The Obama Presidency: Appraisals and Prospects


Edited by: Bert A. Rockman, Andrew Rudalevige & Colin Campbell

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    Preface and Acknowledgments

    The presidency of Barack Obama will surely be regarded as one of the most consequential, and controversial, in American history. It deserves sustained study along many lines—after all, Obama's would be a landmark administration if only for the multiracial background of the president himself, the first person of African American descent to hold America's highest office. But the crisis-wracked times in which Obama took office, and his ambitious response to them, have been hugely important in their own right. Rather than peace and prosperity, Obama inherited war and recession—and the administration's struggles against both, while simultaneously establishing its own agenda, have been marked by a complicated sequence of successes and setbacks.

    These have not always been easy to track, nor have they always worked in tandem. Even as Obama and the nation reveled in the dramatic announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, Washington politics continued as usual. Jubilant crowds gathered; the president urged Americans to “think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11.”1 But within two days the House had returned to its consideration of contentious measures banning abortion funding and repealing parts of the 2010 health care reform law while the Senate had stalled once more over judicial nominations and competing jobs bills.2

    Indeed, Obama's presidency has unfolded in a savagely polarized partisan setting. The “Obama doctrine,” it has been observed, is that he doesn't have one—and while this pragmatism has real advantages it also offers ammunition to both ends of that spectrum. His critics on the right call him “the most radical president we've ever had,”3 and suggest he is practically (sometimes literally) un-American.4 His critics on the left wish he was far more radical, on issues ranging from health care and entitlement reform to the legal regime underpinning the “war on terror”—a phrase that has been downplayed by the administration, but a reality its policies reflect. Some decry Obama's “no drama” deliberative style as dithering indecisiveness; others applaud the president's unwillingness to embrace dogmatic certainty and his predilection to suit policy to situations as they arise.5 Some argue that the president's policy plans are out of touch with the public mood; others charge instead that the administration simply lacks a readily comprehended overarching narrative that might have anchored its legislative victories in the political arena. The last Gallup approval poll of April 2011 showed 46 percent approving of Obama's performance and 46 percent disapproving: a 46–46 president in a 50–50 nation.6

    Sorting out these divisions and contradictions, and linking them to what political scientists know about presidential behavior and American politics, is the task of this book. This volume provides one of the first systematic assessments of the Obama presidency. It offers appraisals of the administration's tactics and strategies as it took office and transitioned from the historic 2008 campaign; of the policy agenda it developed; and of its legislative strategy and its interbranch relations more generally. And it suggests how past policy—and politics—may affect the administration's prospects, not least for 2012.

    To be sure, no matter when a project like this goes to press, it cannot keep up with the news.

    As of this writing, debates over the impact and meaning of bin Laden's death dominate the airwaves. Southern states struggle to clean up after violent tornadoes that killed more than three hundred people. American and allied warplanes fly sorties over Libya. Neighboring Tunisia and Egypt struggle to effect a transition to democratic rule. Japan tries to recover from a horrific earthquake and tsunami—and to prevent nuclear reactors damaged by those blows from becoming their own disasters. A divided European Union seeks to shore up its weakest economies. Oil prices rise. Meanwhile, the president and Congress struggle to negotiate the coming year's budget after finally completing the current year's, six months late—with the real possibility of a government shutdown or even default lurking in that impasse. Meanwhile the Iowa caucuses, lurching ever closer, remind us that electoral imperatives are never far from Washington minds.

    In short (as Richard Neustadt wrote long ago), “by present standards, what would once have been emergency is commonplace.” Yet “politics as usual” continues unimpeded.7 Presidents must be multitaskers, and we don't know what challenges will come to the forefront of the White House agenda.

    Thus the value of this book, we hope, lies in illuminating the politics and governance strategies that undergird the Obama administration, and how they might be applied to the tests that await. How has President Obama reacted to the “political time” in which he finds himself?8 How does he make decisions? How does he make policy, communicate, campaign, lobby, persuade? Our goal here is to balance detailed coverage of contemporary events with the ways those events fit—and can be explained by—generations of scholarship regarding presidential behavior and the American political system. As such, it is designed for scholars and students alike, especially as a supplementary text for courses on American government or the US presidency. It is both accessible and accurate; we look forward to the conversations its chapters should spark.

    We are grateful to all those who have helped bring this project to fruition. First and foremost, of course, that means the contributing authors, whether veterans of this series or newly recruited for this volume. As in previous iterations, we have tried to provide a generational and topical mix that illuminates new research on the presidency, and we are delighted that a wide range of top-notch scholars from around the world have once again agreed to lend their seasoned judgments to this volume.

    Special thanks must go to our extraordinarily supportive (and patient!) team at CQ Press, especially editorial director, editorial assistant Nancy Loh Charisse Kiino, production editor Elizabeth Kline, copy editor Kathryn Krug, and those on the marketing team, including Erin Snow, Chris O'Brien, and Chloe Falivene.

    And finally, our deep thanks to our families and colleagues. Your support and sacrifices often go unnoted—but never unappreciated.


    1. “Remarks by the President on Osama bin Laden,” Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, May 2, 2011.

    2. Jennifer Steinhauer and Carl Hulse, “Good Feeling Gone, in Congress Anyway,” New York Times, May 4, 2011.

    3. See Matthew Continetti, “The Paranoid Style in Liberal Politics,” The Weekly Standard 28 (April 4, 2011).

    4. In response to the “birther” movement noted in this volume, the president ultimately felt compelled to respond to “this silliness” by requesting that the state of Hawaii waive normal procedure and release his long-form birth certificate. See Michael D. Shear, “With Document, Obama Seeks to End ‘Birther’ Issue,” New York Times, April 27, 2011.

    5. Timothy Egan, “In Defense of Dithering,” New York Times, March 24, 2011, available at (accessed March 31, 2011).

    6. See (accessed May 4, 2011). While the killing of Osama bin Laden gave Obama's ratings a significant boost in early May, it seemed unlikely that rally effect would be sustained long.

    7. Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents (New York: Free Press, 1990), 5.

    8. Stephen Skowronek, “Presidential Leadership in Political Time,” in Michael Nelson, ed., The Presidency and the Political System, 8th ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2005), 89–135.

  • About the Contributors

    Joel D. Aberbach is a professor of political science and policy studies and the Director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at UCLA. He is cochair of the International Political Science Association's Research Committee on Structure and Organization of Government. His books include Keeping a Watchful Eye: The Politics of Congressional Oversight (Brookings Institution, 1990) and (with Bert A. Rockman) In the Web of Politics: Three Decades of the U.S. Federal Executive (Brookings Institution Press, 2000).

    Colin Campbell is the retired Canada Research Chair in U.S. Government and Politics and emeritus professor in political science at the University of British Columbia; and visiting professor at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. From 1983 to 2002, he was a professor at Georgetown University. He has published nine books, four of which have won awards.

    James E. Campbell is a UB Distinguished Professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He previously served as an APSA congressional fellow and as a program director at the National Science Foundation. His research generally examines American macropolitics: presidential and congressional campaigns and elections, partisan realignments, public opinion, the policy performance of political parties, and election forecasting. In addition to the more than seventy journal articles and book chapters that he has published on various aspects of American politics, he is the author of The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote, The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections, and Cheap Seats. He also coedited Before the Vote and has edited six journal symposia on forecasting American national elections.

    George C. Edwards III is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University and holds the Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies. A leading scholar of the presidency, he has written or edited 25 books on American politics. He is also editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly and general editor of the Oxford Handbook of American Politics series. Among his latest books, On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit examines the effectiveness of presidential leadership of public opinion; Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America evaluates the consequences of the method of electing the president; The Strategic President offers a new formulation for understanding presidential leadership; and Overreach analyzes leadership in the Obama presidency. Professor Edwards has served as president of the Presidency Research Section of the American Political Science Association, which has named its annual Dissertation Prize in his honor and awarded him its Career Service Award.

    Christopher H. Foreman is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a nonresident senior fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution. His books include Signals from the Hill: Congressional Oversight and the Challenge of Social Regulation (Yale University Press, 1988) and The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice (Brookings, 1998). From 1999 to 2005 he served as a member of the board of governors of The Nature Conservancy.

    Diane J. Heith is associate professor and chair of government and politics at St. John's University. She is the author of several works on the presidency, public opinion and the media including, Polling to Govern: Public Opinion and Presidential Leadership (2004) and In the Public Domain: Presidents and the Challenges of Public Leadership (edited with Lori Cox Han, 2005). Her work has appeared in Public Opinion Quarterly, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Political Science Quarterly, The Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, The Journal of Women, Politics and Policy, White House Studies and Congress and the Presidency. She is currently completing The Presidential Road Show: Public Leadership in a Partisan Era (forthcoming, 2012).

    Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey School and Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Jacobs has published 14 books and edited volumes and dozens of articles on presidential politics and American public policy including Health Care Reform and American Politics (with Theda Skocpol, Oxford University Press, 2010), and Politicians Don't Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness (with Robert Y. Shapiro, University of Chicago Press, 2000). Dr. Jacobs coedits the “Chicago Series in American Politics” for the University of Chicago Press.

    Gary C. Jacobson is professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, where he has taught since 1979. He previously taught at Trinity College, the University of California at Riverside, Yale University, and Stanford University. Jacobson specializes in the study of U.S. elections, parties, interest groups, and Congress. He is the author of Money in Congressional Elections; The Politics of Congressional Elections, 7th Edition; The Electoral Origins of Divided Government: Competition in the U.S. House Elections, 1946–1988; Not a Uniter: George W. Bush and the American People; and is a coauthor with Sam Kernel l of Strategy and Choice in Congressional Elections, 2nd Edition and The Logic of American Politics, 4th Edition. Jacobson is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

    Bert A. Rockman is currently a professor of political science and the department head at Purdue University. His books include The Leadership Question, which was awarded the Richard E. Neustadt Prize. He also has been a recipient of the Herbert A. Simon Award.

    Andrew Rudalevige is the Walter E. Beach ‘56 Chair of Political Science at Dickinson College, and has held visiting posts at Princeton University and the University of East Anglia, England. His books include The New Imperial Presidency and Managing the President's Program, which was awarded the Richard E. Neustadt Prize.

    Robert S. Singh is a professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London. A graduate of Oxford University, he is the author of The Congressional Black Caucus, The Farrakhan Phenomenon, American Politics: A Concise Introduction and Contemporary American Politics and Society: Issues and Controversies, editor of American Politics and Society Today and Governing America, coeditor of The Bush Doctrine and the War on Terrorism and, most recently, coauthor of After Bush: The Case For Continuity in American Foreign Policy. His research interests are in the politics of contemporary U.S. foreign policy.

    Barbara Sinclair is a professor emerita of political science at UCLA. She specializes in American politics and primarily does research on the U.S. Congress. Her publications include articles in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, and Legislative Studies Quarterly and the following books: Congressional Realignment (1982), Majority Leadership in the U.S. House (1983), The Transformation of the U.S. Senate (1989), Legislators, Leaders, and Lawmaking: The U.S. House of Representatives in the Postreform Era (1995), Party Wars: Polarization and the Politics of National Policy Making (2006), and Unorthodox Lawmaking: New Legislative Processes in the U.S. Congress (2011). She has served as chair of the Legislative Studies Section of the American Political Science Association, president of the Western Political Science Association, and vice-president of the American Political Science Association. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow in the office of the House majority leader in 1978–79 and a participant observer in the office of the Speaker in 1987–88. She has testified before Congress on the legislative process, most recently before the Senate Committee in Rules and Administration on the filibuster in July 2010.

    Eric N. Waltenburg is associate professor of political science at Purdue University. His research and teaching interests focus on judicial and state politics. He is the author or coauthor of three books, Litigating Federalism (Greenwood Press, 1999, with Bill Swinford); Choosing Where to Fight (SUNY Press, 2002); and Legacy and Legitimacy (Temple University Press, 2009, with Rosalee A. Clawson) as well as various articles. He is also the coeditor of Politics, Groups and Identities.

    Stephen Weatherford is a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research has ranged over questions of representation, political behavior and political economy, and he has written on presidential leadership in economic policymaking and on economic policy coordination between the U.S. and Japan. Two active research projects include a survey of U.S. economic policymaking in the post-WWII years and a study of deliberation and decision-making in education policy.

    David A. Yalof is associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. His first book, Pursuit of Justices: Presidential Politics and the Selection of Supreme Court Nominees (University of Chicago Press, 1999), was awarded the American Political Science Association's Neustadt Award as the best book published on presidential studies in 1999. He is also the author of Prosecution Among Friends: Presidents, Attorneys General and Executive Branch Wrongdoing (forthcoming from Texas A&M University Press in 2012), The First Amendment and the Media in the Court of Public Opinion (Cambridge University Press, 2001), The Future of the First Amendment: The Digital Media, Civic Education and Free Expression Rights in America's High Schools (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), and various articles and book chapters.

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