Michael Newman and Chris Wilson explain how to measure Obama's progress.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Jan. 23 2009 7:52 PM

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 Washingtonpost.com 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.

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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.

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Oregon City, Ore.: I just read that human embryonic stem cell research has just been okayed. Is this the result of anything Obama did?

washingtonpost.com: 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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