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The presidential power trap

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.

Barack Obama's election in 2008 seemed to signal a change. Mr. Obama's popular vote majority was the largest for any president since 1988, and he was the first Democrat to clear the 50 percent mark since Lyndon Johnson. The president initially enjoyed strong public approval and, with a Democratic Congress, was able to produce an impressive string of legislative accomplishments during his first year and early into his second, capped by enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But with each legislative battle and success, his political capital waned. His impressive successes with Congress in 2009 and 2010 were accompanied by a shift in the public mood against him, evident in the rise of the tea party movement, the collapse in his approval rating, and the large GOP gains in the 2010 elections, which brought a return to divided government.

By mid-2011, Mr. Obama's job approval had slipped well below its initial levels, and Congress was proving increasingly intransigent. In the face of declining public support and rising congressional opposition, Mr. Obama, like his predecessors, looked to the energetic use of executive power. In 2012, the president relied on executive discretion and legal ambiguity to allow homeowners to more easily refinance federally backed mortgages, to help veterans find employment and to make it easier for college graduates to consolidate federal student loan debt. He issued several executive orders effecting change in the nation's enforcement of existing immigration laws. He used an executive order to authorize the Department of Education to grant states waivers from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act — though the enacting legislation makes no accommodation for such waivers. Contrary to the outcry from partisan opponents, Mr. Obama's actions were hardly unprecedented or imperial. Rather, they represented a rather typical power assertion from a contemporary president.

Many looked to the 2012 election as a means to break present trends. But Barack Obama's narrow re-election victory, coupled with the re-election of a somewhat-diminished Republican majority House and Democratic majority Senate, hardly signals a grand resurgence of his political capital. The president's recent issuance of multiple executive orders to deal with the issue of gun violence is further evidence of his power trap. Faced with the likelihood of legislative defeat in Congress, the president must rely on claims of unilateral power. But such claims are not without limit or cost and will likely further erode his political capital.

Only by solving the problem of political capital is a president likely to avoid a power trap. Presidents in recent years have been unable to prevent their political capital from eroding. When it did, their power assertions often got them into further political trouble. Through leveraging public support, presidents have at times been able to overcome contemporary leadership challenges by adopting as their own issues that the public already supports. Bill Clinton's centrist "triangulation" and George W. Bush's careful issue selection early in his presidency allowed them to secure important policy changes — in Mr. Clinton's case, welfare reform and budget balance, in Mr. Bush's tax cuts and education reform — that at the time received popular approval.

However, short-term legislative strategies may win policy success for a president but do not serve as an antidote to declining political capital over time, as the difficult final years of both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies demonstrate. None of Barack Obama's recent predecessors solved the political capital problem or avoided the power trap. It is the central political challenge confronted by modern presidents and one that will likely weigh heavily on the current president's mind today as he takes his second oath of office.

Todd Eberly is coordinator of Public Policy Studies and assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. His email is teeberly@smcm.edu. This article is excerpted from his book, co-authored with Steven Schier, "American Government and Popular Discontent: Stability without Success," to published later this year by Routledge Press.

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