Tag Archives: Obama

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pundicating about Obama’s Second Press Conference

I want to make a couple brief follow up observations to last night’s press conference, piggybacking on some of your comments.   Let me issue a warning, however – what follows is closer to punditry than political science, so take it with the requisite container of sodium chloride.  Let’s call what follows a “pundication” rather than an application of political science.

As Tarsi correctly points out, it’s difficult to engage in an in-depth discussion of policy issues in the televised press conference, and I apologize if my criticisms last night suggested otherwise.  Nonetheless, there is an art to asking questions in a way that forces presidents to address inconsistencies or tensions in their policy agenda and related pronouncements.  I didn’t see very much of this last night – the initial questions were too vague, and the follow up didn’t really press Obama. He was largely allowed to dictate the agenda – no one asked about the most difficult issues on his plate, particularly in foreign policy (why he is essentially adopting Bush’s legal policy on detaining enemy combatants, or what is the strategy in Afghanistan, for instance.)  But even on economic issues, with the conspicuous exception of Chip Reid, no one really pressed him on the assumptions underlying his budget policies, and no one, to my knowledge, asked about the bank bailout bill just announced by Geithner, which is really the issue du jour (although banks were touched on peripherally in some of the questions.)

In thinking about why this might be the case, I came up with one idea which I throw out for your consideration: Obama selected a slightly more diverse and less experienced pool of interviewers than has been the case under previous administrations.

Consider the following: not one of the correspondents asking questions came from a major newspaper – the NY Times, Washington Post, Wall St. Journal, etc. – although the Washington Times did get a question in. And among the major network television correspondents, Chuck Todd is still a work in progress (as indicated by his inexplicable question regarding why Obama didn’t ask Americans to “sacrifice” in a time of economic downturn!)  But while Obama did call on some of the usual suspects (Loven at AP, Tapper at ABC, Reid at NBC, Henry from CNN, Major Garrett at Fox) he also took questions from reporters representing Stars and Stripes, Univision,  Politico (although Mike Allen is experienced), Ebony and the French News Service.   I am not claiming that these journalists are less qualified. But they represent more specialized audiences, and their questions largely reflected the primary interests of those audiences.  There is nothing wrong with this – indeed, one wouldn’t expect otherwise.  But it meant that Obama was less likely to be grilled on the more central issues facing his administration.   At the same time, it increased the likelihood that news stories would lead with his opening statement as the dominant theme to take from press conference, rather than seeing that message get stepped on by an enterprising reporter’s question.

For comparison purposes, I went back to look at who asked questions, and what they asked, during George W. Bush’s second press conference (Bush held his on March 29, 2001 – almost 8 years ago to the day – you can review the transcript here ).  The questioners are not always easily identified in the transcript from that conference, but Bush took questions from the AP, Hearst Papers (the inestimable Helen Thomas), Washington Post (Mike Allen), CNN, ABC (Terry Moran), CBS (John Roberts) and NBC (David Gregory).   There is a huge amount of Washington, DC, experience in these people.  Now, to be fair, I really need to do a more detailed comparison of the backgrounds of these reporters – what I’m arguing here is more impressionistic than I’d like. But I throw it out for you consideration….

Bush’s press conference differed in other ways as well. It took place in the morning rather than in prime time and, as you might expect, he dealt primarily (although not entirely) with a different set of topics than what was discussed last night.  His opening statement was brief, and focused on recent violence in the Mideast (some topics never change!)  Three of the subsequent questions dealt with the economy, which was showing clear signs of slowing, and whether Bush’s proposed tax cuts were too small to stimulate the economy, or too big and thus likely to produce budget deficits (this was at a time when the government was running a budget surplus, believe it or not!).  In addition to the economy, the reporters also asked about the following topics: how to handle the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East – would he meet with PLO leader Arafat? (Bush reiterated his belief that the U.S. could not force a peace settlement in the Mideast, and that peace would take both sides coming to the table – eventually the U.S. pursued a policy of marginalizing Arafat); whether he would sign campaign finance reform bill outlawing soft money contributions (he was noncommittal, but he eventually did); whether he supported drilling in the ANWR (he did, but never got it passed Congress);  his decision to rescind the Clinton administration’s ruling lowering acceptable arsenic levels in water (he said he wanted to make the decision based on science, not politics);  whether he got along with John McCain (he respected him, even if they disagreed on some issues); whether we needed a missile defense (Bush said yes, given the very real threat of a terrorist attack on the nation); how he would change international opinion which seemed very much against the U.S. (note that this was BEFORE 9/11 and the Iraq war!); and whether he supported a free trade agreement in the western hemisphere (he looked forward to speaking with South American leaders about this issue.)

Generally, the questions were a bit more pointed and the follow ups more direct than what we heard last night. On the other hand, the tone of Bush’s press conference was much more relaxed, with Bush and the reporters engaging in gentle banter (Bush and David Gregory in particular going at it).  That sure changed, didn’t it? And Bush called only on major, mainstream print and television journalists – there were no internet correspondents.

I should add that I think there are sound reasons why Obama might prefer a more diverse set of questioners, and why we, as a viewing audience, also benefit from hearing a slightly different set of issues addressed.  But I also wonder if it affected the substance, and even the quality, of the questions he received… thoughts?

By the way, Jack Goodman (via Chuck Todd) provides an explanation for the clear discomfort I noted last night with Obama as he read his opening statement from the teleprompter – see Jack’s comments from the previous post.

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.