Giving President Barack Obama Some Credit (Begrudgingly)

I was never swept away by the Barack Obama in 2008 and have yet to be fully won over by his presidency. He is too aloof, too impersonal. Even when he gets the policy right, he struggles politically. And while it may be fashionable to blame an obstinate and ideologically rigid Republican Party for Washington’s dysfunction and gridlock, the excuse is a little too convenient and far too easy. Politically adept presidents successfully soften their political opposition. Under President Obama, partisan lines have hardened.

Having said that, the data – and not mere opinion – provide a much more positive assessment of Obama’s tenure as president.

If I were going to draw a historic parallel to Barack Obama, I would go with President George H.W. Bush. Sandwiched between Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and lacking Reagan’s or Clinton’s charisma, his presidency has been greatly underappreciated.  The economy was never objectively as bad as portrayed in the 1992 election and the budget compromise that proved his undoing – because it violated his “no new taxes” pledge – helped to move government spending from Reagan-Bush deficit spending to a Clinton era surplus.

Many of President Obama’s policies – the economic stimulus, Wall Street bailout, and health care reform – have been similarly unpopular and yet may they have set the stage for economic recovery and growth. At some point, Americans (myself included) may have to – begrudgingly – give him some credit for his policies if not his politics.


Ignore the Spin: Midterm Election Edition

Republicans will likely win an important victory tonight that will make it even harder for Democrats to win back the House and the Senate in 2016. As a result, divided government is the probably best case scenario for Democrats for the foreseeable future – as they could potentially win back the Senate but not the House. The election, however, means very little for the 2016 presidential election which will be driven by a very different set of contextual influences and political calculations. By midterm standards, the results pale in comparison to 2010 or 2004 and “Republicans in Congress” remain unpopular. Dissatisfaction has not yet melded into Republican support.

On the Democratic side, please disregard any talk about how losing the Senate in 2014 helps in 2016 (it doesn’t) or how the party avoided any even more disastrous outcome. The Democratic silver lining may come in gubernatorial elections, but the gains will hardly offset the loss of Senate control.


No-Win Elections

When the Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution, they imagined the U.S. House of Representatives as the repository of the public will, a disorderly and raucous chamber capable of giving voice to the nation’s base democratic impulses.  Elections every two-years and frequent turnover would assure the House of Representatives closely reflected the public’s policy preferences. These preferences would be heavily filtered and refined in the more aristocratic Senate whose principal job was to assure that the bad ideas originating in the House of Representatives didn’t become bad laws.

Two-hundred and seventeen years post-ratification, the House of Representatives is mostly immune to collective democratic accountability.  The Washington Post recently mapped out the lack of competition in U.S. House elections using the ratings from the Cook Political Report. The picture tells the simple story: Throughout most of the country, there is no meaningful competition. Out of 435 House elections, only 26 House races are rated as toss-ups while the vast majority of seats (85 percent) are safely in Republican (209) or Democratic (161) hands.

Such a scenario might make sense were voters largely content but this is decidedly not the case.  Congressional approval stands at an anemic 13 percent, President Obama’s favorability ratings are at or near their low point, and only 27 percent of Americans say the country is heading in the right direction. While Republican candidates may have benefited more from this collective discontent, “Republicans in Congress” are even less popular than President Obama or “Democrats in Congress,” with only 1 in 5 Americans approving of the job they are doing.  Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about our collective discontent is that it has nowhere to go, no easy targets for attributing blame or affixing responsibility.

This isn’t the way that democratic elections are supposed to work. In a democracy, elections serve as an imperfect mechanism for translating voter preferences into policy outcomes.  At a bare minimum, elections should provide voters with the opportunity to throw the bums out. Yet, this election cycle of discontent will mostly reinforce a status quo of gridlock and intransigence, giving voters even more of what they believe do not want.

Voters are unquestionably part of the problem, their demands are often contradictory and their policy preferences uninformed and unstable. Dissatisfaction with the health care system, for example, means very little in terms of support for health care reform as policy preferences shift quickly when the public realizes they might actually have to actually pay the bill.

Yet, if the voters are partly to blame, the problem is also deeply structural.  Congressional elections provide very little in the way of collective accountability and almost no incentive for actually governing. Thanks to carefully drawn single-member districts, individual House members run in overwhelming partisan districts and win easily on party-line votes. Indeed, in contemporary politics, incumbent politicians are more likely to be punished than rewarded for working constructively across the aisle or effectively negotiating compromise on difficult and complex issues.  The safe political strategy is to stand firmly on the right side of the issues, denounce the other side, and get little or nothing done.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Congressional scholars have long noted the ability of individual representatives to succeed even as Congress as an institution flounders. Once upon a time, however, incumbents worked hard to represent their districts, secured funding for district projects, and gained seniority on committees and subcommittees to influence policy. Effective legislators kept their seats even as local partisan tides were shifting because they were effective legislators.

In contemporary politics, polarization and partisan districting have turned what was once a curious and distinct trait of American politics into a pathology.  In such an environment, serving as an effective policy-maker – rather than loudly and uncivilly representing the views of constituents – is a liability.   Ineffective legislators can succeed as long as they are faithful representatives of their very local and partisan constituencies.

We can fix this shortcoming but doing so requires rethinking our electoral process and the possibilities for reform. Advocates for campaign finance reform and term limits, for example, often target the lack of competitiveness in elections without getting to its source.  Remove all the incumbents and many districts would still overwhelmingly favor one party over another. Provide public financing in uncompetitive districts and you only marginally improve the level of competition.  Instead, the path to meaningful reform requires rethinking the incentive structures that reward individual politicians while undermining collective decision-making. I would offer three suggestions here:

  1. Replace single-member districts with proportional representation requiring members to represent more diverse constituencies.
  2. Create a set number of at-large seats (30-40) requiring the winners to represent national rather than local constituencies.
  3. Require a nationwide vote on performance of the U.S. Congress that would be binding on all members, effectively imposing term limits with an unfavorable vote. Such a vote would provide the sort of collective responsibility mostly absent from contemporary politics.

None of these solutions is perfect but each gets more directly at the problem than other well-intended but misguided reform efforts. If we can have an election defined by wide-scale disaffection and little or no competition, something is deeply wrong.  And, if we can have an election amidst this collective discontent that yields no significant movement in policy and that instead endorses an undesirable status quo, then our electoral process is indeed broken and needs fixing. We can fix the process or we can continue to be frustrated and dissatisfied with the representatives we continue to elect.


The Road to College

[this blog is a little different as it is a reflection on taking my son to college]

The son you knew, who you once carried easily in your arms, head tucked into your chest, afraid and unsure of the world, now packs his car and heads out the door. You tell yourself he is only going to college for a small dose of life, a bit of reality on training wheels, but you know this is a defining moment.

If not for him, then for you.

We are defined in our children, in the space they occupy in our lives. When they are gone, we are left uncertain and unsure of who we are and what we will become.

You are reminded of a similar scene nearly thirty years ago when you were driving the getaway car – a dull green 1972 Oldsmobile 98 – and you left your mother crying in the driveway. She didn’t cry often – almost always opting for optimism over anger, sadness, or fear – but on that day she broke down and sobbed. Undeterred, you started the car and drove on, taking your mother’s glass half full optimism and father’s quiet but keen eye along with you.

This is a small truth worth remembering: Wherever your children go, a small piece of you goes with them, whether they want it there or not.

But the emotions of letting go are not only about sadness and loss. There is excitement and hope this step will be transformative and full of joy, that the fun of college will be mixed with discovery and meaning. That your son will have most (but definitely not all) of the experiences you had.

As you watch him go, the tear and the smile find an uneasy balance. Sadness and laughter in this life are intractably intertwined and inseparable. He is uncertain as well, but you both know he must start the car and drive on. There is an open road in front of him, and if he is lucky – as lucky as you have been – each new destination will be better than the last. And the road ahead of him only get open with possibility with each passing mile.


The Declining Power of the Political Press

Interesting story in the Columbia Journalism Review noting the increased influence of PR professionals in Washington and the declining influence of the press. This is an ongoing theme, reflected also in complaints that the Obama Administration has limited access even beyond the Bush Administration.

In the contemporary media environment, elected officials have a range of tools to communicate directly to voters making reporters (traditional or online) less important to their communication and political strategies. Who needs a reporter when you can send your message directly to supporters and followers?  This is true regardless of whether the “news” is online or in print or on television. Even when government officials do interact with journalists, they have more leverage to set the rules for the exchange, tightly controlling content.

The late Tim Cook, a former colleague, wrote about the “negotiation of newsworthiness” in his seminal and still very relevant work Governing with News.  While journalists wrote the stories, government officials controlled their access to reporters making the process of creating the news a two-sided negotiation in which each side had some leverage. In this exchange, digital media. which many thought would democratize politics, can become a tool of the powerful. With institutional resources and immediate access to followers, tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter provide an avenue to communicate directly to constituents. They can be used to counter news stories reported in the mainstream media in real time or to simply limit media access to the candidate or public official. The key for public officials, political parties and candidates  is to make sure they have developed strong enough social networks allowing this direct line to their supporters.

It is hard to see how political reporters regain their footing in this environment. One line of thought suggest reporters be harder-nosed, refusing to cede to the demands of limited access. According to this line of thought, the politician needs the journalist more than the journalists needs the politician. Here the news marketplace may serve as a competitive disadvantage by empowering competitors to gain inside access on important news stories. (Of course, that access comes at a cost to their independence). Tougher reporting also likely assures less access as politicians increasingly decide their strategic interests are better served by going around rather than through journalists.

More to the point, political parties, candidates, and interest groups will continue to devote resources to developing the information and communication infrastructure necessary to communicate independently of an independent and objective press.  This reality portends poorly for the future of independent and objective news and is yet another indicator that our sources of political news and information will likely become ever more partisan and politicized.