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Divided government is bad for Obama

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.

John Sides is an assistant professor in the department of political science at George Washington University.

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