The permanent two-term presidency

ADVERTISEMENT
First, if you compare the control of federal policy making between President Carter’s decentralized cabinet system of government and Presidents Bush and Obama, you see a great shift in where control policy expertise is housed. The increasing use of so-called White House czars represents a centralizing brain gain in the White House and a brain drain in federal agencies. As the White House has grown in stature, the ability for Presidents to control and reap the rewards of policy initiatives has grown.

Second, partisan polarization among the electorate locks in a presidential majority in the Electoral College map and facilitates the ground game necessary to sustain momentum over four years. Much of the lock-in relates to the mastery over key mobilization technologies. Reagan and the Republicans, with the help of Richard Viguerie and other conservative activists, were able to dominate direct mail techniques in the 1970s and 80s. Dave Karpf’s newest book, The MoveOn Effect, on digital media and social movements suggests that Democrats have been better able to dominate the online-universe and electronic fundraising since the early 2000s. In each case, technology helped the incumbent President sustain the mobilization of electoral majorities.

Finally, another dimension of technological change has to do with communication. Samuel Kernell’s introduced the concept of “going public” to explain how Presidents have increasing gone directly to voters with their messages. The traditional media no longer sits between the president and the public, so political messages can be delivered with little interference. This results in a president capable of shaping public opinion much more purposefully and successfully than in the past. President Obama’s popularity, according to John Sides' and Lynn Vavreck's, The Gamble, has been consistently higher than one would expect, possibly the result of the mastery his White House has achieved over social media and associated data technologies.

If the permanent two-term Presidency has become a fact of US politics, in four years we will be faced with a more even contest for the presidency. Vice President Biden will be 73 in November 2016, meaning we will likely face an election like 2008 without an incumbent propped up by these powerful trends toward the status quo. Moreover, the greatest chance the Republicans have to re-gaining the White House may come as much from whom they choose, as how they innovate around electoral, communication, and mobilization technologies.

Brown is assistant professor of Political Science at Seton Hall University. He is the author of Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition published in 2012 by Routledge. You can follow him on Twitter @heathbrown.