Rockefeller Center Direct Line - Fall 2012

During the last 80 years, no incumbent President seeking re-election has been defeated in the general election unless he first faced serious opposition for his party’s nomination.  Since President Obama faced no opposition in securing the Democratic Party’s nomination, it would be unprecedented in the modern era for him not to carry the election in November.  Prediction markets currently assign a 59.7 percent chanceto President Obama winning re-election.

As a nation, we tend to rally around any viable incumbent, but the rhetoric of the Presidential campaign tends to ignore the very real fact that the President can only pass legislation if the Congress sends it to him first.  Unlike parliamentary systems in other countries, in which control of the executive branch follows from the ability to form a majority coalition in the legislative branch, the defining feature of our federal government is the need for separately elected executive and legislative branches to agree on legislation.  Such agreement has been hard to come by for President Obama.  The Republicans have used their control of the House of Representatives in the past two years, and the rules of the Senate that empower minority parties in the past four years, to block or blunt much of President Obama’s agenda.

The propensity toward gridlock is a risk in any system with direct election of the President.  However, in the United States, this propensity is exacerbated by the low regard and low expectations we have for the Congress.  We seldom reward legislators with a promotion to the White House.  In the postwar period, for example, only John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama have been elected President directly from the Senate.  Quite the contrary, the American public tends to reward governors who make a bid for the White House, particularly when they run as Washington outsiders.  The elections of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were all based to varying degrees on this strategy. 

Our nation faces many policy challenges in the years to come that will require new legislation from our federal government.  Despite Congressional approval ratingsthat are well below 20 percent, there is little chance that control of the Housewill revert to the Democrats this year.   With no electoral penalty for blocking the President’s agenda and no electoral rewards for advancing one’s own legislation, the likelihood of the next Congress working constructively with the winner of the Presidential election appears quite dim.  Sadly, progress on policy challenges is unlikely to occur until one party again controls the White House and both houses of Congress, or until we more effectively hold our legislators electorally accountable for their legislative successes and failures.

Related Programming Note:  The Rockefeller Center will host former US Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) on Monday, September 17th. Senator Gregg will discuss "The Role of the Senate" duing this Constitution Day program, which will take place in Silsby 28 at 4:30 PM.

Andrew A. Samwick is the Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, the Sandra L. and Arthur L. Irving '72a, P'10 Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 2003 and 2004, he served as chief economist on the staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Since joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1994, his scholarly work has covered a range of topics, including pensions, saving, taxation, portfolio choice, and executive compensation. Professor Samwick has been published in American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Journal of Finance, Journal of Public Economics, and a number of specialized journals and conference volumes. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in economics from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He blogs about economics, politics, and current events.