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...Pressed by this governing reality, recent presidents have tried to defy the political capital deficit via ever more claims of executive power - signing statements, executive orders, and recess appointments have all increased in the post-1960s world. But these claims of power ten to further erode public support and antagonize Congress - so political capital falls more.
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.One element of my argument has annoyed a few people; namely my reference to Obama's narrow reelection. Many are suggesting that Obama's reelection was not so narrow. I stand by what I wrote. Consider these important facts - few dispute that George W. Bush was narrowly reelected in 2004 when he bested John Kerry 51%-48%. Obama's margin over Romney was little different at 51%-47%. Folks are quick to point to Obama's clear electoral college victory - but political capital is linked to public support and the electoral college is a poor proxy for public support.
Aside from the narrowness of Obama's victory margin, there is something far more substantial which points to seriously diminished political capital - Obama's lost voters. Barack Obama is the first president in at least 100 years to be elected to a second term and receive fewer total votes than in his first election. Obama received 65.9 million votes in 2012, roughly 3.6 million fewer votes than his 69.5 million haul in 2008. By comparison, every other president elected to a second term in the last 100 years added to their first election total. George W. Bush received a whopping 12 million more votes in 2004 than in 2000. Bill Clinton added 2.5 million to his 1992 total, and Ronald Reagan added 11 million voters. Richard Nixon added over 15 million more voters.You must look to Franklin Roosevelt election to he fourth term to really see a fall of in support for a reelected incumbent. Typically, when an incumbent receives fewer total votes when seeking reelection they lose. Even Mitt Romney managed to best John McCain's vote total by about 1.5 million voters.
Unlike every other president to be elected to a second term in the last 100 years, Barack Obama's base of support shrank after 4 years in office. That is a very bad indication of the state of his political capital. Obama talked a good game in his inaugural address today, but with a bare majority approval rating, a bare majority reelection, a diminished base of mass support, and a Republican House of Representatives Obama is unlikely to see much of what he envisions ever come to pass. That's simply the reality of modern presidential politics.