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Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

Another Cut at Two Presidencies

My colleague, Prof. Klunk, wrote what has become one of the more popular posts on this site–an investigation of whether or not there are two presidencies. His post is about Aaron Wildavsky’s version of the two presidencies theory, the idea that there is a “foreign policy” presidency and a “domestic policy” presidency.

In this post, I want to explore a different two presidencies theory–advanced by Jeffrey Tulis–and use it as an excuse to pontificate about last night’s State of the Union Address. (I apologize in advance to Tulis. I probably will do his argument some disservice here.)

In the Rhetorical Presidency, Tulis argues that there are two constitutional presidencies–an uppercase “Constitutional” presidency and a lowercase “constitutional” presidency. (An abbreviated version of the argument can be found in Michael Nelson’s The Presidency and the Political System.) The “Constitutional” presidency refers to the presidency as it was conceived by the men who wrote the Constitution. This presidency is a limited presidency in which the president draws his authority from the Constitution and does not lead public opinion. Indeed, the Founders designed the presidency in order to limit the potential influence of a given president on the political system. The office exists within a separation of powers system, with the the three branches pursuing different objectives and performing different functions. The president’s function is to administer the laws that Congress passes. This presidency is a very limited presidency from a contemporary perspective. In the Richard Neustadt’s phrasing, the president is “an invaluable clerk,” someone whose actions are needed for the federal government to run effectively but who–by virtue of the constitutional limitations on his power–yields little independent influence over its direction.

The “constitutional” presidency, in contrast, is one in which the president draws his authority from his ability to lead public opinion in addition to the authority granted to the president by the Constitution. This vision of presidency demands that the president take an active role in determining the government’s direction. It is a rhetorical presidency–one in which the president must take the pulse of public opinion, turn that vague opinion into concrete policy proposals, and then actively work to convince the public (and thereby Congress) to support it. The lowercase “constitutional” presidency requires the president to be more than a clerk; it requires the president to be a leader.

Tulis argues that the two constitutional presidencies ultimately conflict with each other. The “constitutional” presidency demands an activist president that seeks to lead the public–and thereby the government–with bold policy proposals. The “Constitutional” emphasizes the institutional limits on the president’s ability to do so.

So what does this have to do with the last night’s State of the Union? I think President Obama’s speech last night was a perfect example of the tension that Tulis talks about.

On the one hand, there are a lot of things that President Obama would like to do. Using the example that a lot of people are talking about today, President Obama would like to raise the minimum wage. There’s actually a fair amount of public support for doing so. According to a November 2013 Gallup Poll, 76% of respondents said they would support raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour (the proposal from last year’s State of the Union). People are also still worried about their financial situation and the direction the economy is going. So here’s a case where President Obama can potentially be a leader by taking a proposal that has popular support, turning it into a concrete policy proposal, and then advocating for its passage.

But given current levels of partisan disagreement in Congress there’s no chance that Congress will actually raise the minimum wage. The House Republicans, for strategical political reasons and because of sincere policy beliefs, are not at all interested in raising the minimum wage. President Obama knows that. Everyone in Congress knows that. The talking heads on cable news know that (if they are being honest). Really, any reasonable political observer knows that the president’s proposal is basically dead in the water.

The end result is that because we (the public) expect the president to be a leader, President Obama has to get up in front of the nation and give a speech full of bold policy proposals that cannot be enacted because the Republicans control the House and they are not interested in passing his proposals. He has to create the appearance of being influential in a system where he actually has only a limited amount of influence.

The Return of Local Political Party Organization: Does the 21st Century look like the 19th?

November 12, 2012 9 comments

As the post-election analysis season begins, political scientists, pundits and campaign consultants will offer several explanations for why President Obama won, and Governor Romney lost. One interpretation offered for President Obama’s win in Ohio was that Obama’s campaign had a much more extensive and effective ground operation. Looking at a map of the Obama and Romney field offices in Ohio reveals a possible (but not definitive) explanation of Obama’s relative advantage over Romney. As Politico.com reports,

Obama campaign officials noted Wednesday that they had years to build up a field operation that was often not visible to the other side. The director of Obama outreach to African-Americans in Ohio oversaw a barber-shop and beauty salon program that helped register new voters and distribute literature. A Congregations Captains Program helped the campaign arm supporters in traditionally African-American congregations with what they needed to mobilize other parishioners.

“Obviously there was still room to grow,” said an Obama campaign official. “We didn’t reach 100 percent capacity in 2008.”

Politico’s post cites Molly Ball’s late October article in The Atlantic Monthly where Ball quotes Obama national field director Jeremy Bird about the ground operation:

“Our focus is on having a very decentralized, organized operation as close to the precinct level as possible,” Bird said. In addition to all those offices, the campaign operates out of dozens of “staging locations,” many of them the living rooms of neighborhood leaders who have been working with their volunteer teams for a year or more, fanning out into the communities they know firsthand.

“Community organizing is not a turnkey operation,” Bird says. “You can’t throw up some phone banks in late summer and call that organizing. These are teams that know their turfs — the barber shops, the beauty salons; we’ve got congregation captains in churches. These people know their communities. It’s real, deep community organizing in a way we didn’t have time to do in 2008.”

What is revealing about this analysis (at this point) is how similar Bird’s description of political party organizing is to political party organizing in the late 19th Century. Then, as now, mobilizing voters through decentralized precinct level political party organizations is an effective way of winning elections.  Despite the nationalizing focus of presidential campaigns, the inclusion of global social media, and the extensive use of data mining and micro-targeting of potential voters, electoral politics—in key ways—remains a low-tech, locally based, decentralized activity. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once reported his father telling him, “all politics is local.”

But is all politics still local? What lessons, if any, does the Obama ground game hold for future elections? On the one hand, many of the problems of politics still confront people at the local level: good paying jobs in the communities where people live, the quality of local schools, affordable housing. Yet, the forces that shape local life (and the solutions to local problems) increasingly appear to come from state, national and global levels. Will decentralized, but nationally affiliated political parties re-emerge as the associations best able to give local citizens meaningful control over local, regional, statewide, and national political processes? Did they ever disappear?

Does It Matter If Political Scientists Publish Great Blogs?

October 23, 2012 9 comments
Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Two things happened yesterday that have me thinking about the multifaceted relationship between Political Scientists, our students, colleagues, and larger audiences, and the world of politics, government, and public affairs that we study.

The first is that Time Magazine’s Technologizer blog published its annual list of 25 best blogs. Technologizer recognized two blogs written and published by political scientists among its “25 Best Blogs 2012.”  There among blogs devoted to Bookshelf Porn and What Kate Wore you will find The Monkey Cage and Daniel W. Drezner, two of the most prominent blogs produced by members of the political science profession. Technologizer heaped great praise on The Monkey Cage:

 Sharply written and often well illustrated, The Monkey Cage provides a valuable service that’s remarkably rare even in the age of information saturation. It flags publicly available social-science research that’s relevant to the news of the day, presenting theory and data in easily digestible bites. Launched by George Washington University political scientist John Sides in 2007 to publicize his field, the blog has evolved into a hub for academic myth busting of overhyped campaign coverage and is a useful resource for anyone who wants to understand the cogs of democracy.

As far as Drezner, who teaches at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and blogs at the Foreign Policy website, is concerned, Technologizer is just as laudatory:

You don’t need to be an expert on the subject to find his work rewarding. He’s adept at explaining tricky matters in a clear, concise and engaging fashion. He also links to worthwhile posts elsewhere, whether he agrees with them or not. And his far-flung approach to his topic even lets him review bad prime-time TV shows.

The Monkey Cage and Daniel W. Drezner are just two excellent political science blogs. You can find others in the list of links on this blog’s sidebar.

The other reason I have been thinking about the importance of blogging for political scientists was a comment that I saw on Twitter after last night’s foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. (By the way I was live tweeting the debate @ProfessorBly.) It’s now common for journalists, including journalists like Andrew Sullivan who are primarily bloggers, and the campaigns to tweet instant reactions to the debate, do on-the-fly fact-checking, and spin the results when the debate is over. During the post-debate spinning, which is now a ritual at these events, one journalist tweeted that he didn’t know why the campaigns bothered having surrogates spinning the results in person when everybody was watching their Twitter feeds to see how the debate was being spun! In fact, that’s just what I was doing, partly so I could turn the TV to the top of the 9th inning in the NLCS, but mostly because Twitter allowed me to sample more reactions, points of view, and spin arguments faster than I could possibly have done by channel surfing between FoxNews, CNN, MSNBC, and the rest. Plus, being able to avoid Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews must be counted a plus.

So here’s where I make my pitch that, yes indeed, it does matter if political scientists are producing great blogs.  I’m indebted for much of what follows to an article that Charli Carpenter of University of Massachusetts Amherst and the unavoidable Drezner (that’s right, the zombie guy) published two years ago in International Studies Perspectives. The article is called “International Relations 2.0: The Implications of New Media for an Old Profession.”

Social media like blogs and podcasts are increasingly becoming a way for political science scholars to share and test their ideas before presenting them as conference papers or publishing them in professional journals. Not only does this mean that scholars will have to develop new skills in developing and sharing their research, it can also open opportunities for a wider spectrum of scholarship in political science to get into public circulation. See for example the provocative blog The Disorder of Things, which is devoted to critical inquiry of global politics, and Front Porch Republic, a blog of communitarian political theorists who are devoted to recapturing civic space for the “overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing.” Both of these blogs carry on interesting, serious conversation that enrich political science.

And as Technologizer points out, blogs like The Monkey Cage, Daniel W. Drezner, and others are particularly good at showing how what political scientists have learned can help everyone better understand politics, government, and public affairs.

Social media are also changing the ways instructors and students work with one another. As blogs become a more established part of political science literature, students will have to learn both how to read blogs and other social media formats and how to write for them. Outlets like PolicyMic have been established to give students a platform for producing blog content, YouTube style videos and other social media output about public affairs. To be relevant to their students’ lives and careers, college professors will need to be nimble in learning how to evaluate, use, and teach others how to use blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and platforms that have not even emerged yet.

Finally, social media are becoming an increasingly important part of the world of politics and government that we study. One of the most contentious foreign policy questions during the current presidential campaign is the hypothetical relationship between an inflammatory anti-Islam video posted on YouTube and the terrorist attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya. Did the video provide a pretext for a carefully planned attack? Did it lead to a fairly spontaneous reaction that provided terrorists an opportunity to attack? Did the video have any significance at all? Questions like this are becoming important for political scientists to study.

Or to bring things closer to home, watch The Digital Campaign, an online documentary from the PBS Frontline series that explores how political campaigns use information about voters mined from Facebook and other online sources to precisely target their messages to individual voters.

Blogging and other social media production will be more and more important in Political Science, a fact recognized by the International Studies Association (mostly political scientists who study IR). ISA has decided to give an annual prize for the best blog in the International Relations subfield. Now that’s serious.

League of Women Voters Candidate Forum

You can watch videos of last night’s candidate forums with Congressman Jerry McNerney (D) and his challenger Ricky Gill (R) and with Assembly candidates K. Jeffrey Jafri (R) and Susan Eggman (D) here. [Ed.: Better quality video will be coming soon.]

Watch for special guest appearances by Prof. Bob Benedetti and Prof. Keith Smith.

UPDATE: Some of the coverage: KCRA, the Record, and Capital Public Radio will be discussing the forum on today’s (10/16) Insight.

UPDATE 2: Here’s the Capital Public Radio story.

[If I ever figure out how to embed video, we'll get that up so you can watch it all here.]

What would a Polkian presidency look like? | FP Passport

September 6, 2012 Leave a comment
English: Picture of James K. Polk

English: Picture of James K. Polk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would a Polkian presidency look like? | FP Passport.

Who knew that anyone even remembered President James K. Polk?

Of course, it’s not the mid 19th century anymore and no president can perfectly adopt another administration as a template (See Barack H. Obama and the Team of Rivals template), but the notion that Romney and his people are even aware of President Polk is tremendously interesting. I have long thought that Polk was one of the more consequential presidents. He is, however, mostly forgotten and certainly not included in the pantheon of great presidents. So, I’m basically in favor of more Polk awareness.

But the Obama/Team of Rivals parallel mentioned above points to an essential problem. Historical analogies may be instructive in some ways, but they are inevitably problematic. Let’s hope that the Romney team is reading up on Polk and his time more carefully than they considered Guns, Germs, and Steel. Let me recommend that they look into another old favorite of mine, Neustadt and May’s Thinking in Time. Neustadt and May urge decision makers who look to history to be just as aware of how things now are different as they are of historical similarities.

Fifty-four Forty, anyone?

Republican Exceptionalism? Or What Happened to the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment?

September 3, 2012 14 comments
Seal of the United States Department of State.

Seal of the United States Department of State. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welcome back! This is the first in our annual series of “Applying Political Science” posts. In a series of weekly posts, University of the Pacific Political Scientists will demonstrate how the tools of political science–concepts, analytical approaches, theories, etc.) can help us explain and understand current affairs. It being campaign season, you can expect a number of posts regarding the 2012 elections. You will also see discussions of a wide range of non-election matters.

My primary interest in political science is International Relations and, specifically, foreign policy. In not particular order, here are a few observations about a particularly interesting aspect of the current presidential campaign.

American Exeptionalism. More years ago than I care to remember I published a book called Consensus and the American Mission. It was an effort to see how various strains of American Exceptionalism had affected U.S. foreign policy during different periods of the Cold War. Back then the phrase “American Exceptionalism” was not used very much in academic discussions and not at all in public rhetoric. But these days, it seems that everybody is an American Exceptionalist. Madeline Albright, a Clinton secretary of state, and President Obama have both called the US the “indispensable nation.”

The Republicans, though, seem to have decided that American Exceptionalism is their foreign policy brand. In a recent interview, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered that Governor Romney’s foreign policy advantage over President Obama is that Romney “would understand American Exceptionalism.” In fact, the platform adopted by the Republican National Convention last week simply calls its section of foreign and national security policy “American Exceptionalism.”

We are the party of peace through strength. Professing American exceptionalism – the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history – we proudly associate ourselves with those Americans of all political stripes who, more than three decades ago in a world as dangerous as today’s, came together to advance the cause of freedom. Repudiating the folly of an amateur foreign policy and defying a worldwide Marxist advance, they announced their strategy in the timeless slogan we repeat today: peace through strength – an enduring peace based on freedom and the will to defend it, and American democratic values and the will to promote them. While the twentieth century was undeniably an American century – with strong leadership, adherence to the principles of freedom and democracy our Founders’ enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and a continued reliance on Divine Providence – the twenty-first century will be one of American greatness as well.

It is never a good thing-on any position of the political spectrum–to allow a slogan to substitute for careful thought. So, here are a few things to think about regarding American Exceptionalism and US foreign policy.

The major analytical approaches in International Relations generally don’t have much use for exceptionalist ideas. Realists like Stephen M. Walt tend to regard American Exceptionalism as a myth and a dangerous, self-deluding one at that. For realists, all states use power to pursue their interests in a competitive world. An ideology like American Exceptionalism–the belief that the US is a uniquely virtuous country with a special mission in the world–is likely to lead to imprudent and probably dangerous behavior in the world. Liberals conclude that it may be necessary for “an indispensable nation” to step up in order to provide critical international public goods. On the other hand, no nation is likely to be THE indispensable nation forever or in every situation. Exceptionalist rhetoric may coincidentally lead the US to step us in crucial situations, but it could also ironically lead the US away from providing the “best shot” to providing international public goods. Indeed, there is a whiff of desperation in the insistence on American Exceptionalism. Assuming that the US cannot maintain its recent hegemonic position in world affairs, crowing about our exceptionalism seems more like denial, and an unfortunate putting off of thinking seriously about US strategy in world where US power is not supreme. 

In addition, like many slogans “American Exceptionalism” conceals a vital debate about what, if anything, is exceptional about the US. Is it the political economy of relatively unregulated capitalism? Is it a stride toward freedom in the working out of democratic political institutions? Is it the rule of law and the realization of equal rights under law? Is it an apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil? Is it the preservation of the essence of Western Civilization? All of these have their roots in the US experience and US culture. But there are obvious tensions among these versions of American exceptionalism. To allow “American Exceptionalism” to be treated as a simple slogan would be to risk instituting the version favored by whoever can shout loudest. That would shut down necessary critical voices.

As is so often true, clear thinking is not the result of simplistic slogans.

For more on the death of the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment, check this space later in the semester.

Obama’s Announcement

Amidst the breathless speculation about WHAT IT ALL MEANS that will follow President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage, John Sides of the Monkey Cage asks the right questions.

Here’s the announcement for those who haven’t seen it.

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