No, the Presidency Has NOT Become More Difficult

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote an interesting column two days ago under the headline “It’s Virtually Impossible to be a Successful Modern President.” Cillizza begins his piece like this: “Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail.”

Both those statements are wrong, of course. As I and other presidency scholars have written repeatedly, the presidency is not a very powerful office and it is certainly not the most powerful job in the world.  Indeed, even among elected chief executives in modern democracies, the presidency is one of the weaker offices. The primary reason, of course, is because the Framers wanted it that way, as indicated by their decision to embed the presidency within a constitutional system of shared powers. That’s why presidents cannot dismiss Congress, call for new elections, or even count on the support of a legislative majority to pass legislation – all expectations that many prime ministers in other nations possess. And, with the ratification of the 22nd amendment, presidents lucky enough to win reelection serve most of their second term as defacto lame ducks. As Brendan Nyhan notes in his column today, however, this weakness has not stopped individuals from exaggerating the president’s potential degree of control over events.

But what of Cillizza’s second claim? In part, both Cillizza and Ronald Brownstein, whose article here provides some of the evidence on which Cillizza bases his claim, rest much of their case about presidential weakness on the belief that America is an increasingly divided nation. As I’ve argued elsewhere,  however, the evidence that Americans are polarizing along ideological lines is weak – most of what analysts claim to be a growing ideological divide is more accurately described as party sorting. In short, there’s not much support for the claim that modern presidents are dealing with a more ideologically polarized public.

The more empirically valid charge is that modern presidents must deal with a very polarized Congress – the most partisan  polarized Congress since the 19th century. Both Cillizza and Brownstein argue that it is very difficult for presidents to get legislation passed through a Congress that is so deeply polarized along partisan lines. But the link between partisan polarization and legislative productivity is more complex than this simple narrative would have one believe. Nelson Polsby, in his classic work How Congress Evolves, describes how a cross-partisan conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans stymied the passage of liberal legislation from 1937 until the mid-1960’s. More generally, building on Polsby’s observation, studies show that too little polarization in Congress is as counterproductive to legislative productivity as is too much. This is because under conditions of limited partisan polarization, we often see great divisions within parties (see Polsby’s description of the Democrats during the era of the conservative coalition), and little difference across them – exactly the conditions that James MacGregor Burns complained about in his classic study of American political gridlock in the early 1960’s.  Evidence shows that legislative productivity under these conditions of weak polarization is as limited as under the deep polarization in Congress presidents confront today.

Moreover, there is other evidence one can cite that undercuts the premise of Cillizza’s and Brownstein’s argument. For instance, we might think that if the presidency was so much more difficult, presidents would find it harder to win reelection. However, our three most recent presidents – Clinton, G. W. Bush and Obama – all successfully won reelection. In contrast, three of their four immediate predecessors: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and G. W. Bush, did not. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson did not pursue a second full term in 1968 because of political opposition and declining support, and Nixon resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment, making Ronald Reagan the only one of those six previous presidents to serve two full terms. No wonder scholars complained of a “tethered” presidency at the start of Reagan’s first term!

Finally, consider the severity of the issues facing recent presidents. Yes, 9-11 ushered in the Age of Terrorism, and all the difficulty that entails for presidents’ efforts to fulfill their commander-in-chief functions. But the consequences of making a mistake in the fight against terrorism, while enormous, are arguably not any greater – and probably less significant – than what the post-World War II presidents confronted during the height of the Cold War. It is for this reason that Neustadt, in the final edition of his classic work which was issued as the Cold War came to a close, cautions against looking back on those years with rose-colored glasses. He writes, “From the multicentered, interdependent world now coming into being, environmentally endangered as it is, Presidents [and pundits!] may look back on the Cold War as an era of stability, authority and glamour. They may yearn for the simplicity they see in retrospect, and also for the solace. Too bad.” Although acknowledging that governing in this new age has its own set of difficulties, Neustadt reminds us that there are compensations for outliving the Cold War: “[T]he personal responsibility attached to nuclear weapons should become less burdensome for Presidents themselves, while contemplation of their mere humanity becomes less haunting for the rest of us. To me that seems a fair exchange.”

To me too. Yes, the presidency is difficult. But there’s little evidence that it is harder today than in previous presidencies during the post-World War II modern era.  Indeed, one might argue that the job has become slightly easier, although I doubt that is any solace to Barack Obama.

P.S. This post attracted its fair share of readers, so I’ll follow up with some additional discussion focused on recent evaluations by pundits of Obama’s presidency.  If you are interested in getting notifications of new presidential power posts, I post notices on twitter at:

Or contact me at and I’ll put you on the anonymous distribution list.

UPDATE: Jonathan Bernstein weights in on the issue here:


  1. In Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), John Wayne’s character, Sergeant Stryker, says, “Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid.”

    No one has accused Obama of being stupid, but he was, and is, essentially unprepared for the job. What did he ever run as an executive?

    I think that is why the people of our republic have tended to prefer to elect governors over senators. When push comes to shove, it is the executive function that is at the end of the line. Obama has shown us, time and time again, that during crises, when the decision maker has to be fully informed and on the job, he’d rather be in his comfort zone, which has proven to be campaigning, raising money, playing golf, or hanging out with his show biz pals in either Hollywood or Martha’s Vineyard.

    In terms of sheer executive performance and ability, I think a majority of our populace (including many who voted for him twice) would now rank him “stupid”.

  2. Stupid not at all. Able to remain cool and rational and let the diplomats do their work. It would be nice If our European friends stepped into the breach. Even the Dutch, despite severe loss remain on the sidelines. Why do we have to be the leader of the western world?


  3. Shelly,

    The question of what, if any, prior experience best prepares one to be President is probably a topic I should tackle in a separate post. It is interesting to compare the prior experiences of some of our best, and worst, presidents. I’m not sure one can find a common denominator in terms of prior experiences that distinguishes the best presidents from the rest of the pack. Roosevelt and Reagan were both governors of large states, as was Bush II. Carter and Clinton were governors too, but of small states. Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford all were primarily legislators like Obama, although Truman, LBJ, Nixon and Ford had at least some VP experience before becoming President. In terms of managerial experience within the national government, I know of no president in the modern era more distinguished in this regard than the first Bush. Of course, Eisenhower had great managerial experience, albeit of a different type. The real question, I suppose, is whether any job really prepares one to be president.

  4. Arnold,

    I suppose one answer is that no other nation is quite as prepared as the U.S. to take on a leadership burden. We remain the world’s sole superpower.

    As for the Dutch, they – like many European nations – are far more invested in having economically profitable relations with Russia than is the U.S. Hence their willingness to let the U.S. play “bad cop” with Putin. I think that’s part of the explanation.

  5. It would be interesting to ask Cillizza who his model of a successful president is. FDR was popular but also a very divisive person in many ways (hence the “that man in the White House” quote of yore). Lincoln was so unpopular in the winter of 63′-64′ it wasn’t even clear that the Republicans would even renominate him, let alone that he would be re-elected. But they don’t count as failures right?

    James Monroe maybe? I mean in terms of bipartisanship you can’t do much better than him, but that was also because there quite literally was no opposition party in Washington…

  6. Matt:

    You make a good case. Over the past couple of decades, I have been helping all of our Governors select good candidates for the judiciary. Most have insisted on strong trial experience. But recently, Jerry Brown reversed this trend. He has publicly stated that he is just looking for people who have distinguished themselves in some area of law, not necessarily trial. And, they need to be smart and have good educational credentials.

    His last two appointments to the Supreme Court fit that mold, as do a large group of trial judges he has appointed. I think he is on to something important.

    The problem with Obama is that he never distinguished himself in anything except TelePrompter reading. At that, he is a black belt. Would that the American people could have realized that he never has distinguished himself in any endeavor.

    The only good that I see is that he will keep the Matt Dickinsons of this world busy for years dissecting how this guy could have fooled most of the people in America twice.

  7. What exactly is the job? Certainly not to accomplish what the majority want!

    “Preserve protect and defend the Constitution”. The only clear failure ever was Buchanan, though Nixon perhaps was more of a threat, regardless of his numerous successes in other important areas, than virtually anyone else, maybe worse than Jefferson, Jackson or FDR.

    Obama often acts as if the Constitution ought not to really apply to him, but if he does think so, it does not seem as if he is getting away with it. Granted a string of domestic and foreign failures by Obama deserves no praise, but so far, other than not making much of anything better, he has not made much of anything worse. Just many missed opportunities, resulting in less prosperity and security than we might have wished for.

  8. The Presidency isn’t more difficult. We’ve just chosen the most arrogant, inept, incompetent, dishonest, weak, ego driven, partisan, divisive, failed, pathetic person in the history of our nation to hold the office. It happens, but usually when we figure out how unfit the person is, like Jimmy Carter, we get rid of them after one term. Obama was even worse than Jimmy, but he did what Jimmy never dreamed of doing. He borrowed $8 Trillion dollars, and the Federal Reserve create another 5 or 6 trillion, and he showed folks with welfare and Obamastamps, and promises of open borders, and amnesty, and free education, and free contraception and abortion pills, and free healthcare, and he bought his way into a second term in spite of his complete INCOMPETENCE. Now we see the result. A lousy economy, no decent paying full time jobs, and a world on fire where the terrorists and our enemies grow stronger every day, while Obama makes us weaker. Its not the Presidency that’s the problem folks, its the INCOMPETENT we elected twice to fill it.

  9. Enjoyed reading the article. Thank you.
    This article and a comment made by another reader made me wonder about the degree of whitewash in presidential history. As a historian, Matthew, you can probably give a factual response.
    If Lincoln and FDR were divisive and unpopular during their time in office, but we now remember them with some reverence even, does it mean history finally had its verdict on their presidencies or some history rewriting happened due to respect to the office and perhaps politics?
    To continue this argument further, we now largely remember LBJ as a shrewd tactician passing important legislation. 40 some years ago I’m sure JFK conspiracies and Vietnam war dragged him down. Recent polls show that Obama is ‘the worst president’ among some recent presidents. Even Nixon’s standing in American minds improved. There may be a day that Nixon my be remembered not for watergate but for ending the war and dramatically improving relations with China and Soviet Union. And perhaps Barack Obama will be remembered for receiving a Nobel prize.

  10. Jane,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. The question of how to evaluate presidents is a tricky one. I took at stab at it in this previous post – see But I agree with your central point: it takes some time before a president’s historical standing becomes relatively fixed. This is in part because the impact of a president’s decisions often takes decades to be fully felt, and because our standards of evaluation do change through the years.

  11. Valwayne,

    So, perhaps that is an indictment of the American people – or at least those who bothered to vote? Is that what you are trying to say?

  12. So John, are you suggesting that the optimal yardstick of evaluation is Primum non nocere – “First, do no harm”?

  13. Longwalk,

    Great question. Cillizza seems to suggest that the modern presidency would be impossible for nearly anyone – even Lincoln or FDR. Which may be true, although as you note it seemed impossible for them too at points in their actual presidencies. But now we regard them as very effective. I grappled with how to evaluate presidents in this previous post:

  14. I’m surprised no one has asked you the question that jumps out of your lead paragraph. You point to strengths and weaknesses of prior Presidents. But does the most difficult job automatically go to a President in the 20th or 21st century. I could make an argument for Churchill, simultaneously keeping the spirits up in Great Britain and pressuring FDR for help before, during and after WWII.

    Yes, I know the blog is about Presidential Power. My sense is that the question is easier to ask and say no it is not Obama than to say “X” is the one.

  15. Marty,

    The American presidency is difficult, but is it harder than being a prime minister heading a wartime coalition during World War II? I suppose the optimal comparison would be between Churchill and FDR. Again, one way to look at their respective jobs is to see what they could, and could not accomplish, given their formal powers at the time. That is, what is their actual influence on governmental outcomes? I expect that Churchill had more influence on his government during this period than did FDR on his. But then again, I’m a presidency scholar – not a student of British politics.

  16. Matt:

    I think it is an indictment of those citizens who didn’t vote every bit as much as it is those who voted. I hear a lot of griping lately about Obama, and I always ask “Did you vote for him, and if not, did you vote??

    I suspect we will have large numbers turning out in November.

    By the way did you notice the plagiarism bit regarding Senator Walsh of Montana? There is one more seat occupied by a Democrat in a Red State that is now running behind his challenger. The odds are changing, with the Democrats screwing up instead of the Republicans for a change. For a play by play read on the exact acts commited, see the New York times article where they did a line by line comparison. He is in deep doo-doo.

  17. Shelly,

    Yes, absolutely – blame (if one is inclined to place some) certainly must be shared by those who did not vote. And it is reminder that turnout – not just how many, but also who – will matter a great deal. Typically midterm turnout is down about 15-20% from a presidential election year. In 2012, it was down particularly among groups, such as the young, who had come out strong for Obama in 2008.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *