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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Presidents and Expectations

That presidents are at the mercy of Congress when it comes to budgets and legislation is an obvious point, and one deeply embedded in the U.S. constitutional system.

But it's a truism that often gets overlooked in the rush to assume that what a president wants, a president can get.

"We are taught that presidents are the center of government, and great presidents can make things happen," says Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political scientist at the University of North Texas. "There's this Rushmore view, and it's a myth."

Obama has made mistakes, and, naturally, many Americans think his policies on issues such as tax rates and health care were wrongheaded to begin with. However, some of his perceived failings may be the result of an inflated expectations game that all modern presidents must play.
Given the constraints of divided government and the current polarized landscape, not many presidents would be able to accomplish more than Obama has, says Lara Brown, a political scientist at Pennsylvania's Villanova University.

Still, all presidents are dealt tough cards. Obama has not always played his well, Brown argues, because he tends to promise more than he can deliver and then attempt to lay the blame elsewhere, typically on congressional Republicans.

"I don't imagine history will forgive him for his self-constructed victimhood to the House GOP," she says. "Successful leaders control the political definition of their actions."
"The modern presidency is in fact that notion that the president is in some sense front and center," says Bill Connelly, a political scientist at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
"That expectation, that presidents have the wherewithal to manage the economy, has led the economy to control any number of presidents, Republicans and Democrats," says Connelly, the Washington and Lee political scientist. "The economy goes down, and we blame presidents. It sets presidents up for failure."