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TIPSHEET: Grading Obama: Vanderbilt presidential experts offer analysis

Political scientist David Lewis: President Obama‘s transition receives generally high marks with a few exceptions: “Obama has about three quarters of his team in place,” Lewis said. “He moved quickly to name his White House staff, which is critical, and the pace of other appointments is on par with his predecessors.” Lewis says there also have been a few bumps along the way. “Key posts remain vacant, as clearly illustrated during the Christmas attempted terror attack,” he noted. “Examples include the Transportation Security Administration, Drug Enforcement Agency and Customs and Border Protection.” In addition, Obama‘s nominations for judgeships are lagging. Only half as many judges have been nominated and confirmed under Obama as Bush 43. Lewis, author of The Politics of Presidential Appointments, is teaching a course on the American presidency this spring. He can be reached for interviews at

Political scientist John Geer: Obama‘s lowered public approval rating not unusual for year one of presidency: “Most presidents enjoy their highest poll numbers immediately after inauguration,” he said. “Given the state of the economy and everything else on the president‘s plate, Obama is doing just fine. If his approval hovers around 50 percent, that‘s a good indicator that he would be re-elected.” What does interest Geer is the Republican Party‘s decision to take a stronger ideological stand to the right than many would have predicted. Geer sees this as part of a larger historical pattern involving both Democrats and Republicans. “For example, the GOP lost with Richard Nixon in 1960 and shifted to a more extreme candidate, Barry Goldwater, who was trounced in 1964. Democrats acted in a similar fashion when President Carter lost in 1980. Four years later they picked Walter Mondale, who was even more liberal and carried only one state in the general election. History suggests that the party out of power selects a candidate who is more extreme and that can give an advantage to the incumbent.” Geer, who teaches and writes about campaigns, elections, public opinion and the presidency, can be reached at

Presidential historian Thomas Alan Schwartz: Give Obama an “incomplete” on foreign policy: “Foreign policy could provide a big boost or an added blow to the president‘s political fortunes,” Schwartz said. “First years have not been kind to modern presidents and are not always good indicators of what they might accomplish.” He noted that John Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs disaster, a failed summit with Khrushchev and the Berlin Wall. Ronald Reagan dealt with an unpopular war in El Salvador, massive demonstrations in Europe against his nuclear policies and an aggressive Soviet Union. Bill Clinton stood by while the situation in Yugoslavia deteriorated and was forced into a humiliating withdrawal from Somalia after the Black Hawk down incident. “Foreign policy achievements often require considerable time, secrecy and patience,” Schwartz said. “Obama enjoys considerable stature and prestige around the world, and although that may evaporate in the absence of accomplishments, it does buy him time. He has been fortunate that two of America‘s adversaries, Iran and North Korea, are beset by considerable domestic problems while the situation in Iraq has stayed relatively quiet.” The key to assessing the Obama record will be whether his policy of multilateralism and international engagement, in particular his attempts to encourage the cooperation of Russia and China, as well as his decision to attempt a military “surge” in Afghanistan, begin to yield tangible results. Schwartz, an expert on U.S. foreign policy and trans-Atlantic relations, is the author of Lyndon Johnson and Europe: In the Shadow of Vietnam. He can be reached for interviews at

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS