In Barack Obama's biography, The Audacity of Hope, the figures he praised most, except for Franklin D. Roosevelt, were Republican icons: Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan.
In light of the festivities surrounding President Obama’s second inauguration a few weeks ago, I have found myself thinking a lot about unilateral power during his first four years in office. During his first term, Obama did not shy away from acting alone when Congress was unwilling to support his proposals. Yet, the president’s frequent use of direct executive action should not come as a surprise. As political scientists Terry Moe and William Howell claim, the president’s formal capacity to act unilaterally “virtually defines what is distinctively modern about the modern presidency.” While there have been a number of interesting developments over the last few years in this regard, I wanted to spend some time discussing one unilateral tool in particular: the presidential signing statement.
A signing statement is written commentary on a bill that is being signed into law. The scholarly literature has shown that these statements can serve a wide range of purposes (praise, criticism, credit claiming, legislative appeals, etc.). Most controversially, presidents offer their opinion about the constitutionality of various provisions of law and allude to non-enforcement (or altered enforcement in order to avoid constitutional conflicts). President George W. Bush made the constitutional challenges within signing statements (in)famous by citing problems with approximately 1,200 provisions of legislation; double the amount of all the previous presidents combined. Those challenges can be found within Bush’s 112 first-term statements and his 50 second-term statements.
The Obama administration has only issued 22 statements during his first term. While these statements are chock-full of constitutional challenges (Obama’s most recent NDAA signing statement challenges more than 20 sections of law on constitutional grounds), the lack of frequency with which the administration issues them leaves Obama nowhere close to Bush in terms of the number of provisions challenged over a similar timeframe.
Why have we seen fewer signing statements during the Obama administration?
(Side note: anyone interested in this question should keep their eyes peeled for the work of Joel Sievert and Ian Ostrander who recently presented an interesting paper on this topic at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association.)
Roughly speaking, the decline of the signing statement during the Obama administration can be attributed to four interrelated problems that President Obama has faced when aspiring to use this tool.
The Presidential Inauguration is an important civic ritual that legitimizes election results and represents a peaceful transfer of power. Last week, I attended President Barack Obama’s second Inauguration with the purpose of providing a citizen’s eye-view of events for RTT followers. While there was a certain measure of pomp and circumstance surrounding the 57th Inauguration, it was off-set by the diversity of the crowd and the President’s liberal, populist appeal.
On the Sunday before the public swearing-in, I attended one of the many Inaugural events being held by non-profit organizations, PACs, lobbyists, and consultants throughout the DC area. These events ranged from black tie balls to more subtle affairs with the purpose of both celebrating political victory and raising more money. Members of Congress made cameo appearances and gave brief speeches to thank the organizations and supporters for helping them get re-elected. They were also already beating the drum to raise money for the 2016 election…the never-ending campaign. As one member of Congress revealed at the event I attended, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently sent out a memo telling all members of Congress that they are to spend four hours per day fundraising. By any measure, that is quite a bit of time to devote to fundraising, especially when Congress began 2013 with its approval rating at 14%. How can Congress actually engage in the hard work required to legislate, govern and serve constituents when so much of their time is expected to be devoted to raising money for the next election? Doesn’t this system only further ingratiate Congress to special interests?
At an event I attended, Angus King (I-Maine) emphasized that we are in a unique era of hyper-partisanship and polarization. As a political scientist, I wanted to point out that it’s actually not so unique. In fact, there have been many periods in American political history when the parties have engaged in deep struggles over the role and direction of government. But his broader point was worth noting. King noted that he was elected not to engage in partisan politics, but to make every attempt to get government working again.
Many other politicians and members of the media also made their cameos. The more liberal media, Senators and members of Congress pressed supporters to rally for a more liberal agenda in President Obama’s second term and to gear up for battle in the 2014 mid-term election. From their speeches, there would seem to be no end to partisan bickering in sight.
Brian Balogh, the Compton Professor at the Miller Center and the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, opines on CNN.com that President Obama’s second inaugural address matters because future historians will mark it as the moment the president explained why he is a progressive:
The programs that Obama called for were characteristically liberal: reaffirming the social safety net, equal pay for women, etc. Nothing new here -- just the Obama classic.
What differed this time, and what this moment was made for (to twist the president's own words) was articulating the progressive rationale for these programmatic ends. "Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action," Obama proudly told the nation...
His second election behind him, Obama linked his fate and the nation's to a rationale that propelled tens of millions of Americans into the middle class. By making collective action explicit, Obama yoked a century-old progressive agenda to the nation's founding documents and its past history. "Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people." To achieve America's lofty goals of "life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" will require back watching, backslapping and no shortage of back-scratching as well.
Read Brian’s full op-ed here.
In a new article, Douglas A. Blackmon, contributing editor at The Washington Post and chair and host of the Miller Center Forum, analyzes the role of the South in the 2012 election. According to Blackmon, President Obama’s strong finish in the South presents a surprising story and underscores another challenge to the GOP, which has relied on Southern whites as their base of national support. In the 2012 election, Obama outperformed every Democratic nominee since Carter in Southern coastal states and significantly narrowed past gaps between Democratic and Republican candidates. Furthermore, the 2012 election revealed a deepening voting divide between blacks and whites. For example, Blackmon cites exit polls in Mississippi where nearly nine of ten white voters cast their ballot for Mitt Romney and 96 percent of black voters cast their ballots for Obama. Differences in turnout rates amongst black and whites in Southern states also contributed to Obama’s strong finish. While Southern whites voted overwhelmingly for Romney, far fewer went to the polls in at least six Southern states on Election Day compared to 2008. Meanwhile, black voters came out in droves, contradicting expectations of Republican pollsters. The results reveal that the Republican Party will need to address the concerns of African Americans, in addition to Hispanics and other minorities if it wishes to be competitive in future elections.
Read the full article by Douglas A. Blackmon here.
On the surface, President Obama’s reelection appears to have been the electoral equivalent of a progressive exclamation point. Obama not only won 8 of the original 10 battleground states (winning: CO, FL, IA, NH, NM, NV, OH, VA; losing: IN and NC), but also earned a whopping 332 electoral votes.
A cursory comparison of CNN’s exit polls from 2008 and 2012 also seems to suggest that the “emerging Democratic majority” first described by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira is beginning to take hold. Latinos, Asians, and young people (18-29) made up a larger share of the electorate in 2012 than they did in 2008 (each group gained a percentage point), while whites made up a smaller share (72% in 2012 instead of 74% in 2008). Further, President Obama’s margins among Latinos and Asians grew between the two elections by four (from 67% to 71%) and 11 percentage points (62% to 73%), respectively. Some have even gone further to argue that the country is now “center-left” because “the Republican Party lost the middle everywhere, and as a result the map got slightly bluer everywhere.”
But is this the correct interpretation of the trends above?
The simple answer to this question is “not exactly.”
As James E. Campbell, SUNY Buffalo, noted during last weekend’s Northeastern Political Science Association Conference, the 2012 exit polls also revealed that 51% of the electorate believes that the government is doing too much, while only 43% believe it should do more. Additionally, more of the electorate said that the Affordable Care Act should be repealed than not (49% to 44%).
Beyond these data, Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics.com pointed out the real issue that neither progressives nor conservatives can afford to ignore in their interpretations of the results: “The 2012 elections actually weren’t about a demographic explosion with non-white voters. Instead, they were about a large group of white voters not showing up.”
So who didn’t show up?
After a long campaign, President Barack Obama has emerged victorious for four more years of tiger-riding as the American president.
Click through for an array of newspaper front pages from the day after the election. All photos courtesy Newseum, all image rights reserved by original owners.