Monday, September 9, 2013

Professional Reputation: Obama and Syria

Okay, with the main point about Syria and the presidency out of the way, time to turn to stuff like this:
If he loses the vote on Syria, the Republicans will be emboldened to challenge him on fiscal issues, immigration and on his nominee to be chairman of the Federal Reserve...If Obama wins, his position on those issues, along with immigration, will be strengthened just as he also is starting enrollment for his health-care law.
That's Michael Tacket reporting at Bloomberg, but you can find lots of similar examples.

It's totally the wrong way of thinking about presidential reputation.

As regular readers know, I'm a great believer in Richard Neustadt's portrait of presidential influence. And so I do tend to believe that a president's professional reputation matters -- in fact, I probably ascribe more to that concept than most current presidential scholars do.


First of all, to the extent that reputation matters, it matters within the context of everything else going on. Most obviously, partisanship. As Brian Beutler puts it: "Syria won’t derail Obama’s second term — Republicans will" (see also Matt Yglesias).

Second...professional reputation isn't a question of "political capital" (whatever that is); it's, in Neustadt's words:
The men he would persuade must be convinced in their own minds that he has skill and will enough to use his advantages. Their judgement of him is a factor in his influence with them...A President's effect on them is heightened or diminished by their thoughts about his probable reaction to their doing.
What does it mean to lose an important vote in Congress? It depends! It depends on the context; it depends on the president's actions; it depends on how it happens; it depends on how everyone perceives it.

What will Washingtonians (to use Neustadt's old-fashioned but very useful term for the people who must deal with the president, directly and indirectly) take away from the Syria vote?

Surely the most likely answer is: not very much.

After all, to begin with we're dealing with a fifth-year president, so the question is what adjustments will be made in their view of him. And why would their views change? Obama has, for better or worse, never been a president who was noted for punishing those who opposed him. He's surely never been a president who could be counted on to deliver Republican votes. He's not really a president who could be counted on to deliver Democratic unity, across the board...yes, Democrats did supply needed tough votes on some policies, but not on others. No one in Washington could possibly believe that Obama has the ability to massively change public opinion with a single speech or an extended campaign (that no president can do that is perhaps better understood now than it used to be, but at any rate no one has thought that of Obama since, at best, January 2010).

That's not to say that Obama's professional reputation was terrible going into this fight; it's just to say that the particular limitations that would be on display if he loses are exactly the limitations everyone already believes he has. Whether one believes those limitations are personal to him or part of the general conditions of the current presidency.

Moreover, if we take professional reputation as more nuanced than just "winner" or "loser," then it's hard to see how the particular qualities on display here matter very much to upcoming fights. For example, on the budget and debt limit, the basic reputation question that Republicans will need to ask is whether Obama is likely to cave quickly when faced with a shutdown (or potential default). It's hard to say that anything in this fight -- especially the part of it having to do with working for Congressional votes -- is really parallel to anything in that one.

So to put it all together: what matters are changes to presidential reputation from a particular episode, and then what matters are the particular, specific, changes to reputation, and how they are relevant to future battles, in Congress or elsewhere. I'm open to arguments that it can matter some...I do believe, as I said at the top, that a president's professional reputation can make a difference. But we certainly should not pretend that presidential reputation is the only or even the leading thing that matters, or that one episode can completely rewrite years of examples.


  1. I love that quote. Really, it's the entire basis of my book on veto threats (hopefully to be finished by next summer and out to presses then).

    It's not a president's wins or losses that matter: it's what the president DOES that forms (part of)* the basis for his reputation

    *See Clinton, Bill for how a president can gain a reputation without doing anything, such as Clinton's early "waffler" reputation, which pre-dated him actually DOING anything as Prez (but was then cast in stone by DADT).

    1. Clinton's waffler reputation is fascinating, because (among other things) one can argue (and I do) that it was both a big cause of, and totally overturned by, the 95-96 shutdown.

    2. Welcome to chapter 4 on Clinton's presidency, where I argue precisely that.

      Note that, in the aggregate, Congress' response to Clinton's veto threats did not change after 95. Pretty much the same ratio of challenges, compromises, and back downs. However, if you look at WHAT they challenged on, it was straight-up Gilmour: they preferred an issue to a law. They WANTED vetoes! And on almost every issue of actual policy importance to the conference (yes, the GOP had some of those left in the 1990s), they compromised or even capitulated to Clinton's demands.

  2. Question from here in the cheap seats: what does Neustadt say about second-order effects wrt Presidential influencing? Congresscritters may not perceive Obama differently due to Syria, but those folks spend several hours a day on the phone with constituents; if constituent perception changes, might the Congressperson's as well?

    Now I suppose that the Congressperson is pretty much preaching to the choir when s/he calls home every afternoon. The folks on the other end of those calls are probably consuming partisan media that is reaffirming their biases, and they inherently support the congressperson. Usually.

    Maybe this doesn't matter, but Syria is at least different insofar as a reliable liberal like Arianna Huffington is pretty much going to town on Obama over Syria. That unexpected result could crack the screen back home, and either embolden those not aligned with Arianna or perhaps dishearten those that agree with her.

    Could such a thing flow through to the Congressperson? I'm curious.

    1. I would think Neustadt would say "within the Beltway". So, it's not just Congresscritters, but it is just professional Washington. So, journalists, lobbyists, connected bureaucrats, etc. It's a permeable bubble; these people voraciously consume information about opinions and trends.

      In a sense, then, it's like parties: permeable but, at any given femtosecond, defined.

    2. And "Washington" isn't just Washington; it's people whose business requires them to closely observe the president. So governors, for example, count. And very much the people Matt lists.

      For Neustadt, what constituents think goes into a different category - popularity (which he calls "public prestige." Higher prestige buys presidents "leeway" - basically, if a Washingtonian thinks a president is popular with his or her constituents, then the president gets the benefit of the doubt in close cases.

      Popularity is basically just an up/down, single dimension thing. Reputation is a lot more complex...think of a poker player's reputation. Some of it would be whether she is a winner or a loser, but some would also be about *how* she plays, and some subset of that might (at any particular point) be terribly important.

    3. CSH raises a good point. The President is asking Congressmen to choose between him and a bunch of very angry constituents. The problem is compounded for Democratic congressmen, who feel more obliged to follow Obama's lead, but are also going to count the most anti-war voters as their core supporters (and not to forget that the D-Congressmen may even agree with said anti-war supporters). But I imagine there are even some Republicans who would like to support the President, but are grumbling about how badly he's sold the war to the country.

      Congressmen generally prefer to not bear the burden of big foreign policy decisions. And of course they universally appreciate a President who makes their lives easier, not more difficult, with regards to keeping constituents happy. So to suddenly surprise them with the burden of a high pressure vote and a barrage of angry constituent phone calls, rather than to ease the country into a slow acceptance of war as Bush did -- probably hasn't impressed many Congressmen.

      One way to measure this is to look at how individual lawmakers are making out. We've seen relatively marginal figures like Alan Grayson and Rand Paul looking like heroes of the people for opposing the war. Meanwhile, leaders like Boehner and Pelosi look a bit like chumps for being so out of step while hanging tough with the president. The political crosswinds were so strong for Senator Rubio (who's generally considered a hawk) that he felt it necessary to actually vote against this thing just like Rand Paul. And just think of poor Hillary! For what Jonathan rightly calls a relatively modest intervention, as modern wars go, this simple vote could turn out to influence political alignments in all sorts of ways that leaders of both parties must consider regrettable.

      Of course, from the perspective of the country this is hardly a disaster. But from the perspective of those who support the President and/or his policies, it's regrettable indeed.

    4. I think Couves makes some good points, although I'd point out that Bush could afford to take the time to make his case since he wasn't responding to fast-moving events.

    5. Thanks, Scott. True, Obama didn't get to decide when Syria used chemical weapons. But he did decide the pace of our response, which has been to rush towards war without carefully cultivating support for it. He sent Kerry out to deliver a speech that seemed to indicate that military action was imminent. Then, to the surprise of even his close advisers, Obama decided to throw the issue to Congress for immediate action. And how has that gone? Well, the initial assumption was that passage was a near certainty. Now, passage by the house seems very unlikely. And somehow, in all this, Jonathan sees nothing that could hurt Obama's professional reputation.

      Part of the problem here is that Obama is not really addressing the key issue of national interest that's at stake. Assad's use of chemical weapons may have been the precipitating event, but it's his status as Iran's Proxy that explains why we're so intent on striking him. My guess is that Obama doesn't believe that our geopolitical motivation for war can stand public scrutiny (he's probably right). Unfortunately for him, neither can the WMD justification for war.

    6. I probably should have been more clear: my focus here is just on the difference between getting the resolution through Congress and having it fail.

      I do think it's very possible that the reputation of the White House for competence could be hurt from what Couves describes...but I don't think, even before the last couple of days, that it's as clear cut as he thinks. Again, it matters that it's the fifth year, and his reputation has had time to set in, so it takes a bigger jolt at this point to change that. I'm not convinced that this episode has been a big jolt, but I'm open to argument -- I'm a lot less confident of that than I am that the vote, in particular, would determine much.

    7. Jonathan,

      The President has called-off the vote, in apparent recognition that the country does not support his policy. Of course that could change, but for now he's failed to get the resolution. So with the failure of his first policy preference (military action), Obama now has no choice but to enter into the negotiations suggested by Russia. Lacking Congressional authorization for military action, and with real doubt that it could ever be achieved, is Obama's biggest problem right now -- he's negotiating from a position of weakness that's unique for the US. And it's his fault. That doesn't hurt his professional reputation?

    8. Or: his first policy preference is a negotiated deal, and he threatened force in order to get there...and he's called off a vote for now in part because it may not be necessary.

      Which story is correct? I think they're both plausible. Which will Washingtonians believe? Well, the real question is what they've learned that they didn't previous know about how Obama acts. Or at least what they've learned that they think will be relevant to their own potential negotiations with the president. And for that...I just don't know. It's foreign policy, which is different. It may wind up turning out OK, at least from some perspectives.

      Put it this way: if you were, say, the #2 person at an agency, and you knew the president wanted some policy that you don't want -- would the Syria episode change anything in your willingness to fight, and anything in how you would fight? I'm really not convinced that it would.

    9. "Or: his first policy preference is a negotiated deal..."

      That's not true -- the first serious suggestion of a negotiated deal came from Putin. Until that point, the US has insisted that a political solution was impossible.

      Actually, the first mention of a diplomatic solution came from Kerry in the form of a "rhetorical aside" (widely described as a "gaffe"), which was subsequently taken seriously by Putin. At the time, the US State Department confirmed that Kerry's rhetorical aside did not reflect official US policy. Yet the administration has since claimed credit for the idea, saying that they've been working on it with Putin for a year.

      Clearly, we've been lied to at some point in all this. Right now it's looking like garden-variety cya "lazy mendacity," not the elements of some master plan that Obama wants us to think he orchestrated.

      Regarding whether Obama's missteps would alter other people's behavior... that would really depend on the specifics, of course. But his ability to achieve policy goals has to be in question at this point.

  3. Slightly different take: in most major policy decisions, especially in foreign policy, there's the "inside baseball" explanation, (the 'really really' if you will), and then there's the "outside baseball" story that hunts out here in the peanut gallery. A famous example is Bush 41's New World Order speech, in which the inside baseball reason for GW I was revealed to be stopping Saddam's imminent imperialism. When that went over poorly, it was replaced by the outside baseball explanation (publicly), freeing the Kuwaitis to return to the tyrannical rule of their own Emir instead of the tyranny of Saddam.

    In re Syria, its impossible to tell what the inside baseball explanation is, or whether Obama is playing inside baseball. In general, it appears the 'outside baseball' story is that Assad is a homicidal maniac who would sprinkle sarin over all the world's women and children, while the 'inside baseball' story may be that the recent sarin attack is an immensely punitive strike against his would-be assassins, designed to dissuade future such plots.

    Playing it out, the "outside baseball" explanation of the Russian deal is that Assad has been stopped from his widespread, murderous intentions by the Russians checking his mass chemical aspirations. Great! Perhaps the "inside baseball" story is that Assad wants his Alawite descendents to rule Syria's mass Sunni majority for 1,000 years, an increasingly problematic goal given the scale of this conflict, made worse by the tinderbox of his huge chemical arsenal. Perhaps Assad wants to reign in the chaos (to re-solidify his reign), and getting rid of his WMD is a good place to start. Well - mostly getting rid of them, less whatever he and his Russian overlords hold back in case of another plausible assassination attempt.

    Long long long story short, if Obama is making policy based on 'outside baseball' memes (Assad as indiscriminate homicidal maniac), its possible - it always is - that he is playing into his enemy's inside baseball hands (limiting his WMD to draw down his country's chaos).

    If so, this could be new information, and it could also have implications across a wide array of domains. I suspect many Presidents, including perhaps Obama's predecessor, govern largely off the opinion page of the NYT. That's meaningful information, and only sporadically available, of which this Syria case may be a good example, it seems to me.

    1. CSH, I think that's a good way to think of events, although I doubt that Assad really wants to give up his chemical weapons (although he does want the guarantee against US attack that Russia is demanding).

      But I disagree that Presidents "govern largely off the opinion page of the NYT." The inside baseball is the _actual_ reason for the attack (in this case, I think Assad's Iranian alliance is the true source of US national interest). The outside baseball is, as you suggest, the way war is sold to the public. Hence Obama's familiar references to "American greatness" and comparisons of Assad to Hitler, etc.

      I'm not sure exactly how we should think of his idea of deterring future violations of international norms on chemical weapons. I think Obama really believes this, but I think his actions are driven more by the inertia of America's greatest geopolitical goal in the region -- to thwart Iran. In any case, there's also a longstanding norm against attacking a country that hasn't attacked you...

    2. In one regard, Couves, you're right that the President is playing inside baseball by virtue (or vice) of holding the keys. OTOH, there's a way to think of a President's actions that are *effectively* outside baseball, even if technically inside baseball.

      Classic example might be the observation (perhaps part urban legend) that Bush 43 embarked on a path of nation-building in Mesopotamia without first realizing that there was some sort of difference between a Sunni and a Shi'a. Nation building = inside baseball on account of the President's policy. National building also = outside baseball on account of same President apparently having no idea who is in said nation.

      One other thing, relevant to our conversation: I'd be willing to bet that one such as Assad only likes his WMD to the extent that they are a tool for a larger goal, likely the continuation of the dynastic rule of his minority family. Given the current landscape in Syria, its quite plausible that far less (but not zero) WMD are better for him to achieve his goal. Which could explain why he's so amenable to the Russian plan.


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