Legislative Success and Political Failure: The Public's Reaction to Barack Obama's Early Presidency

Article excerpt

The idea that a president's legislative and political success go hand in hand is starkly contradicted by the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency. With the help of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Obama pushed through a huge economic stimulus package targeting the deep recession he had inherited, initiated comprehensive reforms of the nation's health care system, and signed a major redesign of financial regulation aimed at preventing a repeat of the financial meltdown that had made the recession so severe. These legislative achievements made the 111th Congress among the most productive in many years, and they were fully consistent with promises Obama made during his successful campaign for the White House. Obama also kept his campaign pledge to wind down the United States' involvement in Iraq and to reallocate American forces to confront the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.

In short, Obama had done what he might reasonably believe he was elected to do. His reward was to see his Democratic Party suffer a crushing defeat in the 2010 midterm elections, with Republicans gaining 64 House seats to win their largest majority (242193) since 1946, and six Senate seats, putting them within easy striking distance of a majority in that chamber in 2012. (1) Not only did the president and his party reap no political benefit from their legislative accomplishments, they were evidently punished for them. The congressional Republicans' strategy of all-out opposition, adopted not long after Obama took office, turned out to be remarkably successful, delivering a stunning setback to a majority party that had won a sweeping victory just two years earlier.

Scholars will be debating explanations for this swift turn of events for some time to come. The Obama administration's priorities, legislative strategies, and political acumen are sure to come under critical scrutiny. My purpose here is somewhat different. I focus on the state of public opinion regarding Obama and his party during his successful election campaign and on its evolution during his first two years in office, looking for clues about where, why, and how legislative and even policy successes turned into political failures that ended up devastating Obama's party on election day.

Background: The 2008 Election

Public opinion toward Obama during his first two years in office featured wide partisan divisions, unusually intense hostility among his detractors, and extraordinarily strong connections between popular opinions of Obama, his party, his policies, and, ultimately, voting decisions in the 2010 elections. The evidence presented in this article suggests that Obama has become a stronger anchor for political attitudes, positive and negative, than even his predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush had been a highly polarizing figure, inspiring the widest partisan differences in presidential evaluations since the advent of modern polling. By 2008, however, even Republicans had lost some of their enthusiasm for him, and he was receiving exceedingly low marks from Democrats and independents (Jacobson 2011a). Bush's unpopularity, mainly a legacy of the Iraq War, but reinforced by the financial crisis and sharp economic downturn near the end of his term, tarnished his party's image, drove independent voters toward the opposition, and contributed crucially to Obama's victory (Jacobson 2010a).

Obama's election did not signal any narrowing of partisan divisions. According to the 2008 American National Election Study,2 party-line voting, at 89.1%, was second only to 2004's 89.9% in the ANES series going back to 1952) Self-identified Republicans accounted for only 4.4% of Obama's voters, the smallest crossover vote for any winning presidential candidate since John E Kennedy in 1960. Moreover, voters who had supported his opponent, John McCain, tended to accept the McCain campaign's portrayal of Obama as a radical leftist (Conroy 2008; Drogan, and Barabak 2008; Kenski, Hardy, and Jamieson 2010). …