency (I hope you can keep it up now that the debt ceiling fight is over).

    The one thing I want to say against this post – and I hope I’m not falling into the very trap you’re rejecting here – is that I think you’re being unfair to Krugman. On the altruistic side of things, I think he’s keenly aware that he’s one of very few unapologetic lefties working for a major news organization with mainstream pedigree (distiuishing, say, Mother Jones, which has a very strong leftist pedigree, from the NYT) and feels it’s important to hold the banner high. On a more cynical note, he knows how hungry his audience is for the kind of polemic he offers, and he makes sure to give it to them. But speaking as one of those people, that’s no small service, cynically offered or not. (Besides, if he’s faking, he does it well enough as makes no nevermind.)

    Either way, I suppose I feel it’s a bit academically chauvinist to say that what you do is “higher” than what he does. He’s on the activist side of journalism; you’re on the (academically) analytic side. Both are valuable.

  2. Miwome,

    You are right, of course – it is chauvinistic to claim that what we do here is “higher” in some sense. I should have worded that differently. Krugman’s work is valuable – not least because he’s one of the most prominent and erudite flame bearers for the liberal cause. My point is simply to remind folks that what he does is different than what we do here – he’s using data to further a particular political viewpoint. Here, in contrast, we try to let the data speak for itself, regardless of where it takes us, although I wouldn’t for a moment claim that means the views expressed here are more “objective”. But they aren’t driven by a particular political viewpoint (which I know drives some of you batty.) I used Krugman because more than one person responding to my last post (and most of the critical comments were posted on the Salon website) cited his column to prove that I was wrong. But that misses the point of what I was trying to do in my blogs: I told you what Obama was going to do, and why – not whether it was good or bad. Krugman has a different purpose – he wants to tell you why what Obama did was wrong. I don’t pretent to know if it was wrong. I just know why he did it (or at least I think I do). Perhaps Krugman is right that the debt deal was a catastrophic failure – but take that up with him, not me.

  3. Matt doth protest too much– am proud to admit that I taught him (or at least had him in some of my seminars) many years ago, although it did take a long time for any of that influence to become apparent.

    Keep it up Matt. Most of your critics seem to have gone through college without ever encountering the difference between analysis and opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.