The 2008 presidential election was crucial not only for its historical significance in electing our first African-American president, but also for the definition of the post-modern presidency as marked by unattainable expectations of the executive.
Each president is more vulnerable than the one before him and expected to simultaneously serve as the “leader of the free world” and a magic problem solver. All presidents fail; a successful president is one who fails at a minimum instead of one who succeeds at a maximum. President Obama is considered inexperienced and cold, a demagogue unprepared; what makes him unique as a president and as a politician is that he can quickly grow and adapt to new obstacles despite these weaknesses, however valid or invalid they may be. One of Obama’s strongest characteristics is that he has cultivated an image of disallowing politics from interfering with legal principle and policy making, although his legislative successes may have been more numerous in the first part of his term had he been swifter at managing political processes. He has become the reasonable, partisan president, but at what cost? Is a charming president a persuasive one? It would seem that one of Obama’s greatest strengths has been his ability to reassure; yet as Neustadt said, a president’s greatest power is that of persuasion. Obama is certainly charming, but has he been persuasive? His limitations in office have largely been a result of this lack of persuasion and his failure to communicate to his party, his opposition, and his public.
When a new president enters office, a general cycle emerges whereby they begin their term with a 80% approval rating in the honeymoon period, which then drops to 60% and then fluctuates in the low 40s. By the fourth year, ratings increase as the president faces reelection and brings out new rhetoric. Obama fits this parabolic curve perfectly in what is known as the disappointment-expectations theory. Expectations are higher than what the political system allows for. Obama’s historic election alone was not enough to change America, and after winning on his poetic platform of hope, his supporters wanted results, and fast. But what is easily and quickly forgotten is perhaps the most obvious: Presidents must betray their supporters to stay in office and govern.
Obama’s priority when assuming office was to immediately ameliorate the failing economy, delaying significant program development like healthcare reform so that he could save his power stakes and public prestige instead of using up all of his resources at once. While his swift stimulus package helped prevent the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, he recommitted more troops to Afghanistan when he initially promised full withdrawal and has extended other Bush-era policies for the sake of appeasing Republicans in the House to garner support for later objectives. These compromises have been disappointing, but perhaps could have been avoided had he been more persuasive, both at the start of negotiations with Republicans to keep policy strong, and with his power base after negotiations yielded far better results for the opposition than for himself.
He has been a weak liberal president but a strong moderate one. Alas, the liberal and ethnic coalitions that put Obama in the White House have broken down as socially liberal policies alienate Catholic voters, strict immigration laws isolate Hispanic voters, and so on. The popularity of the presidency is precarious, but critical in that it impacts every aspect of the office. Contrary to popular belief, the president is elected on the coattails of his party, not vice versa. Generally,presidents win by a 50% margin while their party members win by up to 60% in their districts; the party brings in the president. In midterm elections, the party will always be more afraid of loss than excited about the prospect of gain, because although a popular president may bring in some votes and fill seats in Congress with more members of his party, an unpopular president will lose twice as many. For every percentage point of approval, the likelihood of his agenda passing increases. The less popular a president is, the less likely it is that he will introduce new legislation, veto legislation he opposes, and face primary challengers, but the more likely it is that Congress will limit his powers. It is also not surprising that a president’s popularity will affect the flux of members joining or leaving his party. A president seeking reelection must have 50% of approval ratings to win a second term; Obama is currently at 46%, but his term average has been at 49%. Other presidents’ approval ratings at this time in reelection years have been at 51% for George W. Bush in 2004 and 49% for Gerald Ford in 1976.
This phenomenon conditions party leadership, as party leaders are aware of their stakes and are more likely to attempt to preserve their office than to assist the president in his. The Democrats suffered major losses in 2010 because of doubts about Obama from within his own party. The White House endorsement did not help gubernatorial candidates Jon Corzine in New Jersey or Creigh Deeds in Virginia. One of the biggest upsets was perhaps the failure of the supermajority; Senator Arlen Specter lost reelection despite avid campaigning from the president himself on his behalf. Specter created the supermajority by switching from the Republican side to the Democrats in return for support for the 2010 election and automatic party nomination. But Democratic voters in Pennsylvania were not given options of a candidate they trusted or liked because an 80-year-old Republican bypassed other high-ranking Democratic leaders in the state, and therefore elected Joe Sestak. His candidacy focused on portraying himself as more loyal to the Democratic Party than Specter or even Obama and Governor Ed Rendell. Obama’s popularity in 2010 had a direct impact on the losses that resulted in a divided government, but he was not as unpopular at the time as the midterm election results may make him seem.
Democrats lost about 63 of 258 seats in the House and 6 or 19 seats in the Senate, plus 680 state legislative seats predominantly because of misconceptions about the Obama administration. The main issue that concerned voters was the economy, naturally enough, but many were misinformed about the status of the economy, which was on the upswing. Private sector jobs had increased from 107.1 million to 108.1 million and the stock market was rising steadily. Voters were also misinformed about the second biggest policy of the Obama administration to date, which was healthcare. The most unpopular provision of the act was that individuals were required to have health insurance, but even Republicans supported provisions like tax credits to small businesses and the requirement of insurance companies to cover those with preexisting conditions and financial help for low-income Americans. Obama had found a double edged-sword: He was tackling so many problems at once that the people were misinformed and misunderstood his policy initiatives, however ambitious they may have been, further exhibiting his failure to communicate and resulting in his apparent failure to persuade. Despite a plethora of speeches from Obama and the First Lady in the first six months in office, as well as weekly addresses and statements, only a small number were on the economy and job creation. The Republican Party manipulated the media to spin its own web and persuade voters away from the Democrats and towards the right. The mistake was that the Democrats let them. Obama’s decline in popularity has ultimately been typical, but if he cannot fully recover this year to a minimum of a 50% approval rating, he will be replaced by a Republican and remembered as a candidate and not a president.
The president is vested with certain defined powers of legislative, administrative, and budgetary authority by the Constitution, but the most useful powers of the presidency have been developed or assumed outside of the words of the forefathers and require the most significant presidential power: persuasion. The president’s primary role as the chief legislator is not to lead Congress itself, but to lead the process of legislating. A president’s success in Congress is ultimately shaped by the size of the president’s party, the amount of time left in his term, global and national economic conditions, and the state of international relations. Unlike in most countries, the American president does not control the legislative body in the slightest: He does not appoint leaders, including the majority and minority leaders and the minority whip; he does not attend caucuses or conferences; and he has no control over the calendar. The president therefore must utilize his opportunities to persuade Congress through the State of the Union, recommendations to Congress, and generally stay involved in policy making without interfering.
To accomplish this, the president needs party support. Obama needs the Democratic Party to support his prerogative power by defending his policies and voting to pass them into law. He also needs their influence on congressional committees to protect his administration – as in the case of the Fast and Furious investigations of Eric Holder when Democratic committee members put the investigation on hold – and control the bureaucracy. Administrative leadership often takes the form of favors and favor. Favors are a transactional method of persuasion that often entails a president promising appropriations or resources to a senator or representative for their vote on a bill whereas favor is granted by a president as an ongoing symbiotic relationship to accommodate certain members of Congress in exchange for reliable support. The president’s administrative powers also naturally include the creation and maintenance of a cabinet, which develops policies for the executive branch and is for the most part composed of private sector appointees who are experts in their field but otherwise do not know each other or how the executive branch functions in what has been called a “government of strangers.” Ultimately, the presidency is determined by the president’s ability to not only negotiate with the opposing party, but with his own.
The 2008 election indicated a significant shift away from Republican conservatism and towards a Democratic agenda focusing on progressive issues and economic recovery. The 111th Congress had a 257-150 margin of Democrats to Republicans in the House and 58-42 in the Senate, comfortable majorities that should have yielded more impressive legislative gains for a party with little ideological variation focused on an agenda dominated by the urgency of the economic crisis. The House majority party leadership controls bills that are reviewed, creates the calendar, and fully command committee functions, including drafting special rules for how bills are considered. The House is an institution dominated by majority-rule. Despite these advantages, the Republican opposition was stronger than before because only right-wing members remained as the more cooperative moderates had been ousted, and support even for emergency legislation would be a stretch. Congressional Democrats pushed for legislation in the months following the election prior to Obama’s inauguration but the conservatives – all Republicans and blue-dog Democrats – refused to unite for the sake of bipartisanship. Majority Leader Harry Reid faced the issue of 58 out of 60 votes on the stimulus bill for a passing vote and was forced to negotiate for the votes, ultimately cutting the size of the stimulus. Although the stimulus was passed in February 2009, the package was was only $789 billion out of an original $1.7-$1.8 trillion that White House economist Christy Romer had found to be the most ambitious and likely to succeed. Ultimately, the majority failure was due to the fact that the Obama administration had an “unfocused laundry list” that suffered from a lack of focused and transparent efforts, and while the economic crisis detracted from the attention necessary for the cap and trade program, the president was unable to successfully unite his party and his administration to achieve his political goals. He is the first president to face such extreme polarization, both in national public opinion and in the ideologies of Congress. The difficulty in management is that in the modern polarized political arena, one is expected not to deviate from party orthodoxy; the party is more important than policy.
The Obama presidency is inextricably linked with the Obama candidacy, in that the candidate has thus far been more impressive than the president; while most presidents abandon their campaigns when they enter office, the effects of Obama’s historic campaign have indubitably followed him into the White House. Obama, like John F. Kennedy, was not a public figure until suddenly he was. He has been a favorite of the media for both conservative and liberal outlets as a mysterious man and a striking politician. He distinguished himself as a candidate, certainly, but has he yet distinguished himself as a president?
As his first term comes to a close this year, one must consider his failures and his successes and remember that his legacy will be based not on how often he succeeded, but on how often he failed and how badly. The economic crisis – despite his swift action and alleviating policies – was the most immediate and perhaps one of the deepest challenges that Obama faced. Its prevalence dictated what other policies he could develop, work to enact, and implement and the power stakes involved in each step of the legislative process and made him more cautious or delicate than perhaps he might have been. Yet, he was able to commit an ambitious agenda into law with such successes as healthcare, energy policies, and increased infrastructure spending. The second most influential piece of his presidency was the massive party loss in the 2010 midterm elections and the consequences of a divided government that he has faced since then. Yet, moments of outstanding success have included the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The overall theme of his presidency has been that he is a calm, reasonable leader, the benefits of which have been the perseverance of hope through troubled economic times and reassurance of responsible government; the costs have been a lack of persuasion and poor communication.