In the last post, I asserted that Presidents should rarely be identified as the chief cause of important political events and outcomes. Rather, the political environment includes powerful forces that largely control presidential actions and thus ultimately determine presidential success.
By recognizing the genuine power of that environment, Presidents can appear vulnerable. They are in fact as likely to back pedal, and submit to circumstances, as they are to forge a new path forward. This is not American’s view of Presidents. However, it’s the reality Presidents face.
Let’s consider public opinion as an environmental force.
Political environment – public opinion
Over the past 2 decades, a sharp divergence in party support characterizes public approval of Presidents. For example, today, very few Democrats support President Trump. And, during his 8 year in office only a small fraction of Republicans supported President Obama.
Referred to as partisan polarization, each party questions the legitimacy of the other, viewing opposing camps and policies as existential threats. It’s an “us” versus “them” mindset.
The hostilities encourage Presidents to nurture a relatively narrow base of loyal supporters. That base represents power and any reduction in its size can severely weaken a President
Notice the causal connection: The public opinion environment presents a course of action. Presidents are free to reject it. And, during the first few months after inauguration many devote efforts to reach across the aisle, develop unity, and draw support from the opposition.
But bipartisan tactics risk alienating the base. Eventually the opinion environment forces Presidents to choose, and they double-down on the sure bet – their loyal base.
The growing power of partisan polarization is illustrated in the graph below, which documents public approval of presidents since FDR. The horizontal line inside the boxes represent median public support for a specific president. The length of the boxes – and the extended dotted lines depict the variance of that support (appropriately called Box and Whisker plots).
For example, FDR’s average support was nearly 60% and ranged from approximately 50% to over 80%. President Truman’s average was much lower at about 40% percent. Yet the range of Truman’s approval was far greater – just above 20% to almost 90%.
Noteworthy are the box-and-whisker plots for President Obama and President Trump. The comparatively small square for Obama portrays record stability in public approval – very little variance in approval – compare Presidents standard deviations in red at bottom of graph. Before Obama, Gerald Ford held the record for the least variance – 7.1 standard deviation. In addition, only Truman and Jimmy Carter’s average approval ratings were lower than Obama.
These facts do not fit with many people’s image of President Obama. After all, he ran on hope and unity.
Yet, in Obama’s final year in office, a mere 12% of Republican’s approved of his presidency while 89% of Democrats did so – a record 77-point gap. Polarization dominated his time in office. He was the first president to average less than 20% approval from the opposition party.
Now examine Trump’s approval. The lowest recorded average approval and most stable. He broke Obama’s records.
This does fit with people’s image of President Trump. A strong but small base of support and a relatively large opposition. In January, only 7% of Democrats approved of Trump and 89% of Republicans – a new 82-point gap record.
How can two vastly different Presidents – in character and appearance – set similar records for polarized approval? The news media will pinpoint Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, narcissism, and aggressive nature. That make sense.
However, what about Obama? Did he cause the record polarization?
The increasingly hostile opinion climate – not the presidents themselves – produced record polarization.
Personal traits are secondary. Yes, personal qualities matter. But against such strong headwinds, every President will struggle and eventually they seek cover among their base of support.
In short, Presidents that govern in polarized times possess strikingly similar public approval profiles.
Many political observers think that if Trump loses next week, then the country can return to normal. In fact, that is Joe Biden’s chief rationale to be President – return the country to normal.
While promises can be persuasive on the campaign trail, ask yourself what is normal? A return to the Obama years? Recall, at the time Obama departed, he had the dubious distinction as the most polarizing President. He also claimed the number 2 spot, and 5 of the top 8 polarization scores in history – G.W. Bush received the other 3.
Ten of the most polarizing years occurred in the past 16 year period. In this respect, Trump is not an outlier but an extension of a trend. Like Bush and Obama before him, Trump set the record.
In truth, the polarized environment made Trump’s ascent possible.
So, don’t let Presidents cloud your vision of politics. Resist the urge to attribute change to Presidents and keep an eye on the much larger political landscape. Features in that landscape like Congress and partisan polarization circumscribe presidential power and influence important political outcomes.