How Liberal Is Barack Obama?

by John Sides on February 3, 2012 · 13 comments

in Presidency

President Obama is the most moderate Democratic president since the end of World War II, while President George W. Bush was the most conservative president in the post-war era.

For more, see Keith Poole’s post at Voteview.

{ 13 comments }

Will February 3, 2012 at 11:46 pm

And Carter was the most liberal Democratic president, while LBJ was more of a moderate than JFK or Clinton. Not really buying it. The DW-Nominate system is screwed up anyway if it calls 19th century Democrats very left-wing, it must measuring something else.

Realist Writer February 5, 2012 at 8:11 pm

To my knowledge, the DW-Nominate system measures “partisan polarization” through roll-call votes (basically how loyal and unified is the party when pursuing a certain course of action). It’s very useful when researching partisan polarization, but less useful when determining how ideological a candidate is.

Josh R. February 4, 2012 at 8:15 pm

“The DW-Nominate system is screwed up anyway if it calls 19th century Democrats very left-wing, it must measuring something else.”

^This.

Number Three February 4, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Clearly a president who forced the military to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is THE MOST MODERATE DEMOCRAT SINCE 1945. That pinko Carter wanted an all-gay Joint Chiefs, and LBJ, well . . . Medicare, Voting Rights, Civil Rights, that whole War on Poverty thing . . . that guy was really liberal. But NOT as liberal as Carter. Btw, if you can find Truman’s positions on gay rights issues, I’d love to see them included in the analysis.

Ali February 5, 2012 at 6:17 pm

The word ‘liberal’ means that one has less conservative views than the general conesnsus of society, right? Well, I’m not American, but I think that many people in the US are inclined to lean towards the right in the world of politics, so I think that President Obama is liberal.
In fact, in my opinion, the chances are that the Republican candidate is going to win, purely because of the current economic climate and turmoil in places like the Middle East making the country feel more insulatory, so in that case, Obama is again more liberal, because of his political affiliations to the opponant of the Republicans.
Additionally, the advances in LGBT rights (i.e. the ending of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) mean that in relation to previous presidents, Obama is again liberal because this is an issue generally negatively viewed by conservative people.

In conclusion, I believe that Obama is liberal, especially in relation to previous presidents, but I am only 15, so I don’t have the ability to give first-hand views on presidents related to issues such as Civil Rights.

Adam February 5, 2012 at 8:39 pm

I’m not sure what purpose is served — for the researchers, the blog, or the audience — by posting a provocative assertion without even a cursory attempt at explaining how it was derived (and no, the links do nothing to clarify how presidential scores are extracted from the DW-Nominate space). Perhaps those of us who have used Nominate scores for years take their sophistication and validity for granted — but if your goal is to reach a broader audience, you’re just begging for the “this is bulls***” comments that have already begun to appear.

John Sides February 5, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Adam: Poole’s post does explain this. Presidents are placed in ideological space based on the roll call votes on which they have expressed a position.

Adam February 5, 2012 at 9:16 pm

John: Fair enough — I see it now.

Still, put yourself in the shoes of someone not already steeped in the details of the method — I think a more lucid overview would give this important finding a better chance of standing up to broader scrutiny.

John Sides February 5, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Adam: I could describe what DW-NOMINATE scores are — even in every single post that mentions them — but I guarantee you it wouldn’t stop the criticism in comments. Every attempt to rank candidates or presidents or politicians this way will generate objections.

Andrew Gelman February 6, 2012 at 9:32 am

To put a more positive spin on the criticisms: If you don’t buy the estimates that come out of some statistical method, you can and should feel free to go back and figure out what went wrong, what are the assumptions inside the method and data that led to the estimate you don’t believe. You might turn around and decide the estimates make sense after all, you might find a problem with the method or the data coding; either way you’ve made progress.

Anonymous Coward February 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

If you want a one-sentence summary of how nominate located Obama’s ideal point, here:

“If you look at the pattern of positions Obama has taken for and against different bills, that pattern is similar to the voting pattern of a moderate Democrat.”

It can compare presidents by chaining comparisons together. Obama’s positions are similar to Rep. X and Sen. Y. Those MCs served when Bush was President, so nominate can look at Obama’s positions on bills relative to X’s and Y’s votes, and Bush’s positions on bills relative to X’s and Y’s votes, and place Obama far from Bush. Repeat for Bush and Rep. A and Sen. B who served while Clinton was president, etc.

Jim February 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Are we still so unsophisticated regarding the question of measuring ideology that we must continue to act as though positions taken on roll-call votes are a true measure of an actor’s political beliefs? That single aspect of measures like NOMINATE makes the whole exercise absurd. We KNOW that roll-call vote choices represent more than just expressions of “liberal” vs. “conservative” options and we KNOW that actors take positions. Furthermore, it is pretty reasonable to assume Obama would prefer different policy stances under a different political context.

Can we please move on from this form of discussing and presenting ideology?

Jim February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm

read as: we know that actors take positions using a far more sophisticated calculus that just their ideology.

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