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How presidents polarize


The figure atop this post comes from Frances Lee's "Beyond Ideology," and it shows something interesting: We're in the midst of a decades-long trend in which presidential agenda items take up more and more of Congress's time. Whether that's because presidents take positions on more issues or because Congress is more engaged with the issues they do take positions on is unclear, and sort of irrelevant.

If you're wondering why this matters, the answer is simple: polarization. When the president takes a position on an issue, that issue polarizes instantly. To test this, Lee looked at "nonideological" issues -- that is to say, issues where the two sides didn't have clear positions. In the Senate, only 39 percent of those issues ended in party-line votes. But if the president took a position on the issue, that jumped to 56 percent. In other words, if the president proposed the "More Puppies Act," the minority is likely to suddenly discover it holds fervently pro-cat beliefs.

The mechanism for this is pretty clear. As Lee writes, "If a party wants to undermine the case for a president's reelection or his party's continuance in government, its members must find grounds on which to oppose the president's initiatives." If job one of a party's leadership is to win the next election -- and it's pretty clear that both parties hold that view -- then job two is making the other party look bad. And if the other party controls the White House and the agenda, you do that by opposing the agenda and trying to paint the presidency as an out-of-touch failure.

That's why the trend holds when the majority party does not control the White House. As Lee wrote to me in an e-mail, "the Republican-controlled 104th Congress was more occupied with President Clinton's agenda than the Republican Senate was with President Reagan's agenda during the early 80s. In the 104th, of course, Congress was taking a lot of votes to position itself against the president." So even when Congress is interested in obstructing the president's agenda, they still focus on it in order to destroy his presidency.

The implication of this is that for tough issues in a closely divided Senate, the president might want to stay out of things entirely. But that doesn't work, of course ,as the American people -- and the media -- expect a lot of bully pulpit leadership. But that bully pulpit leadership polarizes the other party against the initiative, even when the messaging is effective.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 25, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Political Science  
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Next: There's nothing new about deals


To summarize: Even when you win, you lose.

That seems to be a very depressingly accurate post.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 25, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

So does this account for why Obama has been (at least perceived as) reluctant to endorse any bills in Congress too specifically?

He's under pressure from the progressive base to take a stand and be specific about criteria for health insurance reform, but he and his strategists are aware of the dynamic that Lee shows, and they don't want to polarize the process even *more* than it is now (as hard as that is to imagine).

Posted by: billkarwin | January 25, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

"The implication of this is that for tough issues in a closely divided Senate, the president might want to stay out of things entirely." Oddly enough, that was Jefferson's conclusion: he preferred to transmit his State of the Union messages in writing so that his physical presence wouldn't have an effect (one way or the other) on Congress or the citizens' perception of Congress.

Lack of clear distinction between the executive and legislative branches seems to be unhelpful, as does lack of clearly transparent separation between the two houses of Congress. But what is the solution? Would a President who refrained from involvement (as Obama has, to some extent) be tolerated?

Posted by: rmgregory | January 25, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Obviously, issues become polarizing for the purely cynical reason you mentioned: "I can't let you win because it will help your electoral prospects." But I think there's another factor involved - though it may be more intense at the activist, rather than legislative, level. Conspiracy theorizing.

Partisans on each side are convinced that their political enemies are conniving SOB's. And so there is always a fear that a seemingly innocuous bill has some terrible consequence or is but one step in an evil plan.

I can't count how many times I've been told that hate crimes legislation should be opposed because its just a step on the way to gay marriage. When it was en vogue to pass laws heightening punishment for attacks on a pregnant woman that injured her fetus, I kept hearing that it was a pro-life scheme to make fetuses legally human. Similarly, we have the opposition to the individual mandate because its secretly a scheme to help big insurance.

That's not to say that conspiracy theories are always wrong, but the suspicion feeds polarization.

Posted by: jesmont | January 25, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Thought of a possible solution. All you have to do is elect an agenda-less milquetoast as president. Congress would be free from presidential influence and the media would not expect any kind of leadership (nor would we the people). Of course, you may not get any meaningful legislation out of Congress, but one problem at a time please.

Posted by: PatrickKay | January 25, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

impossible to know if this chart is meaningful without knowledge of how term "presidential agenda" is defined

Posted by: jamesoneill | January 25, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

There's an assumption running through this entire discussion that "polarization" is bad. Not necessarily. Polarization can be used by the President or the President's party to the make the case that the opposition is entirely out to lunch. Why is this not being discussed in this post?

Posted by: michaelterra | January 25, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Michaelterra, without doing research, my guess is that "The other party is just a bunch of obstructionists" comes of as "Those guys are mean and won't do what I say!" to voters. Parties that don't take any action on their legislative agenda, or can't because the other party stops them, are perceived as weak and unable to govern so the voters toss them out.

Posted by: MosBen | January 25, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Uhhh... I haven't read Lee's book, so perhaps there's additional evidence besides the graph above, BUT, to look at that graph and make the conclusion that we're in a "decades long trend" in a particular direction is a blatant misuse of statistics.

The data is pretty much a scatter plot, with the whole upward sloping trend line -- likely a simple least squares fit -- being completely dependent on the extreme outlier of the second session of the 107th congress. Take that point away and the trend is likely flat or possibly even down.

That we suffer from increased polarization and partisanship is pretty much given, but this isn't even correlation, let alone causation.

Posted by: TLM2 | January 25, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Obama has proven himself to be anti-capitalist which basically puts him and his policies at odds with a majority of this country. He lied to get into office, he's lied about healthcare, transparency in his Administration, dealing with lobbyists and generally about everything. Hell they even lied about vegetables from the WH garden. Why should America believe him or at the least be suspicious of his motives? Obama is like most movie review critics. If he likes a movie I will probably hate it and vice-versa.

Posted by: davispope | January 25, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Obama is just acting the same as he did when he was in the Illinois Legislature - never took a definitive position so as not to rock the boat. He is letting congress take the responsibility so he does not, he is not leading or demanding that the Democrats include what he asked for, he'll just sign what ever they give him.

Posted by: Chuckkel | January 25, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for this! I am developing severe pundit fatigue, where a whole boatload of writers record one of the following: 1. What they would do if they were President, which they are not; 2. What the President is doing wrong today, which they apparently are uniquely equipped to know, despite having little or no access to the information shaping his decisions; 3. What is wrong with everything in sight, seeing nothing positive to note; 4. Who is to blame for everything being bad and broken and how these bad people should be punished; 5. What solutions they prefer to problems whether doable or not; 6. What proves the MSM is doing a great job; 7. Why their worldview is the only viable get the idea

Posted by: pbkritek | January 25, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Klein is right on---the President did stay out of the healthcare fight--shame on him. Of course if he had gotten involved, we'd still say shame on him. We have created a political scene that is a catch-22 and the comment by 'davispope' above is evidence of it (i.e., if he likes it I'll hate it...). The claim that he broke his promise about transparency is amusing to say the least. We, nearly everyone right and left, liberal or conservative, complain about Nelson and the Nebraska Purchase not to mention Leiberman's mockery of the negotiation process--the only reason we know about it is because it was done in full view--I think that's what is meant by transparent and it is compounded by pundits who think their primary and only role is to out-sensationalize every other pundit--accuracy be damned. We may have reached the point of being an ungovernable country. The complexity of the issues and dire consequences they portend coupled with the ignorance and short-sightedness of the electorate should concern us all.

Posted by: CAHornung | January 25, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

So, where does the President using a teleprompter to address a grade school class figure into this calculation?

Posted by: hofbrauhausde | January 25, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

IF we had a three-party system, most of these problems would be eliminated.

Democrats and Republicans no longer represent their constituents.....they represent their respective parties with their primary goal one of re-election and control.

Posted by: maxandmurray | January 25, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

FIGURES DON'T LIE BUT LIARS CAN FIGURE. This is a moronic bit of sloppy thinking.

How many bills is the President supposed to take a position on?

Is it possible that the President doesn't take a position on bills where everyone including himself are clearly in agreement? OR, where the bill clearly has no possibility of passage and it is useless for him to expend political capital on the issue?

Is it also possible that the President does take a position on bills he supports and are in trouble where he believes his bully pulpit will advance the bills chances of passage?

I guess this bit of fluff was for the nonthinking people inside the Beltway.

Posted by: PRRWRITER | January 25, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

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