The Chat Room

How To Count Change

Michael Newman and Chris Wilson take your questions about Slate’s quantitative gauge of Obama’s progress.

Writer Chris Wilson and editor Michael Newman were online at to chat with readers about Slate’s Change-o-Meter, a regular gauge of the Obama administration’s progress in changing politics in Washington. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Washington, D.C.: How do you decide how much to move the Change-o-Meter in the course of a given day? And what would it take to move it all the way to the right?

Chris Wilson: Excellent question. While I’ll be the first to admit that the feature is not 100 percent scientific, we have guidelines that we’ll continue to elucidate as the Obama administration’s strategies gel. One of the goals of the feature is to really referee where actual change happens. For example, my colleague Emily Bazelon and I compiled a list of 10 of Bush’s executive orders that we think Obama should scrap post-haste, and one of the things we discovered is that a lot of the really important decisions are made through federal rules, not executive orders. These don’t get as much attention, but they’re very significant. As Obama’s Cabinet settles in and gets to work, we’ll be watching this sort of thing closely.

To answer your second point, the far-right end of the spectrum is reserved for changes that are more permanent, like new legislation.


Washington, D.C.: I’m amazed how the people who didn’t do that well under Clinton populated that photo yesterday of White House staff. As for Geithner, I thought we voted to get rid of people with beady eyes and creepy grins.

Michael Newman: I believe the Constitution requires at least one Cabinet member with beady eyes and a creepy grin. We have some legal scholars checking now, will get back to you.


Oregon City, Ore.: I just read that human embryonic stem cell research has just been okayed. Is this the result of anything Obama did? U.S. Approves First Stem Cell Study for Spinal Injury(Washington Post, Jan. 23)

Michael Newman: Doesn’t appear to be: This scientist’s research used embryos that weren’t covered by the federal ban on such research. But Obama has said that he intends to lift the ban, which will be good for a few ticks on the meter. Good for other reasons too, but we’re all about the meter today.


Washington, D.C.: What one thing could Pres. Obama do to most shift the Change-o-Meter? Pull out of Iraq? Sign Kyoto? Balance a budget?

Chris Wilson: Yes, all of those things would be very significant, particularly because they’re more permanent changes. While restricting interrogation methods to the Army Field Manual was pretty significant yesterday, for example, it’s still an executive order that could be rather easily dismantled by a future president or even Obama himself. Major health care legislation also comes to mind as something that would score big points.

Michael Newman: If he brings the Cubs the world championship, we’ll close up shop.


Princeton, NJ: Will a patchwork, band aid approach to health care move the meter or will it take an efficient government run single payer system to really push it over?

Chris Wilson: We don’t have any preconceived notion of what the change has to look like. Because the legislative process is so byzantine, we’ll certainly be paying attention to significant progress toward new health care legislation, even if it’s a piece-mail approach. A major bill making it out of committee, for example, would register at least a little.


Boston: Are you concerned about adjusting the meter daily? I mean, I know he’s powerful and all but wouldn’t a weekly measure give you a better sense of tracking over time how much change is happening?

Michael Newman: The president does a lot in a day, so I think adjusting the meter daily is OK. We can always leave it unchanged if not much happens that day. Also doing it daily helps us to be at least quasi-objective, since we’re not weighing the significance of what he did Tuesday against what he did Friday and trying to come up with some kind of average. This thing is subjective enough already! Maybe we should adjust it hourly.

Chris Wilson: Please don’t make me do that, Newman.


Alexandria, Va.: How would strictly partisan issues like lifting the E.O. on funding for entities that perform abortions overseas register?

On the one hand, it is certainly change from the Bush years.

On the other hand, it also looks like same old pendulum, just arcing the other way.

Michael Newman: This is a metaphysical question. Wilson is the philosopher here.

From a purely practical standpoint, I would say that we are measuring change from the Bush administration. But you raise a good point: The only constant in life is change.

Coming next week to Slate: The Metaphysical Change-O-Meter. It will measure how the Obama administration alters our perception of reality.


Bethesda, Md.: How do you think this compares to Politifact’s Obameter?

Michael Newman:

That’s a pretty straightforward assessment of whether he’s kept his promises from the campaign. This is a more subjective take on Obama. We can take tone and personnel decisions and congressional relations and other stuff into account.

Chris Wilson: And not all promises are created equal. Some would have a tremendous impact on many people if enacted, while others are more esoteric.


Washington, D.C.: What do we mean by change? The simple undoing of Bush policies and executive orders? Or does it go farther back than that?

In your opinion, what specifically is the best example of the cliche “Washington politics as usual” that needs to be changed? Is it something that can realistically be changed?

Chris Wilson: It’s most certainly not limited to the undoing of Bush’s policies, though I suspect that, in the immediate future, most of the significant changes will have that flavor. (Obama’s inaugural certainly wasn’t short on jabs at 43.) In part, this is because Bush governed so unilaterally, making some of his policies pretty easy to undo right away. When I worked at Congressional Quarterly, we once made a cover for the weekly magazine that consisted of a “W” printed in sand with the tide washing in, to suggest how flimsy much of his legacy is. Made a huge mess in the conference room in the process…

But to get back to your actual question, no, it’s not just anti-Bush stuff. The Washington bureaucracy is famously difficult to puncture, but anything Obama does to actually rework the wiring in a significant way will score big.


Rochester, N.Y.: As I understand it, this is still a right-center nation. We’re going to need a lot of bipartisan compromise to get anything done and that’s going to anger extremists on both sides. Do you agree?

Michael Newman: Even stipulating to all that you say, it really has no effect on the Change-o-Meter. The Change-o-Meter takes no position on whether America is center-right, center-left or center-middle. It just measures change. The Change-o-Meter has not voted in an election since 1944, when it went for FDR.


Albany, N.Y.: Do you support a Jack Bauer exception for torture? How about a Jimmy McNulty exception for inventing spectacular crimes in order to get more resources?

Chris Wilson: That’s really strange, I just got a phone call from the man claiming to be the killer. Big scoop for Wilson.

Michael Newman: Not even Jack Bauer could get the Change-o-Meter to reveal all the secrets of its methodology.


Washington, D.C.: How much will personality play a role? If the Obamas go out in the city, become part of the party scene, etc., in a way the Bushes never were, is that taken into account?

Chris Wilson: Only if someone can make a case that this really matters. If you’ve got one, I’m all ears:


Anonymous: Have you ever run your Change-O-Meter against other presidents? I ask because I recall a group of political scientists went through Clinton’s 1992 campaign statements and they found that he did indeed at least attempt to achieve virtually everything he did promise. I haven’t read if anyone has done the same with Bush as yet.

Michael Newman:Slate didn’t exist till 1996, so we didn’t do one for Clinton. If we were around then, I like to think we would have had one for FDR.


Chicago: I know this “Change-o-meter” is for edutainment purposes only, but I have some questions about your methodology. To what degree is the Change-o-Meter accumulative, and how does it account for intangible or anecdotal evidence of change?

Chris Wilson: Contrary to what Mr. Metaphysical over there might say, I’m not too philosophical about this. In fact, I think most intangible changes can be sniffed out through more quantitative means, like opinion polls.

That said, one thing we’re definitely watching is Obama’s tone in his public statements. Major tonal shifts from the Bush years are important.

Michael Newman: To an extent we’re trying to quantify qualitative things, it’s true. But as Chris says, there are ways to do that.

And to answer a previous question about the Obamas going out on the town and how it affects the Change-o-Meter: If they go to the Palm or Don Graham’s house, not much. If they go to Five Guys, they’d probably move the meter a few ticks.


Chris Wilson: Thanks for the great questions, folks. Once again, please send ideas to—I’m only one man, and Newman is only about 1.5, so even between the two of us we need a little help tracking the entire federal government. Until next time.