Tammy Frisby

Tammy Frisby

Tammy Frisby is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. She also teaches in the Stanford University political science department and in the university's public policy program. She studies both national and state politics. She is currently writing a book about the politics of health care reform. She arrived at Stanford in the autumn of 2006 as a postdoctoral fellow at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. From September 2007 to August 2009, she was Executive Director of the Bill Lane Center. Frisby earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University's Department of Government.


Mr. President:

Looking ahead to your second term, evaluations of your prospects for success in domestic policymaking usually fall between fair (but maybe including the achievement of landmark tax reform or comprehensive immigration reform) and non-existent.

With a continuing Republican majority in the House and a GOP minority in the Senate large enough to be effective obstructionists in that chamber, efforts to enact your domestic agenda could be frustrated are nearly every turn. You might be tempted to see foreign policy as the surer course to a second term legacy. And that would not be an unreasonable conclusion. Among the classics of scholarship on the U.S. presidency, Aaron Wildavsky’s “Two Presidencies” thesis (1966), presented the idea that, while the two branches of government are relatively balanced in domestic policymaking, in foreign affairs, the president is dominant over Congress.

The Two Presidencies view is not without its critics and, over the years, has been called insufficiently nuanced, incomplete, and wrong. There is also the question of whether – nearly fifty-years later – the American president now operates within an international order and domestic political environment so different as to raise doubts about whether the president has as much room to maneuver on foreign policy as Wildavsky saw. But much the same, of course, can be said of domestic politics and policymaking. So while presidents might find themselves more constrained in both foreign and domestic policymaking, that the relative balance still favors foreign affairs seems more plausible than not. Add to that the reality of working with a polarized Congress with Republicans who have their hands firmly on the levers of power in the lawmaking process, and it seems difficult to argue that you will not serve Two Presidencies in your second term.
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Who will win the White House?

Now that’s we’ve officially moved into the General election, I’m getting more calls from the press during which I’m asked some version of this question:

Who is going to win the presidential election?

Here’s my answer to that question as of today, June 4th, 2012, in about 500-words:

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In the days leading up to Tax Day 2012, CNN/ORC polled Americans about their opinions about the U.S. tax system. Over the last week, the press has highlighted that 68% of respondents agreed with the statement that “the present tax system benefits the rich and is unfair to ordinary working men and women.”

So have the message of Occupy Wall Street and the President’s calls for the rich to pay their “fair share” caused more Americans than ever before to be disgruntled with the U.S. tax system?

To answer this question, we can look at the latest poll compared to earlier surveys of Americans’ opinions about the U.S. tax system. It turns out that the same question asked by CNN/ORC this week has been asked nine other times over the last forty years by major polling firms. The two most recent previous polls were conducted in by CNN (with Time/Yankelovich Partners). The seven earlier surveys were all run by other reputable polling firms like Harris, ABC News/Washington Post, and Yankelovich Partners.

How does the latest poll compare?

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After the Etch-A-Sketch gaffe last week, some Hoover colleagues and I were able to add a question about the incident to the weekly The Economist/YouGov poll. We wanted to know how aware of the gaffe Americans were. Once we knew who had heard about the gaffe and who had not, we could combine that information with the standard The Economist/YouGov poll question about Romney’s sincerity to see if an off-hand comparison to a classic children’s toy might have affected voters’ attitudes about Mitt Romney.

A disclaimer: This is circumstantial evidence – if for no other reason than a lot of other things also happened in the campaigns, politics, and the economy that week that might have impacted perceptions of Romney.

That said, what follows is not good news for the Romney campaign.

Let’s start with the Republicans.

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With the State of the Union address only hours away and Warren Buffett’s secretary set to sit in the gallery with the first lady, the White House was no doubt pleased to see POLITICO.com pick up the latest CBS/New York Times poll results and run a story under the headline, “‘Buffett Rule’ backed by majority, new poll shows.” On the CBS website, the poll results, released at noon ET today, sport a similar headline, “Most Americans agree with ‘Buffett rule’ concept, poll shows.”

Big News. So I looked at the poll release from CBS/New York Times. Here’s the full question wording for the “Buffett Rule” question:

Federal tax policy now allows capital gains and dividends to be taxed at a lower rate than income from work. Which comes closer to your opinion? You approve of the current policy because you think it encourages investment, which helps the economy and ultimately increases tax revenues. OR, You think capital gains and dividends should be taxed the same as income earned from work because the current policy increases the federal deficit and is unfair to people who don’t have money to invest.

Let’s set aside the issue of whether increased tax revenues from enactment of the Buffett Rule, that is, taxing capital gains income at same marginal rates as regular income, would actually be used to reduce the deficit, rather than fund additional government spending. The last phrase in the question – “unfair to people who don’t have money to invest” – is enough to cast doubt on whether this question gives us an accurate measure of public opinion on the Buffett Rule.

Using the word “unfair” in a survey question cues respondents to favor the response option that is “fair” or will provide redress for the unfairness. Moreover, the CBS/New York Times question wording goes so far as to present the issue of fairness or unfairness of the current capital gains tax rate as a fact: “You think capital gains and dividends should be taxed the same as income earned from work BECAUSE [my emphasis] the current policy…is unfair to people who don’t have money to invest.”

Asking about the Buffett Rule with this question wording, 52% of all respondents said they favored taxing capital gains the same as work income, 36% favored the current tax policy, 2% volunteered that they wanted the capital gains tax rate higher than the tax rate for work income, and 10% declined to express a preference. There were the expected partisan differences too. 66% of Democrats supported the Buffett Rule, along with 33% of Republicans and 54% of Independents. Margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

Respondents were provided with arguments in support of the current capital gains rate, but the balance of the arguments – when one response is framed as a issue of basic fairness – is biased in favor of the Buffett Rule. Proponents of the current capital gains tax rate make their own fairness argument about double taxation of income, for example. That point is difficult to convey well in a survey question, so I wouldn’t expect it to show up in a conventional telephone poll. But if you aren’t framing the argument in terms of fairness on one side of the issue, you probably shouldn’t use that frame for the other side.

I searched for a comparable survey question on the Buffett Rule. Unfortunately, the most recent question that I could find in a search of Gallup, the Roper iPoll database, and PollingReport.com, was a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll from October 2007, before the Financial Crisis and Occupy Wall Street. But it does provide us with some point of comparison:

Now turning to the subject of taxes. As you may know, George W. Bush cut the tax rate on capital gains and dividends to 15 percent, while the top tax rate on earned wages is 38 percent. Do you think the next president should continue to tax investment income at lower rates than salary income, or should the rate for investment income be raised, or should they both be taxed at the same rate?

In 2007, 40% of all respondents to the LA Times/Bloomberg Poll favored the Buffett Rule, 16% supported a higher capital gains rate but not as high as the marginal tax rates, 21% responded that they favored continuing to tax investment income at lower rates than earned income, and 23% provided other answers, predominately “Not Sure.” Margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

Do a majority of Americans today favor the Buffett Rule? Maybe. But survey questions that read more like they were designed to focus group the president’s State of the Union messaging and less like public opinion research won’t help us know that.

Americans and the Flat Tax

A couple of my Hoover colleagues and I are in the process of surveying Americans about their opinions on a flat rate income tax. As part of this research, we wanted to know what Americans thought about a flat tax in the past, which would give us a baseline against which we can measure changes in public opinion.

Here, briefly, is an initial look at some historical public opinion data on the flat tax.

Getting the baseline

Using the Roper iPoll database, a curated repository of public opinion surveys conducted by reputable polling organizations, I searched for all flat tax survey questions asked since 1980 and identified questions that asked respondents to choose between a graduated rate income tax system and a flat tax. I wanted questions that prompted respondents to express an opinion on the core difference between a flat tax and our current system: under a flat tax system, everyone would pay the same income tax rate, while under a graduated tax system, people with higher incomes pay higher income tax rates. I set aside questions that asked how favorable respondents were to a flat tax, without referring in some way to a graduated rate system.

Because I wanted to try to isolate American’s opinions about the general idea of a graduated income tax versus a flat tax, I also set aside questions that made any mention of tax deductions, credits, or exclusions, no matter whether the question indicated that these tax provisions would be retained or eliminated, whether in full or in part, in a flat tax system. How any flat tax proposal treats these elements of the tax code will undoubtedly affect Americans’ opinions about the plan. For this purpose, however, I wanted measures of support for a single rate system unadulterated by opinions about favored deductions.

After applying these selection criteria, I was left with ten survey questions, asked in three years: 1995 (3 questions), 1996 (6 questions), and 1999 (1 question). These are, as you might recall, years in which there was a lively public debate over the flat tax, spearheaded by Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, who ran in both the 1996 and 2000 contests, and Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX), who promoted a flat tax plan from inside Congress. None of these questions, though, mentioned the proposed flat tax rate or the name or political party of a flat tax promoter.

Nine of the ten questions compared the two tax systems explicitly, using the phrase, “people with higher incomes pay a higher tax rate” or some slight variation to describe the basic feature of a graduated rate income tax system. The tenth question made the choice between two systems implicit, but explicitly told respondents that, under the proposed flat tax, everyone would pay the same tax rate regardless of their income. (This is the August 1996 question, one of six questions from that year, so we’re able to compare the response to this question wording to the other question format. As you’ll see, the alternate wording does not appear to make much difference.)

A minority, but a large minority, preferred a flat tax.

The graph below shows that the last time we had a serious public debate about adopting a flat tax, a large minority of Americans said they preferred a single rate income tax system to a graduated system that taxed people with higher incomes at higher rates. During the late 1990s, surveys showed between 38 and 50 percent of Americans supporting a flat tax, even when prompted to compare a flat tax to an income tax system where people with higher incomes pay higher tax rates. In 1995, as Steve Forbes began a national conversation about his flat tax plan, a flat tax consistently drew support from about 40% of Americans. Four of the six surveys conducted in 1996 had support in the mid-to-high forties, and the lowest two levels of support were 39 and 41 percent. The single question from 1999 measured support for a flat tax at 50 percent. All the surveys included here had a sample size of about 1,000 adults and a margin of error of plus or minus three percent.

flat tax polling 1990s 102811.001 cropped

Three of the questions asked in 1996 added one additional piece of information about the flat tax plan: low-income Americans would not be taxed under a flat tax system. The inclusion of this detail is correlated with a bump in support for a flat tax system. These three questions – the two January 1996 questions and the second from March 1996 – had support for a flat tax over a graduated rate system at 48, 49, and 45 percent, respectively. These are the highest rates of support during 1995 and 1996. The 1999 question, which recorded support for a flat tax at the high mark of 50%, did not include information about how the flat tax would apply to low-income Americans.

What should we expect today?

It would be reasonable to expect that, in 2011, Americans will be less supportive of a flat tax than they were fifteen years ago. In the midst of high and prolonged unemployment and with the current attention to the gains in income by the top 1% of earners over the last decade, we might find the public more attracted to taxing people who earn higher incomes at higher rates.

That shift, however, is far from inevitable. But it is up to proponents of a flat tax to persuade a substantial number of Americans that a flat tax will encourage investment and spur the robust economic growth and job creation that has thus far been elusive.

(photo credit: Sue)

Over at HuffPost-Pollster, Helmut Norpoth, a professor of political science at Stony Brook University, has claimed that despite the weak economy, history is on Barack Obama’s side in the president’s campaign for reelection. Norpoth’s argument is that Americans are inclined to give first term presidents who won the White House from the other political party a second term so the administration has a fair chance to deliver on promises made. In Norpoth’s words, “The electorate has loudly registered the demand, ‘It’s Time for a Change.’ But change will take time to be implemented. At such moments in history, one may suspect, the public is willing to show some patience with the efforts of the new administration to work its magic.”

Norpoth’s main evidence is the reelection track record of the six, first term, new party presidents since 1960. Only one of these presidents was defeated. On the surface, these are great odds for Obama.

This American-voter-full-of-grace motif has a certain self-deifying appeal to it. But another look at the history of presidential elections shows an American voter more unsparing than forgiving.

The table below presents an augmented version of a table from Norpoth’s article. The table includes the six reelection bids of sitting presidents that Norpoth takes as the comparable cases for the 2012 election. Norpoth’s original table consists of the first two columns below, the election year and the election result. I’ve added columns three through six, the percent change in GDP from the previous quarter for the four quarters in each election year. Cells shaded red denote a quarter in which the economy was in recession, as declared by the economists at NBER.

AaFS post presidents old college try 101111.001

For five of these six presidential elections, economic growth was robust in the year of the president’s reelection campaign. For one reelection bid, Carter’s in 1980, it was not. I’ll leave intelligent readers to work out for themselves the correlation between economic growth and a president’s reelection prospects. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t seem like American voters were giving Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, or G.W. Bush, a big break on economic policy when they reelected these presidents.

What about Ford and H.W. Bush, the other one term presidents since 1960? Norpoth argues that American voters held these presidents to a different – and higher – standard than this president will be measured against. According to Norpoth, American voters didn’t cut Ford or Bush 41 any slack because their Republican predecessors, Nixon and Reagan, had used up all the goodwill. “[W]hen two terms are up,” writes Norpoth, “the public may no longer be inclined to give the administration the benefit of the doubt.” In fact, running as a successor president is such an uphill slog that of the seven elections since 1960 when one party has controlled the presidency for two or more terms, only once has the president’s party won the election, in 1988 when Bush 41 succeeded Ronald Reagan.

Although Norpoth brackets these two elections as immaterial, presidential election prognosticators should not dismiss the relevance of the 1976 and 1992 elections and the warning they serve to sitting presidents running for reelection. In both these election years, economic growth was relatively strong. In 1976, the economy grew at a quarterly rate of 9.4, 3.0, 2.0, and 2.9%. Quarterly growth in 1992 hung in at just north of 4 percent. In neither year was the economy in recession. Yet, among his other political deficits, Ford was unable to escape the shadow cast by the Watergate scandal and his pardon of Nixon in 1976. Bush 41 saw an economic recovery during 1992 but could not capitalize on it as Bill Clinton skillfully cultured voter discontent over both the eight month recession that ended in early 1991 and Bush’s broken tax pledge throughout the general election.

The historical lesson from the reelection bids of first term presidents since 1960 is a less sanguine one for the Obama administration than Norpoth’s reading. Americans do not reward the old college try when it comes to our presidents. On the contrary, bad economic news will find the president sent off to start looking at blueprints for his presidential library, and even solid economic growth in an election year has, historically, not been enough to secure a second term.

This election, Democrats should find no comfort in the history of presidential politics. If President Obama wins in 2012, it will be as history making as his first victory.

(photo credit: Daniel Borman)

Wednesday’s failed vote in the House on a continuing resolution to provide appropriations for the beginning of FY12 cast new doubts on Speaker Boehner’s ability to make deals that can get through the Democratic Senate while not losing critical votes from conservatives in the House. It also raised the specter of a government shutdown, or at least another round of budget brinksmanship, which the Republican leadership would, reasonably, like to avoid.

But, on balance, votes like Wednesday’s can work to Boehner’s favor looking to the 2012 elections and into the next Congress.

Wednesday, Republicans in the right flank of the conference cast votes that certify their Cut-Cut-Cut credentials. As long as these members can point to these kinds of votes, they lower their risk of facing a Tea Party-backed primary challenger from even further to the right.

For all Boehner’s problems now, his conference only becomes more difficult to cohere if the most conservative members are more conservative or if there are even more members further to the right. (There’s also the question of whether he would be able to retain the speakership against a more conservative challenger from within the party.) I’m not suggesting that the House Republican leadership was looking to lose a vote, but there is political value to Boehner in letting the far right in the conference engage in a bit of public rebellion.

Boehner also enjoys the luxury of creating opportunities for the rank-and-file to take actions that will be portrayed by critics as “obstructionist” without doing major damage to the prospect the Republicans keep their House majority. Not to encourage overconfidence among Republicans, but, if history is any guide, the congressional Republicans can take some dings over the next year and still run the House in 2013 with at least something close to the current 242 seat majority.

Because presidential elections are usually won and lost on economic fundamentals, specifically, the unemployment rate and GDP growth, the president is unarguably in big trouble right now. Consider that along with this fact: looking at the period since 1945, no party has captured the presidency from the other party and lost hold of a House or Senate majority. The closest we came to that was the 2000 election, when George W. Bush won the electoral vote but not the popular vote. Without the benefit of long presidential coat tails, Republicans lost 4 Senate seats (but retained control of the 50-50 chamber by the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Cheney) and saw their already slim House majority reduced from 223 to 221. If unemployment remains near 10% and the economy fails to recover, Republican congressional candidates are likely to do well in 2012 regardless of their own political transgressions.

The current worst case scenario for Republicans probably isn’t any worse than it was for the Democrats in 1992, when Clinton made George H.W. Bush a one-term president and the Democrats picked up one more Senate seat (going from 56 to 57) but lost 9 House seats, taking their majority from 267 to 258.

For now, Boehner’s best bet is to run the House in a way that gives members the opportunity to help themselves now and, by doing so, help him later. Letting the House “work its will,” as Boehner described it in a press conference after Wednesday’s vote, is an unruly but necessary part of that.

(photo credit: Medill DC)

The President’s Jobs Problem

Since the 2010 midterm elections, the conventional wisdom about Barack Obama’s reelection strategy is that he will follow the lead of other Democratic presidents who, beleaguered by governing with Republican congressional majorities, ran against Republicans in Congress as much as against the Republican nominee for president, and won a second term. The cases in point: an embattled Harry Truman ran against a “Do Nothing” Congress in 1948 and pulled off what is arguably the greatest election upset in American history. Bill Clinton, who had to assert that he was still relevant after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, waged a reelection campaign in 1996 that was directed as much at Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America Republicans as at Bob Dole. Truman and Clinton succeed in convincing voters (or at least they avoided getting in the way of voters figuring out for themselves) that they wanted to return the president to the White House and send along fewer Republicans and more Democrats to the House and Senate while they were at it.

Now, with the drama of the debt ceiling battle to weave into the narrative, making this the core of the Obama campaign has even greater lure.

It might work for Obama to follow the lead of Truman and Clinton and run against the Republicans in Congress. But the same campaign messaging that worked for Truman and Clinton can’t work for Obama unless the economy improves substantially.

When Truman and Clinton executed this campaign strategy, their reelection prospects were buoyed by strong economic performance in the year leading up to the election. While 1946 and 1947 saw a relatively severe recession, during the first three quarters of 1948, real GDP grew by 6.5%, 7.5%, and 2.2% (seasonally adjusted at annual rates; see the National Income and Product Accounts Table 1.1.1 from the Bureau of Economic Analysis). Although the U.S. economy was sliding into a short recession at the end of 1948, with 4th Quarter GDP growth of 0.6% and negative growth in the first two quarters of 1949, during the campaign, Truman could point to recent robust economic growth. Clinton, too, could shake hands on the receiving lines knowing that most Americans were better off than they were four years ago. Throughout 1996 the economy grew by 2.8% (Q1), 7.1% (Q2), 3.5% (Q3), and 4.4% (Q4).

Truman and Clinton could look at the nation and say, “The economy is okay (even good). I have a plan and it’s working. And, hey, have I mentioned that it would be working even better if you’d help me get rid of these clowns over in Congress who are dragging me down?”

Unless the economy experiences a dramatic turnaround over the next fifteen months, Obama can’t make the same argument to the country. The U.S. economy grew by only 0.4% and 1.3% in the first two quarters of 2011, respectively.

And then there’s the president’s jobs problem.

The graph below shows the U.S. monthly unemployment rate preceding the elections of 1948 (Truman’s reelection), 1996 (Clinton’s reelection), and 2012. The November of the General election appears at the far right hand side of the graph. The trend lines present the unemployment rate in the months leading up to the election. The trend line associated with Truman’s first term begins in 1948 instead of earlier because government unemployment data prior to 1948 cannot be reliably compared to the reported unemployment rate from 1948 onward. I show unemployment data associated with Clinton’s first term back to January 1995 so we can make a comparison with unemployment during the Obama administration.

Click on the graph to enlarge.


If there is talk about “bending the curve” going on around the West Wing these days, the president and his advisors should be talking about reducing the unemployment rate. Unemployment during the last year of Truman’s first term was relatively steady and below 4%. Unemployment hugged 5% during the second half of Clinton’s first term. Not only is unemployment much higher as Obama begins his reelection campaign in earnest, but it is ticking upward.

Unlike Truman and Clinton, Obama must convince the American people, or at least independents and other swing voters, that he does have a bankable plan for economic growth and job creation. Entrust him with another term in the White House, accompanied with more Democrats in Congress, and he’ll make it happen. That will be the message.

That he wasn’t able to prove that he could deliver on the economy when he had a huge Democratic majority in the House and a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate will not help him make his case. Whether he inherited the faltering economy of 2009 and 2010 will be beside the point to most voters in 2012.

Today, minutes after the debt limit deal passed in the Senate, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) told reporters, “It is now time for Congress to get back to our regularly scheduled program, and that means jobs,” and, moreover, he said, for Democrats, job creation is their “strong suit.”

The president should hope Sen. Schumer is right.