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The president matters -- even when he doesn't


One of the ways to think about the difficulties facing the legislative process is that the most important player in congressional elections doesn't have a vote in Congress. Here's political scientist Alan Abramovitz.

This brings up the most important point about evaluations of Congress. They have very little influence on how Americans vote in congressional elections. When it comes to choosing candidates for Congress, it is opinions of the president’s performance that matter.

More here. It's hard to see how you can find much bipartisanship under these circumstances. If the president's success is the best predictor of the minority's defeat, the minority can't let the president succeed. But there's no way to keep the president from succeeding politically while still helping him govern effectively. So they just block both things from happening.

Given these incentives, and the finding that issues become more polarized when the president takes a position on them, what you'd ideally want the president to do is stay out of the process as much as possible. But if our system is tilted away from presidential power, our political culture is entirely about the president. And so there are constant calls for the president to take firmer hand with Congress and to retool his communications strategy and to rescue legislation he supports. That's the context for the health-care summit. The president is trying to fulfill expectations that he'll be central to a negotiation process that offers him no natural role.

Photo credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 16, 2010; 9:45 AM ET
Categories:  Political Science , President  
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The President has used his non-position on healthcare as the most polarizing weapon in this debate, saying such blatant lies as "if you want to keep the insurance you have you can keep it" as well as the no healthcare for illegal immigrants despite that every amendment that provided a measure of protection against it was voted down....but the biggest doozie was his pushing away at arms length the huge giveaways in order to buy votes---including the most egregious one to his top donor and top WH vistor the SEIU who got a 4-year exemption from any new taxes on their cadillac insurance......

Ezra you have a very shameful way of trying to characterize blatant partisan by your side as though it is somehow innocent is stuff like that that has the most polarizing effect of all!!!

You should be the toughest critic of people on your side of this issue and let me be the toughest critic of the people in my side. That is the only way out of this mess.

If you want REAL healthcare you need to demand MORE from your own side!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 16, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

It is absolutely true -- and has always been true -- that "issues become more polarized when the president takes a position on them." It is also absolutely true -- and has always been true -- that there are "constant calls for the president to take firmer hand with Congress."

Tinkering doesn't usually help. In Massachusetts, for example, the legislator's decision to tinker with the Governor's power to appoint a (Republican) Senator to replace a (Democratic) Senator ultimately resulted in the election of a (Republican) Senator whose positions favored those of the Governor. In the interim, the unelected Senator became the "60th vote" needed to pass a bill which now requires additional tinkering from the President. Had everyone simply not tinkered, there would perhaps be a more rational discussion now.

One thing that might happen if the President took less of a role -- and, equally importantly, less of a behind-the-scenes role -- is that leadership might develop in Congress. It wouldn't happen overnight, but it would eventually develop to fill the void.

If the President doesn't like a bill, he can simply veto it, which has the effect of putting Congress "in its place" as much as any chat might do: rather than tinker, just veto.

Posted by: rmgregory | February 16, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

It seems like the president sacrificed the role of honest broker of a robust debate (which might have involved Wyden-Bennett) in order to take advantage of a window of opportunity. That being the choice, the Democrats have to finish the job before the window closes.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 16, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Great field of study - Sociology of the Constitution: how basic constitutional structure interacts with changing social and political norms, and how this affects the framers' vision.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 16, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

I think Obama made an understandable mistake on both the stimulus and health care, thinking that if he did not take a strong position on the details, he could avoid the polarizing effect and the GOP would cooperate. What he didnt realize is that politically it wasnt the details that mattered but the legislation itself and so the GOP found it politically useful to just say NO and he also failed to realize what a mess the Dems could make of the details when left to their own devices, as a result of which he got the worst of both worlds. I think he now realizes this and, thus, the health care summit.

Posted by: gregspolitics | February 16, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

What would any of you be saying if Bush had proposed a policy with support by a Republican Speaker and Senate Majority leader that was opposed 100% by Democrats and did not even win over all Republicans.

What if Bush then started making deals---not to win over Democrats, but simply to win over 100% of Republicans.

This has been a definitively polarized partisan process from the get go by any objective standard.

At some point Democrats need to own up to reality.

So much has been made that the three Republican Senators were not honest brokers!!! This is nonsense. The Democrats never had any intention of making the kind of compromise that would have won them over. They wanted a solution that was defined by putting the federal government in the drivers seat to reducing (or not reducing) healthcare costs. Plain and simple.

Those three Republicans wanted to design a system that put consumers in the drivers seat to reducing costs.

Democrats do not fully realize how radical they are. But they are in such contrast to the history and great legacy of this great nation that they have created a remarkable grass roots movement that is rallying around the fundamental principles that this nation was founded on!!!

Fantastic stuff really!!!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 16, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

"If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny."

- Thomas Jefferson

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 16, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I pose this simple honest question as a straightforward up-front means for converting every knee-jerk liberal on this blog into becoming a much more thoughtful conservative thinker:

What would happen to human freedom on planet Earth if the government of the United States of America committed itself to financially unsustainable entitlement programs for its citizens?

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 16, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Simply put, if the party in power really could do EXACTLY what it proposed to do, people would really start to pay attention to exactly what they were proposing. There's very little chance a Sarah Palin (or, say, a Dennis Kucinich) could actually get elected if people really thought they would actually successfully restructure American society in the ways they imply.

As it is virtually all Congresspeople are just faces in the crowd. They can say whatever the heck they want at election time -- there's virtually no chance any of it will become law, so who cares?

Posted by: NS12345 | February 16, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

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