Obama, Your Britches are Showing

Once again, the stimulus bill passes the House without a single Republican in the House voting for it. (There were also 7 Democratic defectors, making the final vote for passage 246-183). The bill is likely to pass the Senate tonight as well without much, if any, Republican support before it goes to the White House for Obama’s signature. So what’s going on here? Didn’t Republicans get the message? Obama won the election.  He even reminded them of that fact when House Republicans sought to revise provisions in the stimulus bill regarding tax credits for low-income workers (story here).  And this wasn’t a squeaker of an election – he won a national mandate. Time magazine said so (see here). So did CBS (here). And the LA Times (here).  These aren’t the views of the Loony Left, or the netroots – these are mainstream publications who called the 2008 presidential election a mandate for Obama.

So why aren’t the Republicans listening?  The fashionable response is to say the Republicans are committed to derailing the Obama presidency at all costs, regardless of the impact on the economy or the country.  Their hope is to watch the economy go down in flames in time to blame the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, thereby setting them up to retake the presidency in 2012.   Like most conventional wisdom, this is a woefully simplistic analysis that reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the fundamentals driving congressional and presidential behavior in the American political system.  Let’s start with the basic premise: did Obama win the election?

Not for most members of Congress elected in 2008.  Let’s look at the Senate election returns in 2008 (I’m still calculating House district returns but expect the results to be similar.).  Remember the Obama election “mandate”?  One way political scientists measure the strength of a president’s mandate, or “coattails”, is to see how far ahead of Senators and Representatives he runs in terms of votes received.  In 2008, there were 33 Senate races.  In what percentage of those Senate races did Obama get more votes than the winning Senate candidate?  Remember, Obama won a mandate.  So did he finish ahead in 90% of the races?  75%?  60%?  Try 15%.  That’s right: “Mandate” Obama finished ahead of the winning Senate candidate in only 5 of 33 Senate races in 2008 (The five states in which Obama polled more votes than the winning Senate candidate are: Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Oregon – I’m assuming the Democrat Al Franken will get the Minnesota Senate seat.)  Put another way, he ran behind 28 of the 33 Senators who won election in 2008. This includes – drum roll please – every winning Republican Senator.

The most difficult point for my presidency students to grasp each year – particularly international students who grew up in countries using parliamentary-style governments in which the prime minister is a member of the legislative body – is that the Congress and the President respond to different electoral incentives.  It is an easy point to forget when respected news outlets proclaim the president has won a “mandate.”  Really?  Do you think South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham could give a gnat’s behind that Obama won 53% of the popular vote nationally when Obama got crushed in Graham’s home state? Ditto for each of the 13 winning Republican senators – and the 15 Democratic senators who finished ahead of Obama as well.  This is why you aren’t seeing Democratic Senators rushing to the center to bridge the ideological gap with Republicans in order to promote bipartisanship any more than you are seeing Republicans do so.  Neither party has much to fear from Obama.

When a president, as Obama does, enters office having finished behind most Senators who won election at the same time, he (someday she) doesn’t have much bargaining leverage.  This is why Obama’s efforts to pressure the Senate by taking his case on the road in a speaking campaign have had almost no effect on that chamber’s deliberations.  Senators can count votes, and they are acutely sensitive to constituent sentiment.  That’s why they get reelected at rates of 80% or better.   And with six-year Senate terms, and an average time in office for senators approaching 12 years, there’s a good chance that Obama will leave office before most of these senators do.  Given these basic facts, Obama simply doesn’t have much leverage in the Senate, unless he wants to employ a veto (I’ll talk about that strategy in a later post).

The bottom line, which you will read here again and again, is this: except in time of extraordinary crisis, the presidency is a weak office. Obama is no exception to that rule. If you want to dance the bipartisan dance, you better be willing fork over a decent amount of political capital. Otherwise you take what the Congress gives you, and on their terms.

When I finish gathering the numbers, I’ll present the data regarding Obama’s leverage in the House.  But my point should be clear: when it comes to presidential coattails, Obama’s britches are showing.

2 comments

  1. Matt, a question and an observation.

    You state that “there’s a good chance that Obama will leave office before most of these senators do” In other words a 1 term presidency. What do you calculate these odds at?

    Observation: You seem to be suggesting that because Obama ran behind Democratic Senators, his approval will stay there. Is it not possible for his ratings to fluctuate over the next two years? With governors like Crist supporting the STIM in Florida, and an approval rating of 60-70%, it seems as if that might be happening right now. Is Obama more popular today than when he was elected in November?

    Jack

  2. jack, although I’ve addressed this in a later post, let me just reiterate my response here: I’m not saying Obama will be a one-term president. But even if he serves out two full terms, the “average” Senator, who also serves two terms, will out last Obama, given the 6-year Senate term.

    Obama’s approval ratings are higher than his election votes. But this happens with all newly elected presidents. It is a mistake to think that approval ratings alone constituent very useful political capital. I’ll develop this point in a later post as well.

    Good questions.

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