Monday, September 9, 2013

Point One on Obama's Presidency and Syria

There are a bunch of things out there that I suspect I'm going to write about with respect to Barack Obama, presidential power, presidential reputation, and Syria...I'll start with what might seem the most obvious, but a point that isn't being made much and should be.

The preface: There are multiple balls in the air. There's the effects of winning vs. losing a Congressional vote. There's the effects of forcing a Congressional vote, which Obama did, as opposed to not forcing it, which is what everyone expect. But then there's also the effects of actually carrying out the policy (that is, a military intervention) or not. And that last one has all sorts of possibilities, right? The scale and scope of the intervention could be various different sizes and durations, and could go well or badly; some of that is within the control of the White House, and some isn't.

Of all of those, there's one permutation that absolutely, no question about it, would destroy the rest of Barack Obama's presidency is: a disastrous war. Ask Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush. Or Harry Truman. Unending, seemingly pointless wars are the one sure way to ruin a presidency.

Now, I'm not saying that's in the cards; in fact, I don't think it is. I'm just saying: that's the kind of thing that really does matter a lot to presidencies. And if you do believe that the administration is going down a path that winds up there, or a path that has a high risk of winding up there, then you should be very worried about the health of this presidency.

If not? None of the other permutations here are anywhere close to that kind of threat to the Obama presidency. Presidents lose key votes which are then mostly forgotten all the time. They pursue policies which poll badly, but are then mostly forgotten, all the time. There are important things to say about all of that, because "mostly" isn't completely. But the first thing to get right when considering the effects of Syria policy on the rest of the Obama presidency is that the scale of a Vietnam or an Iraq (or a Korea, for that matter) overwhelms everything else we might talk about.


  1. Point taken and appreciated. But per Neustadt, isn't a major public failure of persuasion & failure to inflict consequences you've said you'll inflict damaging to a prez?

  2. One can dispute whether gwb was EVER actually elected, but his disastrous wars, rather than ruining his presidency, got him a 2nd term.

    And his constituency still thinks he was right.


    1. If his constituency still thought he was right Rand Paul wouldn't think he could launch a presidential bid based in objections to interventionist actions.

    2. Actually, Anon, I would consider that an open question, for two reasons.

      1) Rand Paul could be wrong.
      2) People could somehow believe that Iraq was right AND we need to stop being interventionist. (The irrationality of this position does not stop it from being held, and one can point to numerous examples of people on all sides holding incompatible views simultaneously)

      I'm not saying that either #1 or #2 is true, and that you're wrong (I actually like your rejoinder), I just want to note that the world is grey.

  3. JzB,

    Strongly disagree. I'm pretty confident that Iraq hurt Bush in 2004.

    One might say that the September 11 attacks helped him in 2004 -- they certainly did in 2002 -- but IMO it was 9/11 that mattered, not the response in Afghanistan.

    1. Justify, please.

      I'm thinking that battle deaths are low enough and Hussein's capture late enough that those effects are still close enough to neutral to not be a major factor.

    2. 500 US troop deaths in 2003, ~850 in 2004, with multiples of that for all US the fiasco of "WMDm," and generally the war was getting terrible press in 2004.

      My gut check on it, though? The 2001 recession was long gone, 9/11 was clearly a plus, and W. is a first term (first term for his party) president with no other major stains on his record...and yet his approval rating was steadily falling and he only won by a narrow margin.

      Theory one: Dems have a natural majority in 2004, so that narrow margin is more impressive than it would seem. Theory two: campaign/candidate effects helped Kerry, hurt Bush. Theory three: Iraq hurt Bush. To me, that's a strong case for theory three.

      And I really don't recall anything specific from scholarship on that election, but I'm pretty sure I read through at least a fair amount of it at the time, and I suspect that if the evidence pushed the other way, I would have accepted it.

    3. That's a pretty good case. 9/11 did buoy W and the GOP in 2002, but less so in 2004. Your three theories help frame the issue, but there could be other reasons too. I wish I could remember the sense of those times.

    4. Opinion on whether Iraq was worth it is around 50% no, 48% yes in summer '04, down to about 53% no, 45% yes in the fall. So, not stellar, but it's not actually all that far from where it mostly ends up (60% no, 35% yes).

      So, maybe.

      Bush's approval isn't really "falling." It's returning to normal. Remember: this just was not the most likable (or competent) of presidents, with no honeymoon to speak of an a bad approval rating before 9/11.

      I think, though, for me, the part I come up against is that real disposable income really predicts 2004 quite well. 60, 64, 80 and 88 are the only postwar elections CLOSER to the prediction line than 2004. If we approach it from a party balance perspective, 92-2000 were all virtual ties (if we allocate the Perot voters as the research mostly suggests--I really don't buy theory 1, and think it stacks the deck against it, when theory 1a is "its a natural tie in 2004, so the narrow margin isn't much to explain), so, for Bush to win in '04 despite an Iraq "drag," he would have to have had some large countervailing effects.


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