Given the 2013 APSA theme “Power and Persuasion” and the spotlight on the president, there is no book more appropriate Tough Times for the President: Political Adversity and the Sources of Executive Power by Ryan J. Barilleaux and Jewerl Maxwell (Cambria Press, 2012):
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Adversity and Power in the Obama Presidency
Barack Obama came to the presidency on a wave of enthusiasm and a promise of hope and change, but his time in office has been quite different from what his supporters expected in the euphoria of the 2008 election. After barely passing his major policy initiative, the Affordable Care Act, the president saw his approval ratings slip below fifty percent, then voters gave Republicans a sizable majority in the House and narrowed Democratic control of the Senate. Despite winning reelection in 2012, his second term became mired in scandals and controversies (IRS mismanagement and targeting of conservative groups, revelations about NSA collection of citizens’ phone records, monitoring of journalists by the Justice Department, and others) that claimed congressional and media attention. Polls showed that only about forty-five pecent of the public approved of his job performance in the middle of 2012, with a slightly higher number of respondents telling pollsters that they thought the White House was responsible for IRS targeting of conservative groups. These developments threatened to scuttle the president’s second-term agenda. He survived the setbacks of 2010 to win reelection in 2012, but how will he respond to tough times in 2013?
As he did before, Mr. Obama will rely on unilateral presidential powers to shape policy and avoid the limitations imposed by political adversity. As our research has shown, and as we present it in Tough Times for the President, political adversity (defined as a situation in which the president lacks key elements of political capital) is a common occurrence for American chief executives since World War II. Every president in that time, except John Kennedy, experienced some period of political adversity. Many managed to overcome it, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Others, including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush, could not. But all presidents, especially those who managed to recover from adversity, did so in large part because they drew on the unilateral powers of the office. Stripped of the political capital that supports the president’s “power to persuade,” these chief executives relied on unilateralism to enhance their leverage in tough political circumstances.
Barack Obama conforms to this pattern of presidential unilateralism. He has acted unilaterally to gain control over administrative rulemaking, to effectively implement the DREAM Act, to prosecute the war on al-Qaeda, to make recess appointments (even when the Senate insisted it was still in session), to advance gun control, and to reshape education policy. With a weakened public standing and facing congressional obstacles to his second term agenda, Mr. Obama will act unilaterally. As he did before—and as his predecessors did as well—he will employ direct presidential powers (even when constitutionally controversial) to increase his leverage in the struggle to shape public policy.
Our research also indicates a note of caution: some types of political adversity are harder to overcome than others. Several presidents (including Truman, Eisenhower, & Clinton) overcame the setback of an “unmandate” in congressional midterm elections, such as Democrats experienced in 2010; Mr. Obama survived to be reelected. But scandals and periods of national division—when there is division within the president’s own party and his job approval rating slips below forty percent—are far more dangerous and rarely overcome. If any of the scandals and controversies plaguing the Obama White House (such as the IRS targeting scandal or NSA phone surveillance) further weaken the president, divide his party, or lead to more declines in Mr. Obama’s job rating, then he will face almost insurmountable political adversity. In that case, his presidency could be irreparably damaged.
Our research shows the path that the president will take: it will be a unilateral one. What remains to be seen is whether that path will lead to recovery or ruin.
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This book is in the Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy in America book series by Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly.
Professors, if you would like to use this for your class, refer your librarian to the Cambria Press Desk Copy Plus Program that helps you get free versions for your students!
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