Evan Katz

In political science, a president’s “political capital” refers to how much influence he/she can exert on lawmakers to produce desired legislative outcomes in Congress. Political capital can be understood more or less as an invisible “currency” that presidents can expend on lawmakers or the public to get them on board with particular items on their agendas. Presidents gain political capital with legislative or electoral victories and high favorability ratings with the public, and, inversely, lose it through poor showings by their parties in midterm elections, legislative (and other) gaffes, and low favorability ratings.

Because of the abstract nature of political capital, scholars have spent decades analyzing why some presidents have more success than others in influencing legislative outcomes. Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, had his own special way of persuading lawmakers, and on the surface it appears to have been very effective. Ronald Reagan, famously dubbed the “Teflon President” and the “Great Communicator,” used his superior oratory skills to both escape the kind of criticism that would normally deplete a president’s political capital and persuade the public into supporting his policies, giving him far more room to exert influence than other presidents in getting his agenda pushed through Congress. Other presidents have not been as successful at utilizing their political capital. President Obama, despite his message of hope and change that carried him into the White House with a strong mandate to lead from the public, has proven that popularity does not necessarily beget leverage over Congress, as he has thus far failed to actualize a large portion of his campaign promises.

One theory, the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency, coined by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, postulates that “the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics.” Like members of the Green Lantern Corps in the DC comic book series, whose power rings grant their users essentially unlimited power within the confines of their own willpower and imaginations, all presidents have the innate ability to sway Congress; those that fail are either using the wrong methods or are politically impotent. Political scientists like Nyhan would argue that Obama has failed at getting pieces of his agenda passed because he’s been employing the wrong tactics to persuade Congress, and should instead adopt a new strategy. Ron Fournier, another proponent of the Green Lantern Theory, posits:

He could talk to the media and the public more often with a more compelling and sustained message. He could build enduring relationships in Washington rather than being so blatantly transactional with his time. He could work harder, and with more empathy, on Capitol Hill to find “win-win” opportunities with Republicans.

However, as intriguing as it may sound, the Green Lantern Theory contains numerous flaws that undermine its explanatory power, and Ezra Klein of Vox has dedicated an entire post to elucidating them in great detail. First, it largely fails to consider the constitutional restraints that prevent a president from overstepping his/her bounds. America’s presidential system, built upon a separation of powers that prevents one branch of government from overpowering the others, gives the president little direct power over Congress. A president does not have the authority to call votes or force lawmakers to vote one way or the other.

Second, it ignores Congressional realities. Say what you will about whether Obama suffers from political impotence, but even when he “tries hard enough” like Nyhan suggests, roadblocks outside his control, such as an increasingly polarized Congress under the control of the opposite party, thwart his ability to influence legislative outcomes. Republicans, especially Tea Party Republicans pandering to a base of angry voters that want nothing to do with Obama’s agenda, have little incentive to respond to presidential influence.

“Alright,” some political scientists might say, “maybe the Green Lanterns aren’t analogous to the president, but that doesn’t disprove the concept of political capital.” Well, beyond the poorly substantiated Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency, political capital as a concept is largely conjecture supported with anecdotal evidence. Because presidential influence as an independent variable is not unidimensional, it can be difficult to operationalize; how does one go about quantifying how much a president influences Congress? Does one measure the number of speeches a president gives on a specific topic? The number of times he/she supports a bill? This ambiguity causes researchers to ignore other confounding variables that could potentially render the relationship between presidential influence and legislative outcomes spurious. As Matthew Dickinson, professor of political science at Middlebury College, explains:

Although journalists (and political scientists) often focus on the legislative “endgame” to gauge presidential influence – will the President swing enough votes to get his preferred legislation enacted? – this mistakes an outcome with actual evidence of presidential influence. Once we control for other factors – a member of Congress’ ideological and partisan leanings, the political leanings of her constituency, whether she’s up for reelection or not – we can usually predict how she will vote without needing to know much of anything about what the president wants.

Let’s unpack some of these alternative explanations. First, ideology and partisan leanings: legislators have a far greater incentive to vote along ideological and partisan lines than they do based on presidential influence, either because they’re true ideologues that utterly refuse to compromise, or because they have an obligation to their constituents to represent their views. Either way, as I’ve meticulously outlined in a previous post, these legislators care too much about holding true to their ideologies and their parties to allow a president to sway them. For members of the opposite party, voting in line with a president’s stated position on an issue looks both like a concession and a betrayal, which resonates poorly with their constituents or the rest of their party. Just imagine the consequences of Republicans voting with Obama after being given a mandate to obstruct his agenda; they’d get primaried in the next election cycle. While it’s entirely possible that a president could win over a couple of moderate members from across the aisle to support a piece of legislation every now and then, on a vast majority of occasions one or two votes is not sufficient to ensure passage. For members of the president’s own party, many will toe the party line, but those that object generally refuse their support for ideological reasons (e.g. Elizabeth Warren and both the TPA and TPP), something presidential influence can’t overcome.

If anything, presidential influence may have a net negative effect on persuading lawmakers to vote one way or the other. Studies show that when a president takes clear positions on particular issue, congressional votes on those issues are more likely to fall along partisan lines. In other words, while a president might be able to persuade members of his/her own party to support a bill, members of the opposition party will be keener on stopping that bill to deny the president a victory. This especially holds true as both parties grow more unified and polarized. Keith Poole, a prominent University of Georgia political scientist and a future professor of mine, has noted the trend of asymmetric polarization among both parties; congressional Republicans have raced toward the fringes much faster than Democrats have, prompting them to take much stronger stances against legislation Obama endorses, like the Affordable Care Act. Obama, to his credit, has recognized this trend to some extent, taking fewer clear positions on legislation than previous presidents, but even tacit support or association has the effect of repulsing congressional Republicans.

Second, reelection: the nature of the presidency changes drastically between the first 100 days and the first midterm elections. While presidents generally have a period of good grace during which they have the most success getting pieces of their agendas passed, after about a year Congress transitions to focusing on reelection. As a result, members of Congress, even those closely tied to the president, become far more risk-averse and predictable; any legislation to which they could be tied that might anger their constituents becomes off-limits, no matter how much a president pushes it. Pandering to the base to stay in office becomes priority number one, and support for major, controversial legislation falls by the wayside until after the election cycle.

As I mentioned above, most evidentiary support for political capital is anecdotal at best. Some political scientists might point to specific situations where Johnson’s intimidation tactics and intimate knowledge of Congressional nuts and bolts, Reagan’s communication skills, or even Bill Clinton’s schmoozing techniques affected legislative outcomes, but each can be explained away based on a few different factors. First of all, each benefited from big majorities in Congress, enabling them to easily get items on their agendas passed without applying real pressure on lawmakers. Even Obama, whose presidency has been marred by perpetual gridlock, had major legislative victories such as the Affordable Care Act early in his first term because his party had majorities in both houses. Johnson benefited from different times politically, as he could manipulate the Democratic machinery to produce desired legislative outcomes, a luxury Obama does not possess because party apparatuses no longer function how they did in the 1960’s. Johnson’s success also stemmed in part from a rally-around-the-flag effect of sorts in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Reagan, despite “working his will,” failed to change public opinion on specific issues and ultimately had to make major concessions, including tax increases, to the Democratic House majority to achieve any real progress on his agenda. Clinton’s gumption and smoothness couldn’t convince Republicans to sign on to his economic or healthcare plans, and when control of the House flipped to the GOP in 1994, legislation centered around the Contract with America, not Clinton’s agenda. Additionally, many of the policies Clinton did sign into law, like NAFTA, had bipartisan support in Congress. Under thorough investigation, there seems to be a lack of correlation between presidential influence and legislative outcomes.

Now, this doesn’t mean presidents have zero influence over Congress. In spite of an inability to directly change public opinion or persuade lawmakers to vote a certain way, presidents can use the bully pulpit to direct debate and draw attention to issues they deem important. This process is known as agenda-setting, and while Congress officially controls their own agenda, presidents have tools like the annual State of the Union address and the media that afford them the ability to exert a hefty amount of influence over what agenda items get highlighted. Agenda-setting doesn’t guarantee that presidents get their desired legislative outcomes, but bringing attention to some issues that once had a decent degree popularity in the first place but lost congressional momentum, can lead to minor legislative successes, according to political scientist Brandice Canes-Wrone.

Obama’s strategy during his second term has been more in line with this idea of agenda-setting, recognizing that presidential influence doesn’t necessarily equate to votes in Congress for a bill, as Mark Blumenthal (formerly of the Huffington Post) indicates. No longer operating with majorities in both houses, Obama has had to pivot from directly exerting influence on Congress to using the bully pulpit to focus debate in the hope that he can still achieve the policy goals set out during his 2008 campaign. Blumenthal cites student loan subsidies as an example of this new strategy: during 2012, Obama turned to college campuses and late night television to pressure congressional Republicans into supporting an extension of subsidies on student loans. After Mitt Romney came out in support, Republicans had no choice but to hold a vote, producing a legislative victory for Obama that July.

As always, simple theories with broad explanatory power generally catch on quickly in academia because they offer a catch-all mechanism through which to understand how certain phenomena work. However, political capital as a theory may be too simplistic, and virtually all empirical data disproves the idea that presidents have an invisible currency they can spend on influencing members of Congress to carry out their bidding. Presidents do have influence in legislation, but not to the extent that political capital theorists would have you believe. Other factors, such as ideology, party affiliation, constituents, and election cycles, more accurately explain legislative outcomes, but political capital conflates these with actual examples of presidential influence.