Archive | Presidency

What’s Wrong with “What’s Wrong with Obama?”

(With apologies to Larry Bartels…)

Yesterday’s Politico story trumpeting (despite the question mark) “What’s Wrong with Obama?” is a great endorsement of William Howell’s recent book with David Brent, which argues that presidents seeking power should – to put it bluntly – shoot first and ask questions later. Obama is portrayed by Politico’s John Harris and Todd Purdum as far too attached to nuance, complexity, and deliberation (read: dithering) when “this president lately has faced situations that cried out for a black-and-white sense of purpose, and unquestioned public command.” As a result “his presidency is in a parlous state….”

The Politico take is certainly consonant with the various accusations of presidential weakness that have accompanied Obama’s policy maneuverings with regard to Syria. The pundits (some examples are here), plus politicians from left to right— Sen. Bernie Sanders to a collection of former Bush staffers —have certainly made their feelings clear on this point.

All this suggests Howell has a solid point when he argues that “in every policy domain, presidents must not only demonstrate involvement, they must act – and they must do so for all to see, visibly, forthrightly, and expediently. Deliberation must not substitute for action” (p. 6)….”Presidents who fail to act, even when the statutory or constitutional basis for action is dubious, face the prospect of a substantial political backlash…” (p. 105).  (It’s worth noting that Philip Heymann’s experimental work on foreign policy decisionmaking had similar findings, showing “the powerful tendency” – even among experts – “to follow an individual who is more certain rather than more deliberative” (Living the Policy Process, p. 141)).

Note that Howell’s book does not take a position on whether this is a good thing. I will: it’s not. Continue Reading →

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Battle for the CFL Championship

While the impending move to the Post will certainly improve The Monkey Cage’s sports coverage (go Sox!), the headline here is, naturally, a bait and switch. It does not refer to our Canadian footballing friends but to the venerable Constitution Fantasy League – where contestants receive points for the boldness of their own Constitutional fantasy (with a substantial bonus if they put it into practice and achieve what scholar Richard Pious called a “frontlash.”)

Those of you with Barack Obama on your CFL roster have been nervous ever since he went to Congress regarding the use of force in Syria and even noted that “it’s important for us to get out of the habit of just saying, well, we’ll let the President kind of stretch the boundaries of his authority as far as he can.”  It appeared that Rep. (and Pres.-wanna-be) Peter King was going to stretch his lead in this fall’s standings.

But Obama made a bold bid for a comeback in Sunday’s matchups, claiming that the House failing to exercise its legislative powers “changes the constitutional structure of this government entirely.”

The context was an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos which pivoted from Syria to the upcoming budget battle(s) – remember that fiscal year 2014 begins on October 1, and Congress has once again failed miserably to pass anything like a budget for the new year, having failed miserably to pass one for the present fiscal year now almost complete or most recent fiscal years for that matter. Obama was asked about the statutory debt limit, and the House Republicans’ threat to link an increased debt limit to Democratic concessions over spending levels overall and the roll-out of Obamacare. Obama said “ I will not negotiate…on the debt ceiling,” and continued:

“If we continue to set a precedent in which a president, any president, a Republican president– a Democratic president– where the opposing party controls the House of Representatives– if– if that president is in a situation in which each time the United States is called upon to pay its bills– the other party can simply sit there and say, ‘Well, we’re not gonna put– pay the bills unless you give us what our– what we want,’ that changes the constitutional structure of this government entirely.”

The problem is that the “power of the purse” is one of Congress’s crucial and inalienable powers. James Madison noted in Federalist 58 that it represents “the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”  Even scholars such as past CFL champion John Yoo hold that the spending power is wholly legislative.

Now, defaulting on the full faith and credit of the United States is an idiotic idea. I can’t promote it as a “just and salutary measure.” But there are many members of Congress who think that reducing overall federal spending, and/or repealing the Affordable Care Act, are exactly that. The legislative power generally, and the power of the purse specifically, provides Congress leverage to make those kinds of bargains, or try to.  And using constitutional leverage does not change the constitutional structure of this government, even in part.


PS – One could argue that the debt ceiling is a separate process from the appropriations process (which is, of course, part of the problem, since debt issuance is tied to spending already passed into law.)  But both provide statutory guidance over the level of government spending, so I find it hard to separate out the debt limit from the power of the purse. Either way, how is one chamber failing to legislate something that changes the system? Bad policy outcomes – even really bad policy outcomes - reflect the challenges of operating within a separated system of checks and balances, rather than changing that system.

PPS – A reminder of a different argument about presidential power vis-à-vis the debt limit, from 2011 – I suspect we’ll be seeing this debate resurrected soon.

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The Media Pounds the President: Does it Matter?

President Obama’s speech on Syria has received mostly harsh grades from the media, as has his broader policy in the region so far: if I had a dime for every comment arguing (actually, mostly just stating) the scope of the damage done to Obama, to the presidency, to the United States, to the world, etc., from his handling of the Syrian situation I would have, well, many dimes. Peter Baker’s piece in today’s NY Times sums up the critics as seeing Obama as “feckles[s]…. reactive, defensive and profoundly challenged in standing up to a dangerous world.” In the blogosphere Stu Rothenberg says the Obama administration has been “confused, erratic and in way over its head,” “nothing short of sad,” “inept.”  Joe Klein goes further, calling it “one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence  that I’ve ever witnessed.” (Given that he was around to witness Bill Clinton deal with Haiti, this is saying something; but then Klein also manages to wax nostalgic for the heyday of Henry Kissinger.)  Even the more sympathetic Ezra Klein sums it up as “less George Kennan and more Mr. Magoo.”

So: how much should Obama worry about this?

At least one study suggests, not much. Jeffrey Cohen, in his 2008 book The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News, found that after the 1970s, “no correlation exists between the negativity of presidential news and public approval of the president.”  Before then – Cohen’s quite comprehensive data go back to the 1940s – there was indeed a strong connection, where a negative tone in press coverage was linked to lower approval. (Richard Brody finds this too in his earlier book on Assessing the President.)

Cohen suggests a number of reasons for this disconnect, tied to the broader structure of the “presidential news system”; I will condense them to two:

(1) in the pre-Watergate era, the press coverage of the president, and of government generally, was largely positive. Thus, negative news was a credible signal for the public to follow. When a Harry Truman, or Richard Nixon, attracted negative coverage, people assumed this meant something had changed they needed to take note of. Now, pretty much all coverage of the president is negative, so the public uncouples its sense of presidential performance from news coverage. (“The regularity of negative news makes it hard for the public to tell if the bad news reflects truly bad conditions that it should pay attention to or if it merely reflects the agenda of journalists,” broadly defined.)

(2) this is buttressed by the fragmentation of the media task from broadcasting to “narrowcasting,” thanks to the rise of cable/satellite/internet, etc., along with the shopping of the interested public for news and opinion framed to suit its preferred preconceptions (Obama is good, Obama is bad…): there is less “mass” in mass media, less trust in media generally, and fewer people likely to encounter evidence that would change their mind anyway.

It is of course nearly impossible to isolate the impact of the tone of coverage, especially in one short-term discrete case; how to keep all else equal when events are shifting rapidly (see Putin 2013)? Another twist in the current situation is that the new normal of polarization – where Dems express kneejerk approval, Republicans automatic disapproval, of the president – is complicated by the fact that some of Obama’s more reliable allies on the left are dead set against war in Syria and some in the GOP for it. Still, a quick glance at RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of presidential approval polls suggests they have held steady (the shift from Labor Day to today is from 43.8 to 43.5%). Whether approval itself matters… well, that’s a post for another time!


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5 Articles on Military Interventions

So maybe we are going to intervene in Syria, and maybe not.  Either way, these articles are right on point.

Thanks to Cambridge University Press for ungating these articles for the next two months.


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A “Hands-Tied Presidency”? Refer to the syllabus…

A piece in the Sunday review section of the New York Times, “The Hands-Tied Presidency,”  argues that President Obama has discovered “he holds office at a time when the presidency itself has ceded much of its power and authority to Congress.”

Well… if received in my presidency course this thesis might receive the following kinds of comments:

(1) The idea that presidents have “ceded” power and authority to Congress? Surely most of it was Congress’s to begin with. Especially since the examples given in the paper—Newt Gingrich’s House, George W. Bush’s failure to win passage of his proposals for immigration or Social Security reform—are examples of legislators making legislative choices. Congress is, um, the legislative branch. It certainly is under no obligation to enact presidential requests into law. Indeed, it has a variety of powers even in national security areas.

The reading for the first day of class was the Constitution. Congress is Article I, and should be: its powers, when it chooses to use them, are immense. It was the framers’ first preoccupation. In Federalist 48 James Madison warned: “Where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly…it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.” Thus, Congress was split into two chambers; and thus, in fact, was the rationale for a single executive in the first place, the better to have the strength to resist what Madison called the “impetuous vortex” of legislative power. Even so most presidential powers rely on Congress for activation, not the other way around. Continue Reading →

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“Credibility” is not everything but it’s not nothing either

In the deluge of blogospheric commentary on the administration’s massive Syria problem, you see a lot of extreme positions on the question of whether it is important to use force to uphold Obama’s or the US’s “credibility.”  Advocates of intervention (who are relatively few) often argue that this is a critical consideration (eg, Walter Russell Mead, or John Kerry).  Opponents argue that maintaining credibility is in general a crazy reason to use military force (eg, Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf, Jim Manzi, Stephen Walt, among many others).  Maybe it’s boring to say, but both extreme positions are wrong.  Credibility, or following through on previous diplomatic commitments, should clearly not be the only consideration but neither should it be completely disregarded.

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Syria Authorization 2.0

News outlets including Roll Call’s #WGDB blog recently released the text of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee leadership’s draft authorizing military force in Syria. The draft, which will reportedly be marked up Wednesday, marks compromise language between Sens. Robert Menendez and Bob Corker. It begins with a long list of “whereas” clauses denouncing the ”abuses of the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” including “the brutal repression and war upon its own civilian population…. creating an unprecedented regional crisis and instability,” its “material breach of the laws of war” as well as the treaties and norms against chemical weapons declared by the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, and (for good measure) the Arab League.

Quick thoughts: The substance of the resolution is a collection of attempts to limit presidential discretion and at least one strange submission to it. Continue Reading →

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A Win for the WPR? No, but…

obama war cabinet syriaPresident Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria seems to have taken the political world by surprise. After all, when Obama intervened in Libya in 2011, he creatively evaded such an action, citing such rationales as UN resolutions, the “non-kinetic” nature of logistical support to NATO, and the proposition that the Libya operation did not constitute “hostilities” as envisioned in the 1973 War Powers Resolution. (For further details see my series of posts at the time, linked here.)  This time around, he has provided a draft resolution that even mentions the WPR.

The reaction shows the extent to which presidents have claimed—and Congress has abdicated— authority in this area, as I posted earlier today. The WPR has only been invoked formally once by a president (Ford, back in 1975).  There are many reasons for this, ranging from presidents’ claim of inherent war powers to the drafting imprecisions of the WPR itself. (On the latter, see my earlier summary here, and a longer discussion in a book chapter, here – go to Ch. 6, p. 192.)  No president—starting with Nixon, in his overridden veto message—has accepted the WPR as binding.

And nor did Obama, with respect to Syria. Continue Reading →

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Presidential Power and Congressional Cower

A few years ago, I wrote a book called The New Imperial Presidency, in which I built on ongoing events and new scholarship to trace the growth of presidential power after Watergate. I argued that this increased authority was both taken (by presidents) and given (by Congress). In short, ”The fact is that we have had an invisible Congress as much as an imperial President.”

Today’s New York Times provides the lead quote for the next edition of the book, courtesy of Rep. Peter King (R-NY), member of Congress for more than 20 years and former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. To wit: “I strongly believe that the commander in chief has the absolute right to take military action.”

Assuming King meant just that, his strong beliefs are contrary to those who designed the American constitutional framework. For example, James Wilson—one of the key architects of Article II and “unity” (not unitary-ness…) in the executive—told the Pennsylvania ratifying convention on December 11, 1787, that “This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large: this declaration must be made with the concurrence of the House of Representatives…”

James Madison, writing as “Helvidius” in a series of letters attacking the Washington administration, piled on. “The received and the fundamental doctrine of the constitution,” he argued, is “that the power to declare war including the power of judging of the causes of war is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature: that the executive has no right, in any case to decide the question, whether there is or is not cause for declaring war.” (Emphasis in the original.) Indeed, “in no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.”

A few years later, in a 1798 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison reiterated that “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Govts. demonstrates, that the Ex. is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legisl.”  A few years later, in turn, Jefferson told that Legisl in a December 1805 special message that “considering that Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war, I have thought it my duty to await their authority for using force in any degree which could be avoided.”

Now, the story is of course not so simple – we can argue about the definition of “war,” to start with, and President Jefferson himself was not always so considerate of legislative sensibilities and authorities. On the other hand, the Helvidius letters were prompted by Washington’s proclamation of American neutrality in the interminable Anglo-French conflicts - so about a decision not to go to war! even this, Madison argued, needed congressional sanction. (Which, in the end, was given.)

The point is that those framing this process as a presidential gift to be given have it backwards— even leaving aside the niceties of the law (the topic of my next post, stay tuned). A Congress with institutional pride (with ambition aiming to counteract ambition, in Madison’s famous turn of phrase in Federalist #51) would have acted on its own. Indeed, legislators who signed on to letters to Obama demanding that he reconvene Congress and ask for authorization were given credit for being assertive. Yet why were those letters written to Obama in the first place, and not to the House and Senate leadership?  If Obama’s decision yesterday made Congress slightly more visible, little credit for that appears to go to Congress itself.

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The Nefarious Plot behind the Unveiling of Sunny Obama

Sunny, the new Obama family dog, on the South Lawn of the White House, Aug. 19, 2013.

The unveiling of the new White House dog brings to mind, naturally, the seminal research on the strategic use of presidential pets—which was detailed here many months ago.  Here is how I summarized the key finding of my colleagues James Lebovic, Forrest Maltzman, Elizabeth Saunders, and Emma Furth:

Drawing on 50 years of news coverage of presidential pets, the authors show that such stories are more likely when the president is caught up in a scandal or waging war—exactly what one would expect if Millie or Buddy or Bo was meant to distract the public.  However, when the economy is struggling, the opposite is true: presidents appear reluctant to be seen gamboling with their pets on the South Lawn when Americans are suffering.

Clearly, as Sarah Kliff suggests, trouble is about to befall Obama, and he is trying to distract us.

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