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President Obama’s Partisan Support in Congress

Rarely does a Congressional Quarterly study attract public attention like yesterday's annual report on “Presidential Success” in Congress. But this year’s report offered a stunning finding: In 2009, President Obama racked up the highest presidential support score in Congress since CQ inaugurated its study in 1953. In the Senate, legislators agreed with the president 96.7 percent of the time Obama took a position; in the House, 94.4 percent of the time.

Given Obama’s declining public approval scores and given persistent media coverage of numerous hard fought legislative battles in the House and Senate last year, Obama’s record breaking success rate raised a few eyebrows. How is it possible that the president fared so well when key pieces of Obama’s proposed health insurance reforms (e.g. the public option) were dropped by the Senate, when the House tinkered with his proposals for financial services regulation, when his own Democratic senators challenged him on defense weapons and Guantanamo Bay, and when Republicans availed themselves of so many opportunities to filibuster?

It seems that the president and his legislative team picked their battles carefully. Although senators cast 397 roll call votes in 2009, the president (or his top staff) took a clear position on only 79 Senate roll call votes. Victorious on 78 of them, Obama achieved a success rate of 98.7% in the Senate. His House average (winning on 68 of the 72 votes he took a position on) reached 94.4%, leveling off to the reported 96.7% overall success rate. Click here to see Presidential Success graph

So how did Obama score so high, especially in light of the prevailing news coverage depicting numerous hard fought legislative battles?

First, the obvious, Obama benefited from large Democratic majorities, including the decisive 60th Senate vote secured when Al Franken was declared the winner of the Minnesota Senate race and Arlen Specter switched parties. Given historic levels of party unity (even Senator Joseph Lieberman voted with the president over 90 percent of the time), Obama had a natural base of support— even if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi often had to cajole support in high profile ways over the course of the year.

Second, and more interesting, a quick glance at the 79 Senate votes suggests that Obama’s record breaking success rate was due in large part to his strategic selection of votes on which to take a public position. It seems clear that Obama choose relatively few votes on which to take a position (though generally speaking recent presidents have similarly avoided taking positions). Assuming that the president’s staff limited those votes to those on which he had the best chances of winning, it is not surprising that Obama fared so well. By and large, most of the domestic and defense votes in both chambers scored by CQ were on appropriations bills— typically votes on final passage of spending bills or on GOP efforts to impose across-the-board cuts on spending. Realistically, it is easy enough to get majority members to cast their lot with the president on such votes. Finally, 32 of Obama’s 78 Senate victories took place on confirmation votes (from the well-known Hillary Clinton to the unknown Andre Davis)— little reason to think Democrats would desert Obama on those appointees.

Obama’s record-breaking first year— even in light of declining overall approval ratings— seems a little less impressive once you take a look at the underbelly of the scoring system. Still, large Democratic majorities— and a dose of partisan team play— certainly set the context for what Obama achieved this past year.

  • Sarah Binder is an expert on Congress and legislative politics. Her work includes studies of the politics of the Senate filibuster, the causes and consequences of legislative gridlock, and the politics and practice of advice and consent for selecting federal judges. Her current project focuses on Congress’s response to financial crisis, including a study of Congress’s relationship with the Federal Reserve.

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