Just last month President Obama was regularly being called "weak." (See here and here for examples.) In the wake of the healthcare website rollout debacle, the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs and foreign policy challenges in Ukraine and Iraq, picture after picture was painted of a president who was adrift and being controlled by outside events.

Now in the matter of weeks (and after a very bad election result), Obama has announced a historic global warming accord with China, made a prime-time speech that highlighted a sweeping policy change on immigration, and issued regulations that will affect every restaurant in the country and have profound environmental and economic effects. All of a sudden, the media describe the president as "setting the national agenda" and use adjectives like "bold" and "strong," in articles about him.


So which is the real Obama? The diffident, professorial (as a professor, I hate that adjective!) executive who is in over his head? Or the tyrannical authoritarian who is running roughshod over the will of the people to enact his agenda? Both of these arguments are to some degree straw men, but they dominate the public debate over the actions of the president. And in doing so, they obscure a fundamental fact: Obama's actions are not that much different than those of his previous 10 predecessors.

For the first century of this country's existence, Congress was the dominant branch of government and only in wartime did the president assume center stage. But in the late 19th century, Congress began to delegate the authority to make domestic policy to the executive branch. This trend accelerated with the progressive movement in the early 20th century and gained full speed during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Every president since then has had two choices to fulfill his agenda: work with Congress to pass laws or use his executive authority to write regulations and reshape policy. Cary Coglianese has described this as a choice between a legislative presidency and an administrative presidency.

The political context in which the president operates largely determines which of these options the president chooses. If the president has a Congress dominated by his party, and still faces the prospect of reelection (two factors that have often overlapped over the past 80 years), he is likely to be circumspect in his use of his administrative powers and anxious to pass major legislation through Congress that he can tout in his reelection campaign. This largely describes Obama's first term. With his support, Congress passed major legislation such as the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus package. He was also criticized by his allies for not using his administrative powers and going too slowly on regulation.

A second term is different. A president ineligible to run for reelection is freer to focus on his policy preferences and his legacy. All presidents since FDR who have had a second term have also been confronted with a Congress where at least one house was controlled by the opposition party. This makes the legislative path for a president much harder. On the domestic front, this leaves administrative actions such as regulation more attractive for second-term presidents. With legislative options harder and administrative ones more attractive, all of our second-term presidents have focused on policy approaches that do not require Congressional action.

It is inaccurate to describe President Obama as a strong leader or a weak one. Instead, he has been a president reacting (often astutely in my view) to the political environment in which he operates. Presidents always operate in a highly political context and Obama is no different. To quote the TV series, "Battlestar Galactica," "All this has happened before and will happen again."

Shapiro is an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at Rutgers University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.