Is the Obama administration to the right of Congress?

by Henry Farrell on December 22, 2008 · 3 comments

in Political science

Chris Bowers (via Matt Yglesias)

Of the eighteen cabinet members (not counting Joe Biden, who I have seen listed as a cabinet member at times), sixteen are Democrats. Of those sixteen, eight are affiliated with the DLC, or 50%. Obama’s Democratic cabinet selections have twice the DLC representation of the Democratic membership of Congress. … Obama’s cabinet selections, when compared to the Democratic caucuses in the House and the Senate, has a significantly higher representation of DLC members and a significantly lower representation of Progressive Caucus members. If association with the New Democratic and Progressive caucuses can be used as a proxy for ideological inclinations, which voting records have previously suggested it can be, then Obama’s cabinet is to the right of the Democratic membership in Congress.

There is a better way of measuring this than membership of Congress groupings, at least for Cabinet members (and there are many) who have previously been legislators – look at their DW-NOMINATE scores. And Nolan McCarty has done just this.


To gauge the differences between the administration and Congressional democrats, I use Keith Poole’s “common space” measurement of conservatism. This measure is an adjustment of DW-NOMINATE scores designed to facilitate comparison of the House and Senate. Each legislator is given a single conservatism score for her entire career ranging from around 1 (very liberal) to 1 (very conservative). One drawback is that these scores are only available up through the 109th Congress (20052006). So I can only compare the cabinet to the Democratic caucuses of that term. Another is that Bill Richardson’s score more than a decade old (but the rest continued to serve through the 110th Congress).

The following table list the conservatism scores for the administration as well as the House and Senate leaders and the medians of the caucuses.


Pelosi -.455
Solis-.451
Clinton-.359
Obama-.343
House Democratic Median-.329
Biden-.326
Emanuel-.323
Senate Democratic Median-.316
Daschle-.278
Richardson-.255
Reid-.251
Salazar -.220
LaHood .265

The evidence is pretty strong that the administration lies considerably to the right of the Democrats in the House, but is reasonably representative of Senate Democrats. But only Solis comes from the most liberal wing of the party. The center of the party is well represented in powerful positions by the president, vice-president, secretary of state, and WH chief of staff while the lower cabinet is filled with more moderate Democrats and a Republican. No wonder Nancy Pelosi is worried about being triangulated.

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