Putting Obama (and Ryan Howard) in Context

John Sides May 5 '10

Before we get to Obama, consider Ryan Howard:

bq. Howard is not part of the game’s elite. Although there is no doubting his power, his home run output is helped by his stadium. According to, 16 percent more home runs were hit in games played at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park than in the Phillies’ road games from 2006 to 2009.

bq. Similarly, Howard’s mammoth R.B.I. totals stem from the on-base skills of the batters preceding him. Over the last four years, 1,993 men have been on base for him, the highest figure in baseball. During that time, the Kansas City Royals’ David DeJesus has driven in a similar percentage of runners, with 18.3 percent to Howard’s 18.8 percent. But because DeJesus hits leadoff for the lowly Royals, and Howard hits cleanup for the mighty Phillies, DeJesus’s R.B.I. totals pale in comparison.

bq. Howard does no such favors for the players hitting behind him. During his first two full seasons, he was usually followed in the Phillies’ lineup by the punchless Aaron Rowand, leading to a large number of intentional walks. But once the team began putting sluggers in the fifth slot — Pat Burrell in 2008, and a mix of Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez in 2009 — Howard’s free passes plummeted, taking his on-base percentage with them. Over the last two years, Howard’s on-base percentage, .349, barely exceeds the .343 mark that a league-average hitter would have posted in Philadelphia.

That is from Dan Rosenheck’s discussion of whether Ryan Howard is worth $125 million over the next 5 years. One of the useful things about the “Moneyball” approach to baseball is that it puts players in context — their ballparks, the hitters before and after them, other players, etc. And then our understanding of those players may change dramatically.

The same exercise must be done for presidents. Steven Schier nicely makes the case here, drawing in particular on the work of Stephen Skowronek. Here is Schier:

bq. Skowronek claims that the context in which a president enters office develops “expectations that surround the exercise of power at a given moment; the perception of what it is appropriate for a given president to do” (1997, p. 18). He argues that context shapes many elements of a president’s power, because external factors shape the extent to which the president can utilize power resources. The contextual atmosphere surrounding the president has many implications on the utility of tools at his disposal, including that of presidential persuasion.

bq. Barack Obama benefited from a favorable context upon entering office, with large majorities of fellow Democrats willing to follow his agenda. Obama’s eventual decline in public approval resulted from a bad economy and a controversial agenda that limited his support largely to the category of fellow Democrats. The context for Obama’s governance encompasses ideological and partisan “sorting” among the public and legislators, producing political polarization that has limited Obama’s persuasive success to fellow partisans. This impeded but failed to derail his agenda during his administration’s first fourteen months. Obama’s public support fell during this time, but not to levels eclipsing his ability to persuade congressional Democrats in Washington.

Ultimately, to answer questions like “Is Obama popular?” or “Is Obama powerful?” we have say, “relative to what or whom?” Thus, the economy, the party in control of Congress, the level of agreement or disagreement within the president’s party, and other factors are important, and maybe more important than the president’s personality or leadership. A president’s place in “political time” — to borrow a term from Skowronek (here) — tell us a lot about how successful he will be, or will be perceived to be.