“Juice” Meets the “Permission Structure”

underpants gnomesIn his press conference today, President Obama was asked about his “juice” by ABC’s Jonathan Karl in light of recent legislative votes and non-votes on gun control and the sequester (“So my question to you is do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?”)

In reply, Obama laid out the Republican (and some Democrats’) dilemma, and channeled his inner jargon creator. “Jonathan, you seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave…. They’re worried about their politics,” he said. “It’s tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries. And I understand all that. And we’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country. But it’s going to take some time.”

Not much of a ring to it, I admit: can’t see “permission structure” catching on over at ESPN (“Touchdown! Brady sure got some permission structure on that throw!”) But Obama is right that members of Congress are not in a position to evade their constituents’ preferences – even if he jumps rather quickly to the assumption that, if they were only freed of such burdens, they would (obviously!) choose to vote for his preferences. Changing their “permission structure” really means “beating a lot of them in 2014 and replacing them with more amenable Democrats,” at which point they would have permission to play golf rather than cast disagreeable roll-call votes.

Now I had hoped to use President Obama’s weekend comedy segment on his “charm offensive” to draw a line under this particular “political science vs punditry” narrative that is becoming repetitive to write, and surely worse to read. Then, at the very same time, the Washington Post weighed in with yet another iteration of the punditry side.

Luckily Brendan Nyhan has taken the opportunity to expand on the MSM’s “underpants gnome” theory of presidential action (see the illustration above) while summarizing some useful links discussing the political science relevant to a series of assumptions too often made about presidential success in Congress.

But an honorable mention must go to a veteran stalwart of the MSM, Elizabeth Drew—who in the New York Review of Books goes after what she calls “the myth of arm-twisting.” Drew, who was the Washington correspondent for the Atlantic when Lyndon Johnson was president, notes that “Johnson would be laughed away if he tried to govern now the way he did then. Moreover there simply aren’t many arms for Obama to twist…. The power to persuade diminishes with the diminution of persuadables.”

That leaves me space to comment on just one line in the Post story that stood out to me because, for my sins, I have been reading a lot of Obama biography lately. Namely: “That leaves Obama with the option of doing something he’s not particularly good at: forging personal ties with other politicians.”

The problem is that studies of Obama do not in fact suggest this is something he’s bad at. Studies are littered with interviews testifying to Obama’s interpersonal skills. How about other politicians (as opposed to ‘real’ people)?  Well, Fredrick C. Harris, in The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics, highlights specifically (with regard to Obama’s performance as a state senator in Illinois)  “Obama’s personal charisma and his ability to schmooze in a variety of social and political settings” (p. 62). David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama notes Obama’s outreach efforts in Springfield and quotes Obama as noting his Senate colleagues’ surprise that “Mr. Harvard” could socialize – that he “could sit down at [a bar] and have a beer and watch a game or go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going.”  He had, Remnick concludes, impressive “capacity to listen, learn the rules, compromise, avoid taking offense, and move forward” (pp. 301-04.)

The fact is – as Harris goes on to note – those skills, even in Springfield, “could only take him so far.” Even less far, I suspect, in Washington, DC.

9 Responses to “Juice” Meets the “Permission Structure”

  1. Marty April 30, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

    Hate to go all ‘book review’ on you, Andrew, but what do you think is the most useful Obama bio you’ve read so far? And by useful, I mean to understand the President and his decision-making process?

    • Andrew Rudalevige May 1, 2013 at 10:04 am #

      Howdy – naturally I can’t give a straight answer to a simple question! Remnick’s book is very rich, I think. I’m only part-way through the Maraniss analogue, which is much more detailed about O’s ancestors. (800ish pages and it only goes up to when he decides to go to law school.) I think Jonathan Alter’s book is good, if a little generous; ditto Richard Wolffe’s books. Haven’t read James Mann’s book on the foreign policy side (The Obamians) but his other work is very smart. On decision-making in particular you might want to check out the references (not necessarily the chapter itself!) to my chapter I did in an edited volume entitled “The Obama Presidency: Appraisals and Prospects” (CQ Press, 2012), though that was written by early ’11 so doesn’t include some of the newer material that’s come out.

      • Marty May 1, 2013 at 1:43 pm #


        My personal opinion is that it’s pretty easy to understand Obama as a foreign policy president — reluctance for major interventions born out what was an anti-(Iraq) war campaign pre-Lehmans, while continuing the Bush status-quo on everything else — but more difficult to understand him as a domestic policy president. Even when Dems controlled Congress, O seems to pivot back and forth between various strategies. I’m not yet convinced that the various typical poly sci narratives for explaining presidential behavior do a superior job of explaining the evidence. (“Well he’s constrained by Congress…. Well he’s constrained by the architecture of the Democratic Party…” Well no duh.) The narratives in the popular media are even less helpful, natch.

        I’m afraid I haven’t gotten to your own volume yet, but I’d seen other work by some of the authors. Again, it just hasn’t ‘done it’ for me yet in a way I feel like I really understand the guy. I’ll admit my own weaknesses here.

  2. Andrew Gelman April 30, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

    Andrew R.:

    You write, “members of Congress are not in a position to evade their constituents’ preferences.” Often true. It’s also often true that they’re not in a position to evade big contributors or powerful lobbyists.

    • Andrew Rudalevige May 1, 2013 at 9:52 am #

      True enough. I wonder if legislators would tend to think of those folks as part of their constituency too (or as proxies for it), even if that’s not true geographically.

  3. LFC April 30, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

    “Permission structure” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, but neither does “veto points” or “bounded rationality” or any of many other phrases political scientists use. Maybe Obama missed his calling. 😉

  4. Nadia Hassan April 30, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

    Members of Congress are often not in an ideal position to go against their leadership.

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