The State of the Union – 2015

Wednesday, 21. January 2015 11:46 | Author:


A roundup of reactions and analysis of the SOTU for 2015:

A visual of the common words in President Obama’s SOTU speeches since 2008:

SOTU Graph

An analysis of the language of the STOU from a historical perspective:

The Language of the State of the Union Address

Political Analysis of the SOTU from across the spectrum:
NY Times: In State of the Union, Obama Sets Ambitious Agenda
Politico: State of the Union Fact Check
National Journal: New Page, Same Obama
Ezra Klien: The Most Important Sentence in SOTU
David Frum: The Real Target of the SOTU – Hillary Clinton
Byron York: A Disconnected, Out of Touch, In Denial SOTU
Peter Baker: In SOTU, Obama Looks to Reset Goals

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Remembering Grandma Dollie

Monday, 10. November 2014 13:46 | Author:

Grandma Dollie Young and Old

I delivered the below eulogy for my Grandma Dollie at her funeral, Thursday, October 30th, 2014. She was 93 years old.

They say that smell is the sense most directly linked to memory. It should come as no surprise then, that some of my most indelible memories of Grandma Dollie are wrapped up in the scents of her kitchen in that little red farmhouse on the hill. From the delicious skillet-sized pancakes, to the pan-grilled cheeseburgers, to the cinnamon fragrance of her applesauce pieces, nothing calls to mind those carefree days of summer with Grandma better. Passing thoughts of any one of these brings me back to that special time in that special place with that special lady.

Grandma Dollie’s house was summer. There was little in my boyhood that I looked forward to more than summer vacation at Grandma’s.

As a boy, your life is governed by what you cannot do. No, you cannot stay up past your bedtime. No, you cannot watch TV. And no, you cannot fling mud at your younger brother. That is, except at Grandma Dollie’s.

There you could find, for all too brief a moment, an escape from the bondage of childhood.

Want pancakes for dinner? Grandma Dollie would make them.

Want to watch Mr. Ed on Nick-at-Nite well past your bedtime? Yup, you could do that at Grandma Dollie’s.

Want to spend the night camping out in the old green pop-up tent? Grandma Dollie was in! She would thrill her young audience with spooky ghost stories. “”He’s cooommming up the third step!”

Want that transformer you’ve been pining for? Why Grandma Dollie would take you to the store in that yellow stick shift bug of hers and buy it for you. You didn’t have to ask twice.

And should Grandpa Gooch choose to lay down the law, Grandma Dollie would deflect with an “Oh, Bob” and that was the end of it.

It seemed every wish or whim could be fulfilled in Grandma’s little red house. Where one day you could spend the entire afternoon watching cartoons and the next splash the day away with cousin Kenny at the pond. It was a place where the word “no” simply didn’t exist.

What wasn’t possible at Grandma Dollie’s? If there were limits, we were blissfully unaware. It was freedom – pure freedom. As close to Heaven on Earth as this eight year-old boy could get.

Now, if someone took exception, Grandma would be quick to remind you, it is every grandmother’s God-given right to spoil her grandchildren. I’m grateful to Grandma Dollie for loving and trusting us enough to indulge all of us in that way.

In Mark 10:15, Jesus tells us “…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Grandma Dollie lived the wonder-filled child-like love Jesus commanded. I know this because of her smile – her magnificent, contagious grin.

I saw it when she met her great-grandson William.

And for a moment, it felt like summer again and we were back in that little red farmhouse on the hill.

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Did Michigan Trigger a Constitutional Convention?

Wednesday, 2. April 2014 10:47 | Author:

Constitutional Convention

From Ed Morrissey at Hot Air, an interesting blurb on the possibility of Michigan having triggered a Constitutional Convention. The state legislature signed on to a call for a federal balanced budget amendment. The relevant portion of the Constitution is Article V, which provides for two methods of constitutional change – the normal amendment process (where we have seen all of the changes to the Constitution come from), and a constitutional convention. A constitutional convention is triggered when two-thirds of the states call for one — it isn’t clear whether this has actually happened (some states have rescinded their call – which may or may not be allowable under the Constitution), or what would be the result if it did, but it is fascinating to consider. A Constitutional Convention has never been called in all the years since the Constitution of 1789 was adopted.


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Game Theory & Russian Expansion

Monday, 17. March 2014 10:09 | Author:

Obma vs. Putin

With the ouster of the Russian-favored Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych in a mass protest over his decision to affiliate with the Russian Federation rather than the European Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin has seized the opportunity to essentially claim the Crimeian pennisula, justifying Russian troops in Crimea on the transparent excuse of defending ethnic Russians, who constitute a majority in Crimea. Over the weekend and under the bootheel of a Russian occupation, there was a referendum in Crimea to secede from the Ukraine, which “passed” overwhelmingly. The United States has condemned the Russian agression and denounced the vote as illegal.

Tyler Cowen discusses this foreign policy crisis using game theoretic concepts. Specifically those of credibility, self-interest, and credible threats, i.e. nuclear deterence. Of particular interest is his discussion of tipping points – are we at a tipping point in foreign policy…where the world shifts back to a footing of greater violence to resolve conflicts? A question worthy of consideration, and game theory can help us better understand how this plays out in the real world.

Pointing out how the absence of a nuclear determence (Ukraine gave up its nuclear missles post-Cold War in a pact with Russia and the US that was supposed to ensure Ukrainian territorial integrity), and the lack of US credibility encouraged Russian aggression in the region. Cowen believes market forces may serve as a more effective deterent to Russian imperialism than it has in the past, given that the Russian economy is more tied to the global economy today (particularly through its oil and gas exports). He further argues that weakness in this particular instance may not undermine US credibility to a large extent, given the tenuous nature of our interest in the region. However, he ominously noes: “Still, there may be a net loss of credibility, perhaps a serious one, when the world is uncertain where American self-interest lies.”

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The Wages of Office

Thursday, 20. February 2014 12:16 | Author:


I mentioned in class a pictorial of presidents before and after their terms of office. Below is a link to presidential aging from LBJ to Barack Obama. Hat tip to student Gabriel Sigler for finding the link.

Time Magazine’s How Presidents Age in Office


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Obama’s Presidential Character

Friday, 18. October 2013 9:25 | Author:

Angry Obama

When examining the nature of the presidency, we have discussed the importance (or lack there of) of presidential character — the personal and psychological characteristics of the men who have served in the office. In the course of that discussion, we assessed and criticized the most famous (infamous?) effort in that vein: James Barber’s “Presidential Character,” which schemes presidential character in a two-dimensional (four category) typology. One dimension is active/passive, assessing essentially whether they are looking to use the office to accomplish political goals, and the other dimension is positive/negative, essentially refering to their personality (dour and tending toward paranoia versus optimistic and cheery). One of our criticisms of the application of this scheme to presidents by Barber is that it suffers greatly from confirmation bias –tending to rate presidents in the ‘good’ categories based on partisan disposition rather than an objective assessment of their character. See, for example, John Dean’s effort to place Mitt Romney in the Active/Negative category along with George W. Bush. The scheme also suffers from “backfitting” — i.e. identifying bad characteristics with failed presidencies (Nixon) or those which ended badly (LBJ) and identifying good characteristics with those that were successfull (FDR).

All that said, a new article at the National Interest looks at President Obama’s presidential character and attempts to place him in the typology based on his behavior in office over the past five years. In the author’s view, President Obama belongs in the Active / Negative category — the ‘worst’ category for presidents.

Here he makes the case that Obama belongs in the Active category:

He took office with big ambitions and a manifest resolve to change American society in very significant ways. This was manifest particularly in his Affordable Care Act, designed to transform the way we dispense health care in America and increase federal intrusion into a sixth of the current economy (projected to be 20 percent of the U.S. economy by 2020). And he was willing to do this without a single opposition vote, which reflected an almost breathtaking political audacity. His energy bill represents another reflection of his ambitions, and multiple actions in the regulatory realm (some of questionable constitutional validity) reflect also Obama’s preference for America as a European-style social democracy. Since the country has generally shunned such a course since the early years of the New Deal and a brief spurt of federal activity under Lyndon Johnson, Obama’s presidential temperament clearly falls into the Active category.

And here he makes the case he belongs in the Negative category:

But is he a Negative or a Positive? The Positive presidents relished the job and the grand necessity to move events by persuading, cajoling, bargaining with and perhaps occasionally threatening other players in the political arena. The great Active-Positive presidents all had fun in the job. They showed a zest and enthusiasm that was infectious, not just with the American people but, more significantly, with members of Congress.

We sure don’t see any of that with Obama. Edward Klein, a former New York Times Magazine editor and author of a book on Obama called The Amateur, has written that Obama “doesn’t learn from his mistakes, but repeats policies that make our economy less robust and our nation less safe.”

Do we see any presidential zest or political joy in this chief executive? Hardly. He seems always stern, beset, frustrated and angry. It’s as if he expects the opposition to join him in whatever he wants to do for the simple reason that they should want to make his life easier. After all, he’s the president.

Here’s how Barber describes the Active-Negative: “…relatively intense effort and relatively low emotional reward for that effort. The activity has a compulsive quality…His self-image is vague and discontinuous. Life is a hard struggle to achieve and hold power, hampered by the condemnations of a perfectionistic conscience. Active-negative types pour energy into the political system, but it is an energy distorted from within.”

Nothing illustrates this more starkly than Obama’s insistence on shirking his responsibility as president to lead the way out of Washington’s increasingly dire fiscal deadlock, with the government partially shut down and a possible financial default on the horizon. His political petulance is so far from the Positive traits, as defined by Barber, that his categorization as an Active-Negative is unavoidable.

What do you think? Does President Obama belong in the Active/Negative category?

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Tuesday, 21. May 2013 13:03 | Author:

Albert Pujols Schadenfreude

Joe Posnaski talks about why Albert Pujols doesn’t matter anymore.

Albert Pujols is currently hitting .241 for the Angels. Schadenfreude, sweet Schadenfreude.

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Gay Marriage & Standing

Wednesday, 17. April 2013 13:57 | Author:

As we discussed in class, standing (or standing to sue) means that the people who have brought the case are the ‘right’ people (parties with an actionable dispute) and are in the ‘right’ jurisdiction. A key issue in the California Prop 8 (which defined marriage as beetween a man and a woman in the California Constitution) is whether those who brought the suit have standing. They are not the state (CA abandoned defending Prop 8 in the early stages of the case) and thus the Court could “punt” on this issue by ruling on standing rather than on the substantive issue of whether gay marriage is protected by the US Constitution. A roundup of the Gay Marriage case (Prop 8) and the issue of standing:

Could Standing Stand in the Way of the Gay Marriage Decision?

Justices Flirt with Throwing Out Prop 8 Case

What’s Standing in the Way of Gay Marriage?

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Habemus Papam!!

Wednesday, 13. March 2013 13:52 | Author:

Viva il Papa!

We have a new pope!

Pope Francis I is the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina.

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Coolidge & Aggrandizement

Monday, 11. March 2013 11:23 | Author:

When we discussed the institution of the presidency, we defined the institution’s evolution in terms of aggrandizement – the accumulation of responsibility. We noted 10 presidents who had contributed to the expansion of the office over the course of American history.

Of course, contributing to aggrandizement doesn’t necessarily make a president ‘great.’ Indeed, it may not be a ‘good’ thing at all. Amity Shales offers us an alternative conception of ‘greatness’ for presidents in her depicition of Coolidge as “The Great Refrainer.”

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Close, but no cigar…

Thursday, 22. November 2012 14:28 | Author:

President Obama won pretty much the same number of electoral votes in 2012 as he did in 2008. However, this fact masks the significant drop in support for Obama across the board in the country. As the below map illustrates, Obama lost support in almost every state. He suffered his biggest drops in support in the West/Northhwest part of the country, excepting the Left Coast. Obama picked up votes in only 5 states, and only in Alaska was it a substantial improvement.


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It was 2004 afterall…

Wednesday, 7. November 2012 10:26 | Author:

I’ve updated the figure from my 2004-2012 comparison post here. Note that Obama converges on the Bush line 2 days before the end of polling, while Romney converges on the Kerry line the final day of polling. Oddly, and reflective of the national poll “miss” of the election, the RCP average understates Obama’s number by about a percentage point. On election night, Obama underperformed Bush by about 0.7% (50.7% to 50%) in the national popular vote, not the -1.6% underperformance predicted by the RCP average. Either way, this election tracks the 2004 election results fairly well. While Romney outperformed Kerry substantially in the first three weeks of September and the middle of October, he falls back in line with Kerry in the final week of the election. And concomitantly Obama was well underperforming Bush through September and into October, but rallied in the later part of October to nearly match the Bush final tally. Lesson? I guess don’t nominate grey-haired, lanky, white politicians from Massachusetts if you want to beat an incumbent president in a down economy. ;)

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Second Term

Tuesday, 6. November 2012 23:16 | Author:

Looks like those state polls turned out to have it right afterall. Congrats to President Obama.

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The Trouble with Bellweathers

Tuesday, 6. November 2012 3:56 | Author:

Is they are…until they aren’t. Still, bellweather counties in NH and Ohio lookingly marginally good for Romney.

bellweathers throughout history

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2012 Election Predictions

Monday, 5. November 2012 13:29 | Author:

My real prediction on the presidential election is “too close to call.” Models of the election that look at economic factors tend to predict a Romney victory, while those that look at political factors (incumbency in a 1st term party control presidency, approval ratings, likeability ratings, etc.) tend to predict an Obama re-election. There is a noticable divergence between state polling (which suggests a 1-2 point lead for Obama in swing states) and national polling (which tend to show a tie or 1-2 point lead for Romeny) that cannot be reconciled by random error — there MUST be systematic bias in one of the two sets of polls. I don’t know which, but I’m more inclined to go with the national pollsters (Gallup, Rassmussen, Pew, Battleground, etc.), since they have more of a track record in polling presidential elections. That said, here are my fearless predictions:

PRESIDENTIAL: Romney 52%; Obama 48% | Romney 280-300+ EC
SENATE: Republicans +4 (51/49 R to D Caucus)
HOUSE: Republicans +5 (246/186 R & D)

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What your TV shows say about your politics

Friday, 2. November 2012 6:56 | Author:

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Is 2012 Election a 2004 Repeat?

Tuesday, 23. October 2012 22:43 | Author:

There have been a number of analysts who have compared the 2012 and the 2004 presidential elections. In both cases, relatively weak incumbents with troubling economies faced milquetoast, older and rich white guys. Both campaigns featured strong, negative attacks on the challenger with a point of emphasis in turning a percieved strength (Kerry’s status as a military veteran | Romney’s substantial business experience) into an electoral weakness. Both elections were expected to be close. Both elections are expected to have hinged on the same swing states, and in particular: Ohio. But is this the same race? Let’s take a look at both races for the president, comparing the RCP averages for 2004 and 2012 in real time from August 17th to October 23:

RCP Average of Bush v. Kerry and Obama v. Romney

As we can see, there are some simillarities between the two contests. Both contests were very tight in August, only to see the incumbent open up a significantly large lead in September. This was followed by an October surge by the challenger to once again make the race close. However, there are also some significant differences between the two races. Over the full course of this cut of the data, Bush out performs Obama by 0.39 percentage points, while Romney outperforms Kerry by 1.24 percentage points. Considering how close the 2004 election ended up being (Kerry lost Ohio and the presidency by just over 2 percentage points), this is good news for Romney going into the November election. But beyond the overall difference, there is even better news in the comparison between the two elections…as Romney’s differential over Kerry increases from month to month while Obama has increasingly trailed the Bush totals as we move from August to October:

candidate differential

Note how in August the election was looking very good for Team Obama: they were outperforming Bush during the same time period by 1.22 percentage points and Romney was doing worse than Kerry by 0.59 percentage points. That all changed in the beginning of September. For the month, Obama underperformed Bush by 0.67 percentage points, a near two point swing in the wrong direction for Obama with respect to Bush. While Romney overperformed Kerry in the month of September by 1.44 points, a full two point swing in the right direction for Romney. So even in a month where Obama dominated Romney and the media narrative was that Obama had the election well in hand, if we take 2004 as the baseline, Romney was doing substantially better as a challenger while Obama was doing substantially worse as an incumbent. The month of October continues that trend, but it only becomes larger. In October, Obama is underperforming Bush now by a full percentage point, while Romney is besting Kerry by a full two percentage points. Note, if we were to apply that as a weight to the 2004 election results, then Kerry would have bested Bush in Ohio by a percentage point and gone on to win the presidency.

So while it is true that, in broad strokes, there are striking simillarities between the 2004 and 2012 presidential elections, the incumbent in 2012 is performing significantly below the standard set by the incumbent in 2004, while the challenger in 2012 is substantially besting the performance of the challenger in 2004.

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A Preference Cascade – Part II

Tuesday, 23. October 2012 16:08 | Author:

As I mentioned in Part I, there is mounting evidence that the first presidential debate initiated (or at least correlated) with a preference cascade for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. First let’s look at the evidence which suggests this might very well have happened. The first presidential debate was on October 3rd, 2012. So in order to assess the debate as an inflection point, we want to look at polling on or before October 2nd on the one hand in comparison to polling on or after October 4th. With tracking polls we will want to compare polling on October 2nd with polling reported all they way out to October 10th in the case of 7-day averages. Finally, we will want to look at the current polls. Our questions: 1) Was there a Romney surge post-debate? 2) Has that surge continued/snowballed or has it receded? I have included all polls cited in the RCP average where there is at least a poll before the first debate and a poll after the first debate. Ideally, we will look at polls immediately before, immediately after, and current polling.

polling evidence of preference cascade

This table depicts the Romney deficit or surplus in support for president in polling before the debate, after the debate, and currently. The trend columns indicate the difference in Romney support between the pre-debate numbers and the post-debate numbers as well as the pre-debate numbers and the current numbers. A positive number (green) in the trend column means that Romney has gained support between the two polling periods. Note, I compare within polls so that we can observe trends irrespective of the sampling technique and likely voter screen differences between the included polls.

One fact that should be immediately apparent is that there has unquestionably been a Romney surge. No poll included above shows Obama gaining, within their poll, over the last four weeks. The best Obama does is in the Hartford/Courant and IBD/TPP polls, both of which show no change in the race. Among the polls that have a pre-debate poll and a current poll on the race, the average Romney surge is 3.7%. That’s strong evidence that Romney’s surge out of the first debate has been durable — not a bump based on favorable media coverage. Note, the media consensus over the last 3 debates (1 VP, 2 Presidential) have been that the Obama/Biden ticket “won” the debate (at least narrowly). Despite this, Romney has seen his surge in the polls stabilize. In fact, it is even better than that for Romney if we focus on the polls that have a pre-debate, post-debate, and current poll in the above table. Those five polls are here:

preference cascade evidence 2

Note that among these polls, the trend to the current polling (which has baked into it the VP and 2nd presidential debate performances) from the pre-first debate polls is larger than the trend to the polling immediately after the debate. The average gain from the pre-debate polls to the immediate post-debate polls is 4%. However, the average gain from the pre-debate polls to the current polls is 5.33%. Romney is doing better now than he was in the immediate aftermath of his unamimous first debate victory by a little less than 1.5% points — a 26% improvement on his post-debate surge. This suggests that despite two Obama/Biden “victories” in the debates, the Romney surge has, in fact, deepened. Why might this be? A big part of the story is the misunderstanding of what the first debate performance was about. Alot of the debate analysis has focused on “winning on points”…in other words, analysts have looked at the debates as a competition. If one participant “out scores” the other, then that participant won. The consensus after the first debate was that Romney won — i.e. out-performed Obama. He certainly did that, but that is not what instigated the surge towards Romney in the polls. What instigated the surge was a preference cascade – an inflection point that established Romney as a credible alternative to Obama.

What many missed in the coverage of Obama’s lead up until the first debate was the fact that, despite that lead, Obama never topped 50% in the RCP average. Let’s look at the trend here:

As you can see, most of the Obama’s lead in the RCP average was built on depressing Romney’s numbers below 47%…not on Obama getting above 50%. Only at one time in the race over the last 6 months did Obama approach 50%, and that was a consequence of the bump he recieved after the Democratic National Convention. Those numbers quickly dissapated, with Obama returning to that 47% equilibrium. In contrast, Romney’s numbers are improving even 2 weeks out from that debate performance. The answer to the puzzle lies in this observation: A majority of the voting public had already decided they did not support President Obama. What they had not decided, before the debate, was whether or not they could support Romney as an acceptable alternative. What that first debate performance accomplished for Romney wasn’t a victory on points — it wouldn’t have mattered if Obama had performed well (as he did in the second and third debates). What mattered is that Romney painted himself as a viable alternative to Obama — and that’s exactly what a majority of the electorate is looking for. And that’s why things are looking up for Romney…and very gloomy for President Obama. And it is also why the subsequent debates and debate performances have failed to slow/suspend the Romney surge.

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A Bad Lip Reading of 1st Debate

Thursday, 18. October 2012 6:32 | Author:

It’s party time, chumps.

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Why Obama is in Trouble

Wednesday, 17. October 2012 9:45 | Author:

The difference between a 48 state blow-out and a statistical tie 3 weeks out in one graph:

Reagan v. Obama

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