Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Polls and Elections: Divided Government and Foreign Relations Approval

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Polls and Elections: Divided Government and Foreign Relations Approval

Article excerpt

Since World War II, most presidents have faced divided government during at least part of their tenure in office. Although divided government significantly limits the frequency of the president's legislative success (e.g., Fleisher, Bond, and Wood 2008), presidents generally enjoy higher approval ratings during periods of divided control (Nicholson, Segura, and Woods 2002). In the United States' separated system, the public can attribute credit and blame for national conditions to either the president or Congress. When the executive and legislative branches are controlled by different parties, at least some of the blame for negative conditions can fall to the opposition Congress, buoying the president's polling numbers.

To date, studies of the ways the public attributes blame during divided government have focused primarily on economic conditions, generally finding that under divided government, the public blames both the president and Congress for poor conditions (e.g., Rudolph 2003a). Thus, the public does not blame the president as much for negative economic conditions during divided government as it does during periods of unified control. Consequently, the president's approval ratings, based in part on assessments of economic conditions and the degree to which the president is responsible for them (see Edwards 1990), tend to be a bit higher during divided government than they would be during similar conditions under unified control (Nicholson, Segura, and Woods 2002). However, many presidency scholars have argued that the president has more unilateral control of foreign policy than domestic policy, arguing that there are really "two presidencies" (e.g., Canes-Wrone, Howell, and Lewis 2008; Wildavsky 1966). If sensitive to the two presidencies, the public during divided government might well lay some of the blame for economic conditions at the feet of Congress, but it may not do so for negative foreign relations outcomes. Consequently, divided government may buoy overall approval, but not public views of the president's handling of foreign policy. We test whether the public is sensitive to the two presidencies, giving presidents a break by partially blaming Congress for economic downturns during divided government, but not doing so in the foreign policy realm.

Responsibility Attributions, Divided Government, and The Two Presidencies Thesis

A substantial body of literature explores the formation and effects of responsibility attributions within the political context. Early on, Key (1966) described attribution of responsibility for the economy as a simplistic, retrospective process. Citizens were thought to base their voting preferences on their perceptions of recent financial trends. Essentially, this model assumed that the public automatically regarded the president and his party as responsible for the condition of the economy and allocated support accordingly. In other words, the public would reward the president and his party when the economy thrived and punish the president and his party when the economy floundered. By identifying retrospective economic evaluations as the sole factor involved in the sanctioning process, this "reward-punishment" model minimized the importance of other institutional factors. This model implies a rather naive, narrow-minded public sensitive only to retrospective economic evaluations--a citizenry that is either unable or unwilling to consider other contextual factors when making responsibility attributions.

Recent scholarship has challenged the basic reward-punishment model. At the heart of this challenge lies the notion that the public does not automatically attribute credit or blame for economic conditions to the president or his party. For example, Peffley (1984) argues that in order for economic conditions to shape voting behavior, voters must believe either that the government created the economic conditions or that it is the government's duty to fix them. …

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