The presidential power trap

Barack Obama is discovering that modern presidents have difficulty amassing political capital, which hinders their ability to enact a robust agenda

January 21, 2013|By Todd Eberly

As Barack Obama prepares to be sworn in for the second time as president of the United States, he faces the stark reality that little of what he hopes to accomplish in a second term will likely come to pass. Mr. Obama occupies an office that many assume to be all powerful, but like so many of his recent predecessors, the president knows better. He faces a political capital problem and a power trap.

In the post-1960s American political system, presidents have found the exercise of effective leadership a difficult task. To lead well, a president needs support — or at least permission — from federal courts and Congress; steady allegiance from public opinion and fellow partisans in the electorate; backing from powerful, entrenched interest groups; and accordance with contemporary public opinion about the proper size and scope of government. This is a long list of requirements. If presidents fail to satisfy these requirements, they face the prospect of inadequate political support or political capital to back their power assertions.

What was so crucial about the 1960s? We can trace so much of what defines contemporary politics to trends that emerged then. Americans' confidence in government began a precipitous decline as the tumult and tragedies of the 1960s gave way to the scandals and economic uncertainties of the 1970s. Long-standing party coalitions began to fray as the New Deal coalition, which had elected Franklin Roosevelt to four terms and made Democrats the indisputable majority party, faded into history. The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 marked the beginning of an unprecedented era of divided government. Finally, the two parties began ideologically divergent journeys that resulted in intense polarization in Congress, diminishing the possibility of bipartisan compromise. These changes, combined with the growing influence of money and interest groups and the steady "thickening" of the federal bureaucracy, introduced significant challenges to presidential leadership.

Political capital can best be understood as a combination of the president's party support in Congress, public approval of his job performance, and the president's electoral victory margin. The components of political capital are central to the fate of presidencies. It is difficult to claim warrants for leadership in an era when job approval, congressional support and partisan affiliation provide less backing for a president than in times past. In recent years, presidents' political capital has shrunk while their power assertions have grown, making the president a volatile player in the national political system.

Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush joined the small ranks of incumbents defeated while seeking a second term. Ronald Reagan was elected in two landslides, yet his most successful year for domestic policy was his first year in office. Bill Clinton was twice elected by a comfortable margin, but with less than majority support, and despite a strong economy during his second term, his greatest legislative successes came during his first year with the passage of a controversial but crucial budget bill, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the North American Free Trade Agreement. George W. Bush won election in 2000 having lost the popular vote, and though his impact on national security policy after the Sept. 11 attacks was far reaching, his greatest domestic policy successes came during 2001. Ambitious plans for Social Security reform, following his narrow re-election in 2004, went nowhere.

Faced with obstacles to successful leadership, recent presidents have come to rely more on their formal powers. The number of important executive orders has increased significantly since the 1960s, as have the issuance of presidential signing statements. Both are used by presidents in an attempt to shape and direct policy on their terms. Presidents have had to rely more on recess appointments as well, appointing individuals to important positions during a congressional recess (even a weekend recess) to avoid delays and obstruction often encountered in the Senate. Such power assertions typically elicit close media scrutiny and often further erode political capital.

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