Sunday, December 20, 2009

Presidential Approval Ratings Revisited

How Mr. Obama is Faring

If you are like me the closing of 1st semester usually finds my classes on the topic of the Presidency. For some reason this year I am a tad behind schedule, and will need to finish the Executive branch when I return after the holidays. And that is just fine with me! I believe this is a unique opportunity to analyze the presidency. As Mr. Obama finishes his first year in office, we can look at several aspects of his administration and then apply it to the lessons in Hippocampus.

Last year I blogged on the idea of Presidential approval rating (see December 7, 2008) by directing you to look at a Wikipedia site on the topic. I would like to send you there again this year to see the (Obama) updates. As is apparent by the current polls, Mr. Obama is now at or below the 50% approval rating. Having entered office with a 70% approval rating, we have to ask why the 20% drop in his first year of office. The year has not been a disaster for the new President. The recession according to economists has lessened, the bail-outs to banks are being repaid, the war in Iraq has quieted, and the Nobel committee saw fit to award the President it's Peace Prize. On the other hand federal spending is out of control, the health reform bill is dragging through Congress, the situation in Afghanistan is now demanding a troop buildup, and a right wing backlash led by television pundits and Sarah Palin is vocally attacking the White House relentlessly. So why the drop?

Here is a lesson plan I intend on using in class when the semester resumes that will address this issue. My students have already looked at Rossiter, Neustadt, Burns, and Barber in the Hippocampus lessons and in the Lineberry textbook and we have had an opportunity to digest these in class. We have also discussed as a class the process of polling (see Hippocampus). I will now put the kids in small groups of 3-4 and have them develop a plan for the President to improve his approval ratings by developing policy statement in the areas of a) domestic policy, b) international policy, and c) economic policy. I will give them a class period to define statements from each area. They can use the Internet to develop ideas and as they work in groups I will circulate and give them suggestions and ideas. This most likely will result in some out of the classroom work. Students can so easily communicate today via email, texting, and vehicles such as Google Docs that this can be finished in the day I don't see them.

During the next class each group will present their statements to the class. As they do so, these statements will be recorded on the board. Then as a class, I will ask for a critique of each of the statements as far as how would it be received by the public, by the media, by the Congress, and by the President's party and the opposition party. I anticipate that this activity will take the remainder of the second class.

Following this, I will ask that each student write a page to two page reaction paper based on the activity speculating on how President Obama could raise his approval rating while meeting the needs of the nation and his party. I will also ask them to comment on what they have learned from the lesson concerning the chief executive and his job.

This is a messy assignment. It does not have neat boxes to fill in or specific instructions for the students to follow. It is extremely open ended, and the results of the groups and the content of the reaction papers vary greatly, which is exactly what I want to see. A wide variety of results can come from such an assignment. I first hope students really understand what an impossible job the President has trying to fulfill his many roles while pleasing his multitude of constituents. This usually comes to light as we critique the policy statements of the groups. Second, I hope the students fully understand Neustadt's idea of the President as a Clerk. As the students create policies and as we critique those policies in class it becomes apparent how dependent the President is on his Cabinet and bureaucracy as well as Congress in carrying out his wishes. Finally, I want to revisit the expressed goals of the President as a candidate and see if those goals were achievable in the political climate. This is the Burn's idea on presidential greatness. I always like to ask the students if a modern president can ever be great given the political realities of our time.

I tend to like this type of class project. It forces the students to apply their reading and Hippocampus lessons to the current political climate and analyze and predict outcomes. It is definitely an assignment on the top side of Bloom's Taxonomy. I am fortunate to have students who will take the assignment seriously and will give a reasonable effort in the groups. Since right and wrong answers don't exist for the group portion, the participation in the group is the key issue in establishing a grade for the activity. The response paper can be customize to meet your personal teaching style and student expectations.

In the end, I believe the time we spend with the students discussing policy development and the many snags that policies can create for our leaders is time well spent. Opening dialogue with the kids and encouraging civil discourse can only have positive results.

This is my last blog of 2009. Thanks for your readership this year. I hope your holiday season is happy and that your homes are blessed with the laughter of friends and family. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and ideas with you in 2010. Until then....

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Those Pesky Founding Fathers

Who Were Those Guys Anyway???

For the last couple of years, I have found more frequently that students are entering my class with some pretty heavy preconceived notions concerning government and politics. These opinions seem to be on the extreme ends of the political continuum...that is to say the kids have an unusually conservative or liberal bent prior to walking into my door. Have you also noticed this?

Class discussions that once were based on readings and lectures now become tainted with partisan politics. It seems that the confrontational banter of the more extreme televised pundits has worked itself down to the level of teen audiences and is creating a red/blue divide in the classroom. I feel like Rip Van Winkle; I fell asleep one day and when I awoke the world was a strange new political place.

The advent of President Obama's election and the rise of Sarah Palin as the populist icon of conservative America seems to be the fuel for this fire. I suppose it is only natural that as the nation moves towards moderate liberalism on one hand and grassroots conservativism on the other that the kids will be pulled into the fray. What is interesting in my classroom discussion when we deviate into these ideological detours is that the students all claim that they have the Founding Fathers on their side. Those pesky Founders!

What is precipitating this blog is that for the last couple of years I have felt compelled to interrupt my scheduled lesson plans to return to the very first unit on underpinnings and have a further discussion on the Founding Fathers. There seems to be a great deal of confusion on who these people were and what were their intentions. The deeper into the course I travel with the students the more the Founders seem to intervene. Why is this? I have a theory.

Most American like to believe that our nation was founded by a marvelous group of like minded individual. Some how we have glorified the Founders as intellectual giants, courageous in their opposition to tyranny and self sacrificing in their march toward a democratic government. While this may or may not be true, what was true was the Founders were a factious lot representing many diverse elements of the former 13 colonies. The wealthy landed, the indentured, the small shopkeepers and the yeoman farmer all had their representatives as did the western settlers, the southern plantation owners, and the urban shipping commercial interests.

I don't reject the idea that the Founders were a unique collection of men unmatched in history. I do reject the notion that they had much in common with each other ideologically, economically, or politically. Madison had good reason to fear factions...they were everywhere particularly among the nation's leaders.

On the other hand, which group of Founders do we want to point to? Only four of those who signed the Declaration of Independence also signed the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Are the grass root revolutionaries such as Sam Adams and Patrick Henry to be put in the same category with later politicos such as John Jay and James Madison? Some how I doubt Sarah Palin looks to Alexander Hamilton, the father of big government, as her role model.

The practical side of today's conversation is that maybe I need to take more time at the start of the year and clarify some of these issues. I have always spent considerable time on ideologies and political beliefs; however, in the highly charged political society we now find ourselves in it might be beneficial and save time in the long run if more time is spent initially on topics like the Founders and their philosophies. I am sure thinking that will be the case on my next go around in APGOPO.