Why Divided Government Is Bad for Obama

by John Sides on October 29, 2010 · 36 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Legislative Politics

The likely onset of divided government—with Democrats in control of the White House and probably the Senate but Republicans in control of the House—has occasioned a lot of contrarian thinking. In this telling, divided government is somehow good for Obama. Divided government is no less productive than unified government, the contrarians say. And, moreover, Republicans will be just as accountable as Obama for whatever happens between now and the 2012 election. Some go as far as to suggest that Obama has a better chance of winning in 2012 with Republicans ruling the House than he does if Democrats retain control.

This is all too clever by half. Divided government creates gridlock. And when it does produce legislation, the president finds that legislation much less palatable than if his party were in control. Divided government also fails to make both parties equally accountable. Obama will get less of what he wants and pretty much all the blame if the economy and country are still in the doldrums two years from now.

It’s easy to think that divided government doesn’t make government any less productive. Everyone can think of important laws that passed under divided government. Here is Matt Bai, writing back in January:

Sure, all things being equal, a president would rather have his allies firmly in control than not. But recent presidents have had more success when forced to work with slim majorities in Congress, or even none at all. Ronald Reagan teamed with influential Democratic senators and a Democrat-controlled House to overhaul the tax code. Richard Nixon and a Democratic Congress enacted historic protections for the environment.

Indeed, the political scientist David Mayhew has found that landmark laws are no less likely under divided government than under unified government. But here’s the problem: we can’t just count the laws that passed. We have to know what didn’t pass.

Political scientist Sarah Binder’s book Stalemate does exactly that. She measured both the size of the policy agenda and the number of agenda items that failed to be addressed with any enacted law. Divide the latter by the former and you have a measure of gridlock. Binder found that gridlock increases under divided government. She writes:

If we use the past half-century as our guide, we can expect divided control of government to increase the frequency of stalemate by roughly 11 percent.

But let’s suppose that Congress can pass significant legislation even under divided government, perhaps via coalitions of Republicans and conservative Democrats. The problem for Obama is that this legislation is far less likely to meet his approval. One study of divided government by George Edwards, Andrew Barrett, and Jeffrey Peake found that divided government made presidents more than three times as likely to oppose potentially important legislation.

Given the long list of items on President Obama’s ostensible agenda—such as climate change and immigration, to name only two—his policy goals will likely be harder to accomplish under divided government. Congress will propose and possibly send him more bills that he opposes, and gridlock will often prevail.

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if voters considered the President and Congress equally to blame. But that’s not likely. Under divided government, presidents are much more accountable than their opposition for conditions in the country.

Consider the 1992 and 1996 elections. They featured opposite configurations of divided government, with a Republican president and Democratic Congress in 1992 and the reverse in 1996. Political scientist Helmut Norpoth investigated voting behavior in both elections and considered four possible “verdicts” that voters could render. One was a hung jury, in which voters could not agree on who was accountable for the country’s situation. A “split verdict” meant that voters reward or punish both parties equally. Or, voters could simply give all praise or blame either to Congress or to the President.

Norpoth found that voters hold the President accountable:

Under both Republican and Democratic Presidents, and with Congress in the hands of the opposite party each time, voters assign responsibility for the economy to the President, not Congress; at least, they vote as if they followed that logic.

In fact, another analysis of over 40 years of presidential elections, this one by political scientists Richard Nadeau and Michael Lewis-Beck, found the same thing. Voters rewarded the president’s party when times were good and punished it when times were bad—no matter whether government was unified or divided. Nadeau and Lewis-Beck write:

The presidential office is viewed as the command post of the economy, irrespective of whether the president actually has sufficient control of Congress to implement his or her economic plan.

That’s where the 2010 election seems likely to leave Obama. Under divided government, he’ll have less power but no less accountability. Of course, if the economy turns around, a Speaker Boehner won’t matter one way or the other. But if the economy continues to stagnate, blaming a Republican-controlled House or even Congress won’t help Obama.

[Cross-posted at The Hill’s Congress blog]


arbitrista October 29, 2010 at 10:28 am

Setting analytical issues aside for a moment, shouldn’t it be worrisome that our political system (and lots of voters) seem unable to place accountability where it probably belongs. I don’t mean this in a partisan sense; however, simple fairness would suggest that divided government should lead to divided responsibility. As it is there seem to be some extremely perverse incentives at work.

consulscipio236 October 29, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Except for the 4 months Paul Kirk was senator, we have had divided government for Obama’s entire presidency. True democrats controlled the house and white house, but republicans had a 40 vote majority in the senate.

xyzzyva October 29, 2010 at 1:02 pm

The likely onset of divided government — with Democrats in control of the White House and probably the Senate but Republicans in control of the House —

The Senate under someone’s control? You’d make me laugh… if I didn’t want to cry.

Richard H. Serlin October 29, 2010 at 1:02 pm

“If we use the past half-century as our guide, we can expect divided control of government to increase the frequency of stalemate by roughly 11 percent.”

In the past half century, Republicans didn’t filibuster, with wall like discipline, every single bill that would do substantial good for the country to make the Democrats lose the next election. Filibustering everything is a very recent phenomenon, one that makes it so that there is little or no difference between having both houses but less than 60 Senators, and having neither house, when it comes to stopping anything.

What was true of the past easily may be untrue with today’s radically different Republican Party.

Richard H. Serlin October 29, 2010 at 1:03 pm

“Given the long list of items on President Obama’s ostensible agenda — such as climate change and immigration, to name only two — his policy goals will likely be harder to accomplish under divided government.”

But again the key point – they’re impossible to accomplish anyway, as long as the Republicans have just 41 Senators – it makes no difference whether they have majorities in the House and Senate or not – unless the Democrats are willing to abolish the filibuster, but sadly it appears they aren’t.

Richard H. Serlin October 29, 2010 at 1:06 pm

I asked this question earlier on Chait’s blog:


Here’s a reply I added to your evidence above:

That’s a very good piece of evidence, and interesting that it’s that bad – even when the other party controls congress outright, the Presidents party is still blamed for their causing inaction – a huge reason to end the filibuster and increase public civics education (Where’s the room in the curriculum with everything else? How about an extra year of college, if not high school too, like in Canada. The amount people need to learn increases each decade with technological advance, why did we decide to stop adding required years of education like we used to in response.)

Still, I wonder if this might be an exception to the general rule found in your study. This would be a VERY noisy Republican congress, so they might seem a lot more involved and to blame with the public. Plus, control of congress might embolden the radical elements that control the party to do things which might really hurt the Republicans – like a government shutdown, non-stop trivial scandals and investigations, and impeachment of Obama for trivial reasons, when the public wants them working on the economy, or even actual big budget cut bills, and that means cutting things the public really wants, then Obama and the Democrats can look like they’re needed to save us from dangerous radical Republicans –You wouldn’t have this if Republicans didn’t control congress; they could just keep talking in vague slogans.

I don’t think there’s an easy answer here. You have to really think about the specifics of today’s world, and today’s really radical Republican Party, unprecedented in modern times.

Jeff Peake October 29, 2010 at 4:10 pm

What some of the comments seem to forget is that party control of each chamber matters in terms of the agenda and the bills the chamber is able to pass.

Sure, the 60 votes is a problem for Democrats, currently. Even so, they were able to pass some significant legislation this Congress. If the GOP controls either chamber, what Democratic bills will even get a hearing in that chamber? And, the president is very likely to oppose whatever bills the Republican chamber passes.

Edwards, in some other work, reports that not a single major issue in the 104th Congress’s agenda was a Clinton initiative… A highly unusual outcome. I imagine it’d be worse in a Republican House for Obama, given the increase in partisan polarization, should the GOP win control of that chamber.

Those pundits that look back to Nixon or Reagan, seem to forget that those presidents dealt with a very different partisan situation than Obama (or Bush).

Matthew Shugart October 29, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Richard (at 1:02) suggests there is little real difference between Democratic control (but short of 60 seats) and Republican control of the Senate.

While he has a point about the increasing use of the filibuster, it nonetheless remains the case that the majority matters. The majority organizes the body, thereby controlling the committees. The majority sets the agenda. These things matter, and not in a trivial way.

Richard H. Serlin October 30, 2010 at 12:28 am

To the last two commenters:

The Democrats got victories when the Republicans had only 40 or 41 in the Senate.

Do you really think control of the Senate and/or House will make any difference if the Republicans have 45 or 48 — you can control the agenda all you want, do you really think the Republicans will let you pass anything substantially positive? Do you really think you’ll ever be able to peel away 5 or 8 Republicans (who will then get taken out in the next primary)? Then what legislative difference does it make to win the Senate and the House if Democrats aren’t willing to take on the filibuster? which it looks like they aren’t.

Sarah Binder October 30, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Richard is certainly on target in suggesting the limits of unified party control on Congress’s performance. That said, it’s important to keep in mind that my 11 % estimated increase in gridlock under divided government (that John cites) is conditional on several forces beyond party control. Most importantly, both the degree of partisan polarization and the extent of policy disagreement between the two chambers affect the level of gridlock. Bicameral disagreement (GOP House median and DEM Senate median?) in the coming Congress will surely limit what unified party control can deliver.

Jeff Peake October 31, 2010 at 1:51 pm

My point wasn’t so much that the Democrats will be able to work their will in Congress, should they maintain control (even with just 52 Senators). It was more aimed at those commentators that believed divided government has been with us throughout the Obama administration, due to the Republican filibuster. If you think things are bad now for Obama, when Republicans control the House and/or have more Senate seats, it’s going to be much worse for Obama.

The only benefit is that he can legitimately blame Republicans for gridlock. However, the opinion data reported in the post suggests that the president gets blamed no matter what. It’s doubtful that Boehner will play Obama’s Gingrich.

mw November 1, 2010 at 2:09 am

Whether or not you agree with the conclusion in the title, it still begs the question of whether or not what is good for President Obama is good for the country. Particularly since much of Side’s argument revolve around the purely partisan political consideration of whether Obama’s re-election chances are are enhanced or diminished with divided government.

Side’s argument against divided government also borders on being a tautology. He starts with an unstated premise that the legislation preferred by supporters of the activist policy agenda of the Obama administration is in fact good legislation and good for America.

Certainly Sides would acknowledge that this is a debatable proposition to at least those 47% who did not vote for Obama in 2008. No?

Accepting this premise is required to arrive at the conclusion that gridlock is bad, because the argument claims gridlock is bad because it prevents the President from getting the legislation he wants. Shocker.

If there is anything that should be clear from the precipitous decline of the Democrat’s fortunes over the last two years, it is that many – if not most – Americans disagree that the kind of legislation steamrolled by One Party Rule Democratic government is good legislation. In fact, not even Democrats or the President will stand up and say either the Stimulus or Obamacare hairballs are good legislation. The best they’ll say is something like “It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we could do under the circumstances.”

I think it is fair to say that Americans want better, or nothing. Blocking bad legislation is a positive benefit of Divided Government.

Another problem with the Sides/Blinder thesis is that it rests on a contrafactual argument: Divided government is bad, he claims, because the legislation that passes under divided government is not as good as the quantity and quality of imaginary legislation that would have passed under the imaginary One Party Rule that did not exist at the time at the time of the passage of the imaginary legislation. Really. That is what he is saying.

In any case, I’ll be very interested in seeing what Sides has to say about the virtues of divided government two years hence. I know what I’ll be saying. I’ll be supporting the re-election of Barack Obama (or perhaps a 3rd Party run by Mike Bloomberg), in order to head off any possibility of One Party Republican Rule. I suspect that John Sides will be singing from a different hymnbook in 2012, having rediscovered the benefits of divided government in that election cycle. Note to self: Bookmark this.

John Sides November 1, 2010 at 12:37 pm

mw: You’re imputing a view to me that I simply don’t express. The post is about whether divided gov’t bad for Obama — his policy agenda and goals and his reelection effort. It’s not about my views, one way or the other.

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