Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Romney’s Etch-A-Sketch Moment Finally Arrives

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Last evening’s presidential debate was overly hyped as a potential turning point for Mitt Romney. He needed the debate to recover from recent gaffes and to show he’s still in the game. By nearly all press accounts, Romney won the debate and it appears that his Etch-a-Sketch moment has finally arrived. It is undeniable that Romney outperformed Obama and the primary debates likely contributed a great deal to prepping him for the mano-a-mano last night. Analysis was largely based on his ability to play offense and get the president on the defense, as well as the Republican candidate’s ability to appear presidential. His confidence and comfort in the debate format was contrasted in media accounts by President Obama’s “listlessness,” “nervousness,” and “ill-at-ease on stage.” Obama was also accused of being “rusty,” “sluggish,” for lacking Romney’s “spark, energy and precision” and for keeping it civil (many commentators wanted Obama to invoke his campaigns key attacks on Romney). By many media (especially television) accounts, the debate came down to delivery, pose and style, rather than a dissection of substance, harkening back to the first 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in which the outcome was largely decided by appearance. What can we say, we are a society jaded by Hollywood. To be fair, there were of course real journalists who went beyond the superficial to note that it was a substantive debate over the role of government.

Top Ten Tips for Watching the Debates

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960.

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960. Credit: National Park Service. PD.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s first debate is Wednesday night.  Here are ten tips for getting something out of this and their other two debates.

1. Ignore the “morning line” about how well each candidate is expected to do, what each candidate “needs to accomplish,” and so on.  All that chatter is noise in the system—it has nothing to do with anything.

2. Tune in early and watch the pre- and post-debate programming on C-Span.  Why C-Span? Before the debate, you’ll get a sense of the setting—what the scene is like, who’s in the audience, and so on.  Afterward, you can see how the candidates behave when they think the cameras are off.

3. Are the candidates you see and hear in the debate consistent with their commercials and their opponent’s commercials?  If not, disregard the commercials.

It’s the difference between a real experience and an artificial experience.  For the first and only time, we get to see the candidates live and side-by-side in three ninety-minute encounters.  Perfect?  No.  Better than what we’ve been getting? Definitely.

4. Trust your ability to size up people when evaluating the candidates. Critics of debates sometimes charge that they’re personality contests. Well, by constitutional design, the presidency is a unitary office.  Because “the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States,” who these people are matters.

5. Evaluate what you see—body language and facial expressions—as well as what you hear.  Lawyers call it “demeanor evidence.” We seem to be hardwired to judge qualities like sincerity and trustworthiness, so why not take advantage of that ability?

Click "Read More" for the rest of the list!

Friday Round-up: Polls, Polls, Polls

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

  1. The top story of this week: polls, polls, and more polls. Romney fell behind this past week in states he must win (Ohio, Florida). He still trails nationally. Journalists confronting Romney and Ryan with the numbers received something more novel then outright optimism this week when Ryan questioned the validity of a Wisconsin Poll that showed his campaign behind in his home state. Romney’s staff has voiced similar dissent when confronted with the numbers, going so far as to say they “hope the Obama campaign” is using those numbers to strategize. Republicans are questioning the validity of the polls, claiming most pollsters are over-sampling Democrats. After dismissing the Wisconsin poll, Ryan declined to get “into all the methodologies of it.” Stay tuned for an Riding the Tiger that will get “into all the methodologies of it” in the coming weeks.
  2. Noam Scheiber of the New Republic says that Paul Ryan has been “deadly” for the Romney campaign. Setting aside Roger Simon’s political satire that has Ryan referring to Romney as “The Stench,” Ryan himself may be the variable responsible for the Romney campaign’s recent slide in the polls—then again, he may not. But both journalists reintroduce a question thought to have been settled a month and a half ago: why Ryan?
  3. Romney comparisons continued to float around this week, the latest of which is even less flattering than Carter (see Justin Peck’s post). Is Romney the new Michael Dukakis?

Friday Feature: Dwight Eisenhower Not Riding a Tiger

Prime Minister Laurent waves from a golf cart, seated next to President Eisenhower. A small crowd looks on.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower rides a golf cart with Louis St. Laurent, Prime Minister of Canada, c. 1956. President Eisenhower hosted PM St. Laurent at the Greenbrier Resort, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

Will the Presidential Debates Matter?

Debate with President Gerald Ford (Foreign and Defense Issues) (October 6, 1976) Jimmy Carter

The first of three presidential debates is set for one week from today at the University of Denver (a fourth debate is scheduled between the vice presidential candidates). As we reported in last week’s Friday Roundup, the first debate will focus largely on the economy, with three of the six fifteen-minute segments dedicated to the economy, while the other three will focus on "health care," "the role of government," and "governing.” Will these debates really matter for the outcome in November? Probably not. But, at least a third of American households will tune in to root on their candidate.

As it happens, I’ve been reading a terrific new book just released this month – The Timeline of Presidential Elections by Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien –  that delves into the elements of the presidential campaign timeline that matter for changing preferences in the aggregate vote. Using aggregate polling data, the authors document that voter intentions do change over the course of presidential campaigns. However, voter preferences are more volatile in some election years than others. Not surprisingly, party conventions play a major role in shuffling the electorate's vote choices and it is around convention time that voter preferences are the most volatile. Conventions thus do a good job of getting voter’s attention sufficiently enough to change minds. But preferences harden nearly every year following the party conventions, with fewer voters changing their minds in the fall general campaign season.

Following the conventions, the next big campaign event is usually the presidential debates. Unlike conventions, however, numerous political scientists have shown that the presidential debates do not matter and do not change voter preferences. Detailed studies of individual debates show that, at most, polls swing only one to three points in some of the more salient debates where one of the candidates out-performs the other, such as the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (two points for Reagan, who was already in the lead); the 1988 debate between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis (one point to Bush, who was already in the lead); the 1992 debate between Bush and Bill Clinton (probably cost Bush two points); and Al Gore’s endless signing in the debate with George W. Bush (about two to three points to Bush). Of these, the only debate that could have been consequential to the election outcome was the Gore v. Bush debate.

The World’s a Stage: Presidential Addresses to the United Nations General Assembly

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y.

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y. September 23, 2009. Official White House photo by Samantha Appleton. PD.

Today, President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Like previous presidential speeches to the United Nations, President Obama’s speech focused on one of the most important contemporary international issues – the democratic transitions in the Middle East, as well as the violence and turmoil in the region. Obama paid tribute to Ambassador Chris Stevens, and addressed the “crude and disgusting video” that sparked the recent uprisings throughout the region. More broadly, he used the platform to highlight development around the world as well as democratic progress, noting the competitive, fair and credible elections in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, as well as the peaceful transitions of power in Malawi, Senegal and Somalia. Yet, he also reminded the audience that democracy takes hard work and called for honestly addressing “the tensions between the West and an Arab World moving to democracy.” The President called for greater international engagement in Syria and once again drew a red line on Iran’s nuclear program, saying the United States would not allow the country to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Overall, the speech was intended just as much for a domestic audience as it was for an international one. The president reminded people that the “war in Iraq is over, and our troops have come home,” that the transition in Afghanistan has begun, and that “Al Qaeda has been weakened and Osama bin Laden is no more.” President Obama derided the politics of division – a reference no doubt to domestic politics (what’s “on the news and that consumes our political debates”), and a more explicit reference to those seeking to incite violence by pitting “East against West; South against North; Muslim against Christian, Hindu, and Jew.” He also emphasized American values, such as support for democracy, freedom, and international law. Yet, his speech was a re-articulation of the Democratic Party’s position on America’s role in the world – that the United States should lead by example and work in concert with allies.

Mr. Obama’s speech is very much historically in line with presidential speeches to the UN General Assembly, though I would argue it is not likely to be remembered as one of the most consequential, unlike his 2009 address. Presidential addresses to the Generally Assembly usually highlight foreign policy goals and accomplishments, emphasize American values and define what the United States considers the greatest threats to itself and the international community at the time. We culled through our archives and found some of the most consequential presidential speeches to the UN General Assembly. Key factors that distinguish some speeches from others are the moment in history in which the address is delivered and the leader's response to that historical context.

Myth and Reality in the Life of Obama

David Maraniss, associate editor at the Washington Post and author of Barack Obama: The Story, spoke to a standing-room only crowd at the Miller Center’s Forum this morning. Maraniss explored some of the myth’s surrounding Barack Obama, the roots of who he is as a person and implications of his biography for his governing style.

Maraniss exposed two particular myths that have been exploited for political purposes. First, according to Maranniss’ research on the ground in Kenya, it was evangelical Christians that made the rise of the Obamas possible. Barack Obama, Sr. was trained in Anglican school. Furthermore, Obama Sr.’s mentor, Betty Mooney, was an evangelical Christian who was part of a faith-based literacy movement and whose grandfather was one of the founders of Texas Christian University. Muslims have nothing to with Mr. Obama’s existence.  The revelation of the family’s relationship to the evangelical Christian movement undermines the credibility of those who employ the claim that the President is a Muslim as a political scare tactic.

The story that Obama’s grandfather was tortured by the British is another myth the president himself innocently perpetrates in his own book, Dreams of My Father. There’s a sliver of possibility that it happened. However, there are no documents to prove it and Maraniss interviewed six people who said it didn’t happen.  Maraniss referred to a “sick American culture” that has exploited this myth as means to portray the president as basing policies and governance on an anti-colonialist victimhood worldview.

Friday Roundup: All about Mitt

Obama Vs Romney. File is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

In this Friday Round-up, we offer the top ten campaign stories of the week. Tell us what story you found to be an important development or would add.

 

  1. The biggest story of the week was the leaked video of a closed-door fundraiser with Mitt Romney posted by David Corn at Mother Jones magazine (watch the full remarks of part I here and part II here). Much of the commentary over the video centered on remarks Romney made regarding 47 percent of the electorate who believe they are victims, will vote for Obama no matter what, and don’t pay income tax, dividing the nation between moochers and makers. However, he also proclaimed that he did not believe in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, that Palestinians are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel,” and called the mullahs in Iran “crazed fanatics.” Meanwhile, Romney’s joke at the fundraiser that it would be easier for him to get elected president if his parents were Mexican was met with sarcasm during the candidate’s appearance on Univision this week. At least the Romney campaign got its wish of moving beyond the candidate’s failed opportunistic response to embassy attacks in the Middle East. By late in the wake, Romney attempted to take control of the spin cycle by attacking Obama on remarks he made in 1998 to demonstrate the president wants “redistribute wealth,” but the WaPo’s Glen Kessler gave Romney four Pinocchios for the truncated clip.

Friday Feature: Ronald Reagan Not Riding a Tiger

A young Ronald Reagan in a plaid shirt makes a turn in a bicycle.

As weather cools all over the country, it's a great time for a bike ride with a young Ronald Reagan.

In the 1940s Reagan even appeared in a few advertisements for Schwinn bicycle company. He stipulated, though, that he would use his own bicycle in the ad—not the free bike offered by the company.

There's more cycling Reagan after the jump.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

Does Foreign Policy Matter in this Election?

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden receive an update on mission against bin Laden.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune’s Spear, a mission against Osama bin Laden, in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Photo by Pete Souza. PD

The presidential candidates have focused much of their attention in the 2012 election on domestic and economic policy. However, the killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last week, and the ensuing demonstrations across the Middle East has offered voters a chance to observe how the candidates would handle real life events. Does foreign policy matter in presidential elections? I argue it does, and more so than candidates and pundits traditionally give it credit.

While the media and pundits have primarily focused their commentary this week on Mitt Romney’s 47% comment delivered during a closed-door donor dinner (watch the full remarks of part I here and part II here), many have glossed over the remarks he made regarding foreign policy. Romney’s remarks that the American people “aren’t concentrated at all” on issues such as relations with China, Russia, Iran and Iraq are of concern here. While many polls show that the economy is the primary issue of importance to the electorate in this election, foreign affairs do in fact shape voter evaluations of the presidential candidates and ultimately influence how they will cast their ballot on the election day. In addition, in such an extremely polarized political environment, it’s also clear that elite partisans messages mediate voters’ foreign policy evaluations of the candidates

Presidents and Constitutional Refoundings: Is a new political order on the horizon?

First page of Constitution of the United States.

First page of Constitution of the United States. Public Domain.

As we celebrate this week the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, it is a fitting time to think seriously about the critical, but uneasy relationship of executive power and the rule of law that has existed since the founding.

America’s most revered statesmen – Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Roosevelt – all reveal that democratic leadership involves a vital connection between leaders and led. It requires first of all that the leader remain answerable to his followers. Even as the president takes bold initiatives and ignores public opinion in the short-run, he must enable his followers to hold him accountable in ways that are practicable and timely. Furthermore, extraordinary democratic statesmanship is not displayed in isolation. Party building and partisan leadership has been central to this task of civic education. Washington apart, America’s most celebrated statesmen were all central to either the creation or reconstruction of political parties. Episodically, periods of partisan realignment have given presidents the political strength to embark on ambitious projects of national reform.

These episodes, though they may appear to threaten our Constitution, have a revolutionary quality to them. These great political transformations have engaged the American people in popular contests over the meaning of their rights and how to protect them. Presidential statesmanship has provided a critical ingredient to these harsh partisan contests. They have required presidents to think constitutionally: to interpret the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the relationship between these two sacred political texts for their own time. In this sense, our most important presidents have truly been constitutional refounders, justifying Jefferson’s exalted, elusive hope that the Constitution would “belong to the living.”

Mitt Romney and the Impending Politics of Disjunction

Mitt Romney speaking at the Values Voter Summit (Omni Shoreham Hotel) in Washington D.C. on October 7, 2011.

Mitt Romney speaking at the Values Voter Summit (Omni Shoreham Hotel) in Washington D.C. on October 7, 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC-SA.

Lets briefly move away from electoral predictions and instead consider the following claim: should he be elected in November, Mitt Romney will be remembered as a failed president. In a January 2012 post to the blog Balkinization, Indiana University Professor of Law Gerard Magliocca briefly speculates on why this will be the case by invoking Stephen Skowronek’s research. Magliocca suggests that Candidate Romney has the potential to become a “disjunctive” President Romney who leaves office in political disgrace.  Through a brief examination of the Romney candidacy I will build on Magliocca’s claim and in so doing demonstrate that a Romney victory portends the coming politics of disjunction.

Mitt Romney faces a leadership dilemma – being affiliated with a set of governing commitments no longer seen as credible by the public while simultaneously being unable to repudiate them.  He must appease the base of the Republican Party by situating himself as an inheritor of “Reagan Conservatism” even as Reagan Conservatism is increasingly discredited.  In short, when we look at Mitt Romney, we should see Jimmy Carter.

Recent polling provides support for this claim.  A majority of Americans now support increasing taxes on the rich and most Americans also believe that material inequality, not government regulation bears responsibility for contemporary economic problems.  The public supports additional government regulation of Wall Street, and cuts to the defense budget, while it opposes Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s proposed budget.  A majority also blames President George W. Bush – the most recent incarnation of Reagan – for our current economic problems. 

On each point, polls show the public rejects Reagan Conservatism and on each point Candidate Romney is on the wrong side of the public. Yet he cannot repudiate these views because they represent central principles of Reagan Conservatism and they retain the support of Romney’s closest political allies.

Why CSPAN’s Brian Lamb Likes Fox and MSNBC – Tell Us Your Thoughts

Brian Lamb, Chairman of CSPAN Networks

Brian Lamb, Chairman of CSPAN Networks

Yesterday, CSPAN Chairman Brian Lamb spoke at the Miller Center’s Forum.  Since its founding in 1978, CSPAN has made an important contribution to the revolution in communications, which in turn has enormously impacted the way in which people receive information and relate to government. Two things in particular set CSPAN apart from other media outlets. First, unlike public television or radio, it is truly separated from government. Second, unlike cable news shows, CSPAN airs policy and political events (such as the recent conventions), as well as government proceedings without filtered commentary. While CSPAN has been a pioneer in the communications revolution, Lamb noted that Twitter and Facebook are the sources of news for the next generation and the freedom they offer is even more extraordinary. The main take-away from Lamb’s talk was his belief in the absolute need to maintain a free market of ideas in the media, whether as individuals we agree with those ideas or not.

The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act: Organized Labor’s Toxic Cocktail

Bernard Spindel (d. 1972) whispers in ear of James R. Hoffa (b. 1913) after court session.

Bernard Spindel (d. 1972) whispers in ear of James R. Hoffa (b. 1913) after court session in which they pleaded innocent to illegal wiretap charges. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper staff photographer: Roger Higgins. PD.

Today's post is written by Miller Center National Fellow James J. ("Jack") Epstein. In this post, Jack explores the origins and development of the unexpectedly related crossroads of labor law and crime control. The impact of these policies no doubt are alive in this election year. Both the Republican and Democratic Parties included planks on labor and crime control in their platforms. Furthermore, the relationship between labor and Democratic Party continues on an ambivalent path and appears to be at an important crossroads based on events from the Wisconsin recall election of Scott Walker, to the Labor Unions' holding of their own shadow convention in July, to the teachers' union strike in Chicago.

On this date in 1959 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), popularly known as Landrum-Griffin.  A notoriously complex law, Landrum-Griffin marked the achievement of two long-standing policy objectives for conservative opponents of organized labor.  On one hand, it restricted considerably unions’ use of effective, and thus always controversial, organizing tactics like “secondary boycotts” and “hot cargo agreements.”  On the other, it brought unprecedented federal oversight. LMRDA thus was a kind of toxic cocktail for labor, a more muscular version of Taft-Hartley, mixed with a variation of public regulation akin to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s supervision of corporate activities.  Despite this breadth of coverage, however, Landrum-Griffin has lived long in the historical shadows of the key federal labor laws that preceded it – the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act, the 1935 Wagner Act, and the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.  Yet it is as vital for a full understanding of American politics today as any of its more famous predecessors. 

Passed by landslides in both the Senate (95-2) and House (352-52), LMRDA showed above all the awesome political power of a criminal concept used since the late 1920s to attack American trade unionism – labor “racketeering.”  Supporters used public fears over the power of union “racketeers” – or labor “czars” or “bosses,” to cite other common catchphrases of the day – to attack labor and to garner political capital sufficient to pass their law.  And so, at the height of organized labor’s historical strength – in the mid-1950’s, roughly 35% of the non-agricultural workforce carried union cards – Congress passed, and Ike signed, a law aimed directly at the interests of unions.

Friday Feature: President Obama Not Riding a Tiger

Surely, most days, our "Riding the Tiger" quotation rings true:

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

But maybe, just maybe, it's occasionally like riding a skateboard.

This animated gif image was cleverly edited to make it appear that President Obama skirted across the Nuclear Security Summit stage on a skateboard. The animation first appeared on Jay Leno's nighttime talk show. Here's a collection of other humorous gif images for your Friday entertainment.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight a whimsical item from presidential history.