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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Obama's Executive Action on Immigration Offers More Evidence of A Weakened Presidency

As Obama is set to take unilateral action on immigration reform, I am reminded of an op-ed I wrote on the eve of his 2nd inaugural. Sadly, Obama's decision to "go it alone" is a common feature of contemporary presidents and by far a greater sign of presidential weakness than of gridlock.

Steve Schier and I cover the presidential power trap in great detail in our book, American Government and Popular Discontent.

Excerpt:

"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.

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."

Full Op-Ed:

January 21, 2013|By Todd Eberly
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.
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.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

About the Hogan Poll Showing Him Ahead by 5 Points....

I have no idea how the MD gubernatorial race between Republican Larry Hogan and Anthony Brown will end, but the race appears to be very close. The Cook Political Report recently classified the contest as a tossup.  The Hogan camp caused a stir this past week by releasing an internal campaign poll that showed Hogan beating Brown 44-39%. Right away I was suspicious - a dead dog with a D after its name on the ballot would draw more than 39% in Maryland -right? So I contacted the Hogan campaign and convinced them to share all of the internals of the poll including questions asked and demographics of the sample and voting coalitions. Try as I might I could not find a flaw in the methodology or the questions. The sample size is a bit small so the error margin is a bit larger than usual. But if you consider the succession of polls from the Washington Post, to the Baltimore Sun, to Gonzales Research Marketing, and now to the Hogan poll there has been movement toward Hogan. Also, the three debates were good for Hogan. The first two were a tie, but Hogan won big in the third debate. Contrary to the dangerous candidate Brown accused Hogan of being, voters saw a candidate who was about as extreme as a vanilla milkshake.

The poll appeared to have a proper sample. It assumed an electorate that was 55% Democrats, 26% Republicans, and 19% Independents. Some have argued this is a bad sample as Democrats were 62% of the early voters and Independents were only 10% - wrong. Early voting attracts partisans eager to vote, but early voting is not a predictor of overall turnout.  In 2010, Democrats were 57% of the electorate and they have lost registration ground since then.

The Brown campaign has tried to downplay the poll, pointing to the 2 to 1 early vote Democratic turnout advantage last week. Problem is, that advantage was 3 to 1 in 2010. So Democrats are doing worse this election cycle than in 2012.  Of course in 2010 O'Malley crushed Ehrlich by a 14 point margin - so Democrats can lose some ground and still deliver for Brown. Then again, Ehrlich ran a horrible campaign in 2010 and surrendered votes a better GOP candidate would've won. This time around it's Brown who is running a bad campaign. As noted by Heather Mizeur, Brown's campaign has been relentlessly negative and, as described by the Baltimore Sun, "strikingly dishonest." Who knows how all of that will shake out.

The sample also assumed an electorate that would be 29% African American - essentially what it was in 2012. Based on weak primary turnout in PG County and Baltimore City, the final share may be lower than 29%. The poll found Hogan beating Brown 3 to 1 among white voters, but Hogan was only attracting 13% of the African American vote. Hogan was winning Independents by 2 to 1 and was receiving a 25% of the Democratic vote. The numbers all made sense. There were many undecideds and the poll pointed to a lot of unease with Brown.

And the most interesting aspect of the poll, to me, were the questions asking "How much have you seen, read, or heard recently about Anthony Brown/Larry Hogan and his campaign for Governor?" Then folks were asked "would you say you have a MUCH (more/less) favorable impression of him?" Now 2/3 of respondents said they learned some or a lot about Hogan during the campaign and by a 55-32% margin, what they learned made them feel more favorable toward him. But 3/4 indicated learning some or a lot about Brown and by 34-48% margin what the learned made them feel less favorable toward him.
It suggests Brown's negative campaign has backfired.

Is the poll a fluke? A bad sample? We'll find out Tuesday. But the findings certainly help to explain all of the high profile visitors like the Clintons and Obamas trying to rally support. The finding also help explain the recent mailing by the MD Democratic party that attempted to link the election to the incident in Ferguson, MO. The poll found Brown receiving 60% of the African-American vote. Hogan was at 13%. So 27% of African-Americans were undecided a week before an election where Brown could become the state's first African-American governor. You have wonder, if Brown can't count on the overwhelming support of the Democratic party's most loyal voters then how many other normally Democratic voters are equally ambivalent about him?

As a political scientist, I'm trained to predict the the future based observation of the past. As such, I have to believe that Brown is likely to win this race. Democrats have tremendous structural advantages in the state and come Tuesday we could see Hogan win by 3 or lose by 10. But it is becoming easier to see Hogan's path to victory. Though it's still hard to see how Hogan could be 5 points up in a state that has only elected two GOP governors in the last 45 years. It's hard as well to accept that Brown could be doing worse than Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. But this poll reveals real trouble for Brown. And he may well find himself the second MD heir apparent to have stumbled on his way to the coronation.

Tuesday will tell the tale.