Monday, August 5, 2013

DeLong on the Presidency: Good Diagnosis, Bad Prescription

Brad DeLong is absolutely correct about this:
[T]he failure in 2009 to nominate Fed governors who would give Bernanke a left wing on the FMOC to balance out the bank presidents and thus give him freedom of maneuver was a huge unforced error.
Which he expanded (on twitter) to appointments more generally. Include judicial appointments in that -- if Obama had filled DC Circuit and other appeals court spots early, more decisions go his way over the years.

But is this right?
It is, I think, a powerful reason not to nominate senators--or, indeed, anybody other than a successful governor--for the presidency.
I don't think so. As far as I know, Jimmy Carter was a successful governor, but he was an awful president. The post-WWII governors -- Carter, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush -- are a mixed bunch, both overall and, I'd say, simply in terms of the administration/executive branch side of the job. In part, that's because Washington experience counts, too. In part, I suspect it's because "governor" means different things in different states, and in many cases the job of governor is just very different than the job of president.

Sure, I'd like to have presidents with some executive experience. Or perhaps (federal) executive branch experience. FDR had both, and he turned out OK. But legislative experience helps, too.

Here's what I really think: presidents these days have presidencies. That allows them to bring in experience that they lack.

And I have a story that may be correct which explains what the last two Democrats got right and what they got wrong. Bill Clinton deliberately tried to do better than Carter by bringing in people from Washington...unfortunately, however, because he also wanted to get away from having anyone at all, good or bad, who worked for Carter, he wound up getting lots of Hill people and no one who knew how to run a White House.

Barack Obama fixed that, hiring lots of people with White House experience, and therefore ran a more competent White House. However, he was still very low on people with significant executive branch experience. Probably compounded, by the way, by the anti-lobbyists nonsense. Thus, I suspect, the appointments problem.

So the lesson isn't to pick a president with any particular background, although, sure, more experience(s) help. The lesson is to fill the White House with people from different backgrounds.

As far as the president...mostly what I want in presidents are really good politicians. Which you would think we would get, but unfortunately we often don't.


  1. I'd love to hear who was and was not a good politician by your definition.

    1. Judgement call! FDR was the best, at least in the modern era...

    2. But which presidents do you believe were not "really good" politicians?

      I think that's what Martin was getting at.

    3. Carter. Both Bushes.

      I guess I think that Nixon and Johnson were good politicians, but had other issues that made them unsuitable for the WH. If people want to classify that differently, that's OK by me, too.

    4. Presidents by Skill at Presidential Politics:
      a guess at JB's list

      Great: Johnson
      Good: Clinton
      Mixed: Reagan, Bush I, Obama
      Bad: Eisenhower
      Awful: Nixon, Carter, Bush II
      N/A: Kennedy, Ford

  2. Of course, timing plays a role in this, too; there were only four years of a Carter Administration, and that was 12 years before Clinton. So, even if Clinton would have been happy with Carterites, there just weren't many with relevant experience. Obama, OTOH, had 8 years of a Democratic Presidency 8 years before his own. That's a lot more of a pool to draw from, and he actually was able to find some folks like Geithner and Holder who, while having impressive executive experience, weren't first-line Clintonistas.

    There's also just the matter of Executive (and, for that matter, Legislative) focus. For better or worse, Obama pegged the stimulus, health care, and reregulation as must-pass legislation- and I honestly doubt he regards that as a mistake (though maybe it was). Given the complexity of those laws and the unprecedented obstruction tactics, its easy to see how, y'know, Priority #2 never gets done.

    1. True on the first point, but it's why Clinton should have been even more set on having Stuart Eizenstat in his WH. OK, that's not the only person, but it's true there weren't many. Clinton didn't realize it was a problem.

      On the second point...not good enough. You're the president, you need to walk and chew gum at the same time. No excuses.

    2. Does a hypothetical Cuomo Presidency in 1993 feature either Stuart Eizenstat or Anne Wexler as CoS?

      Or if you move the Cubans from the Mariel boatlift, does Clinton subsequently pass health care reform?

    3. "On the second point...not good enough. You're the president, you need to walk and chew gum at the same time. No excuses."

      I don't really disagree; I wasn't trying to excuse, merely explain.

    4. Some of this may be ideological. Obama's set of priorities reflected some of his strain of the Democratic Party and vision for its future: less emphasis on a court-focused push for social change; relative ignorance of (and lack of deep concern with) monetary policy, so a shallow satisfaction with Bernanke's assertive but not too dovish-aggressive stance; and an embrace of post-partisanship theatrics that made standing up for nomination powers feel like divisive "harping" on the matter.

      On top of that, you have a Republican party that, for the last generation, has had leaders and background consultants who think shrewdly about structural gamesmanship: entrench conservatives in the judiciary, entrench anti-inflation friends-of-capital in the Fed, find ways to depress turnout or increase the influence of wealthy citizens, etc.

      I'm perhaps overdoing the contrast here, but I do think the GOP's greatest political minds have had an impressive ability to convince their politicians to execute on securing structural, long-term ideological and party-political influence within the government. You see this even more so at the state and local level.

      Democrats have often just felt like they have a backlog of new policy ideas when they come to power, and so they push those without sufficiently prioritizing truly powerful, less showy ways they could secure enduring influence.

  3. Don't go committing the opposite error, Jon.

    Just because some successful governors have made bad presidents does not mean that being a successful governor isn't a positive indicator of likelihood of success at presidenting. It makes it less likely, but not impossible.

    Personally, I think the whole Beltway obsession with people not going from Congress to the White House is silly.

  4. One thing I've noticed is that in the early days of the Republic, it was not only absolutely normal but expected for a president to have substantial executive and legislative experience (and foreign-policy experience as well). Nowadays, the candidates typically have only one or the other. Most of the early presidents have resumes that make almost any modern president look hopelessly unqualified by comparison. Consider:

    Jefferson: delegate to Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Sec. of State, Vice President
    Monroe: Senator, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Ambassador to United Kingdom, Sec. of State, Sec. of War
    John Q. Adams: Senator, Ambassador to Netherlands, Ambassador to Russia, Ambassador to United Kingdom, Sec. of State
    Van Buren: Senator, Attorney General of NY, Governor of NY, Sec. of State, Ambassador to Great Britain, Vice President
    W.H. Harrison: Congressman, Senator, Governor of Indiana Territory, Governor of District of Louisiana, Ambassador to Colombia

    Notice that it was not at all out of the ordinary for a president in those days to have been both a Congressman and a governor. Most of these early presidents also had military background and a significant foreign-policy role in a previous administration, typically Sec. of State and/or Ambassador to a foreign nation, as well as other administrative roles. The only modern president I can think of who had a resume that even began to approach this was George H.W. Bush (Congressman, Ambassador to the UN, envoy to China, chairman of RNC, and Vice President). Most of the time, presidents were either senators or governors, never both. My guess is that the trajectory of political careers today tends to cut against pursuing both paths, especially for those with presidential ambitions. If you're a senator, you stay in the Senate until and unless you seek the presidency, and same with governors.

    1. There ARE a lot more people nowadays and not that many more offices to hold...

    2. Kylopod: I recall a bit of trivia that I often ask students about. Which president appointed the most justices to the Supreme Court?

      The most common guess is FDR, because all of us have spent all of our lives in a world of individual vacancies. The answer, of course, is Washington: ALL vacancies (plus a few more).

      So, to add on to Bajsa's comment, it's not just that there are that many more people today. There are: 807K adult white males in 1790 vs. 236 million adults in 2012. But, I think a lot of the reason is the scraping on the other side. That is to say: we have a lot more people now who run for president and lose, and that loss takes them out of the running in the future!

      When parties did the nominating, and close to the election, being a runner-up wasn't a death knell. For one, you didn't have to quit your day job to lose; our modern candidates do. For another, losing wasn't public, so you didn't get the stench of failure.

      The example I think of for your modern-day well-qualified types is Bill Richardson. Every job under the sun; lost in 2008, and that's all she wrote.

      However, I think it says something about modern campaigns, too, in that having that many jobs usually comes with skeletons in the closet. Somebody who was both a legislator and an executive, in 2013, has undoubtedly done things that have earned near-vetoes from important party factions.

    3. You do have your occasional governor who gets term-limited and then runs for the Senate. Jay Rockefeller comes to mind, and Joe Manchin. Yet those two don't rise to the top of anyone's list of probable candidates.

      Speaking of Rockefellers, Nelson had a pretty well-rounded resume, but then he had that divorce.

  5. The problem is that it isn't enough, or even a requirement, to have both legislative and executive experience in order to get elected. If that were the criteria, Bob Graham would be a 2 term president by now. What's needed now is the ability to convince wealthy backers that you are on completely on their side while simultaneously convincing ordinary voters that you aren't. Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II were superb at this. Obama, not so much, and lacking a financial crisis which panicked even the wealthy, and an opponent who was willing to admit privately that he didn't care about anybody except the wealthy, Obama probably wouldn't have gotten elected.

  6. I think it would be a good idea for presidents to get a Chief of Staff who has the experience they lack. For example, someone like Rahm Emanuel or Pete Rouse with lots of Congressional experience would have been good chiefs of staff for someone like Clinton, whereas a former governor like Jennifer Granholm, Kathleen Sebelius, or Ed Rendell would have been good chiefs of staff for Obama.

  7. In part, that's because Washington experience counts, too.

    So Obama had little of either.

  8. Now that Bernanke's replacement is being considered, if any of Obama's current contenders get the nod, it will lead to the US having a Jewish fed chairman from 1987 to 2018. What are the odds of that happening in a country where majority Christians are supposedly so dominant and self-dealing?

  9. I know you're not a fan of the President as CEO, but isn't there a complexity of senior management that's part of this story? If I understand Neustadt correctly (probably don't), a President must use his reputation, authoritah, prestige, etc. to convince both those under his purview and those not to row along with him. Oh, and he must also see to it that penalties are paid by those who don't.

    The CEO must manage a similar paradox, and to a lesser but not insignificant extent, a governor. I suspect that learning to balance the carrot and the stick is not easy; going into the job with the world's most difficult version of that requirement is probably especially difficult.

    Nothing magical, then, about governors over legislators, except that they may get a decent amount of practice in a critical part of the President's job description.


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