As President Barack Obama prepares to leave the White House after eight years, what lessons should we take away from his experience working with Congress? The relationship was certainly marked by successes, like the adoption of major legislation including the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and failures, such as the decision by Senate Republicans to refuse to consider the president’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
These single events—and others—will certainly loom large in historical accounts of President Obama’s relationship with Congress. Journalistic treatments during the administration, meanwhile, often relayed criticism from members of the president’s own party about his efforts (or lack thereof) in working with Congress. Political science research, however, suggests that when we seek to understand executive-legislative relations in the Obama era, we should think less about personal skills and relationships and look more towards structural factors. Recent work on President Lyndon B. Johnson—famous for his “will and skill” in relation to Congress—suggests that even he was helped notably by contextual conditions favorable to continued, high-level bipartisan negotiation.
During the Obama years, chief among these structural factors was the level of polarization in Congress. As political scientists have documented, the Obama administration was marked by polarization at record highs. Using DW-NOMINATE (political scientists’ workhorse measure of congressional ideology), the first congress of the Obama years (111th) was “the most polarized ever,” and the 112th, 113th, and 114th each followed suit.
What have these record levels of polarization meant for the relationship between Congress and the president? One major consequence has been that, in the Senate, polarization has made it harder for presidents to reap the benefits of shared party control. Consistent threats from the minority party to obstruct the majority party’s policy priorities have made “getting to 60” the norm for passing significant legislation.
During the Obama administration, one indicator of increasing polarization in the Senate was that the gap (as measured by NOMINATE) between the most moderate member of the majority party and the most moderate member of the minority party has been at least as large in each successive congress as it was in the previous one. As the members of the minority party who might be persuaded to join the majority party in supporting a presidential initiative become more distant ideologically, building a sixty-vote coalition becomes more difficult.