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Polarization and a Change in Presidential Leadership: “Going Partisan”

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) arrives on stage during an election rally in Henderson, Nevada (REUTERS/Jason Reed).

Polarization in Congress has led to dramatic changes in politics and governance. In a recent paper, Brandon Rottinghaus, explains that one such change involves presidential leadership. In an era of partisan bickering and gridlock, presidents are more likely to target their own party members in Congress, when trying to gin up support for legislation. The result is a unique public strategy that differs from presidential eras of the past.

In, “Going Partisan: Presidential Leadership in a Polarized Political Environment,” Rottinghaus explains that in the past, presidents were known for “Going Public,” whereby they targeted constituents of malleable or moderate members of Congress. The goal was to drive citizens to pressure those legislators—regardless of party—to come to the aid of the president’s policy ideas.

That strategy is a thing of the past.

The paper keenly notes that as bipartisanship gave way to polarization and polarization gave way to hyper-polarization, there are fewer moderates in Congress (and in the electorate). As a result, the strategy of targeting Congressional moderates has fallen away. In its place, presidents have opted to “Go Partisan.” Presidents focus on maintaining solidarity among their fellow party members in Congress, targeting messaging and making visits to states and Congressional districts where they have greater support.

This theory acknowledges a key consequence of Congressional polarization: there are large numbers of legislators from whom the president will never get support. This occurs both because of legislators’ preferences and the highly partisan constituencies they represent.

The findings in this paper shed light on recent and future legislative battles. During the October debate over a continuing resolution and a debt ceiling raise, House and Senate Democrats voted in lockstep with their legislative leaders in favor of their president’s position. That support among the president’s co-partisans was essential for passage, and the signal of a united party paid political dividends beyond the roll call vote. As we approach future budget battles that may well involve reforms to entitlement programs, President Obama may find it absolutely essential to “Go Partisan” as a means of corralling the needed support to pass ambitious changes to programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Moving forward, Rottinghaus’ theory of “Going Partisan” is an absolutely essential addition to the study of the presidency. Of equal importance, it offers perspective and insight into future battles over public policy in the nation’s capital.

Click to read the full paper, “Going Partisan: Presidential Leadership in a Polarized Political Environment.”

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