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Friday, February 5, 2010

President Obama in Adversity

In our chapter on the presidency, we discuss chief executives who have faced hard times. President Obama is currently doing so. Though the overall unemployment rate is down a bit, it remains very high by the standards of recent decades. His health care legislation has stalled, at least for the time being. In some polls, his job-approval rating is below 50 percent. And there is an outside chance that Republicans would win the House or (less likely) the Senate in the 2010 midterm election.

Yet even if his poll numbers stay low and the other party triumphs in the midterm, the president need not lapse into political paralysis.

In their paper "What Can We Learn from Presidential Adversity?" Ryan J. Barilleaux, Marc Bacharach, and Jewerl Maxwell pointed out that presidents retain a great deal of power in difficult moments. Three examples help make the case.

Adversity makes it more difficult for the president to succeed with legislation and thus encourages the chief executive to take recourse in unilateral action. But adversity does not strip the president of the ability to shape policy. Some of Truman’s greatest policy achievements came during his tough times. Ford was able to conduct foreign policy and his veto strategy on spending was more successful than not Reagan concluded a key arms-control treaty withthe Soviet Union and conducted a military operation against Iran. Granted, presidential power is reduced by adverse circumstances, but it is not erased.