Obama and the Advantage of Incumbency

By Alexis Simendinger - June 27, 2011

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Was it politics or economics that inspired President Obama to release oil from emergency U.S. reserves this week? Was it national security or re-election that shaped his timetable to un-surge 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer, just in time for his nominating convention?

The honest answer is that every presidential determination is political. In an era of polarized electorates, permanent campaigns and the rise of the political-industrial complex, every contemporary president has worked to ensure that the public good and the political "should" are rarely far apart.

Barack Obama, once touted as a post-partisan president, is as partisan as they come. His actions filter through a political sieve these days because he is a lot of leaders at once. He's a candidate for re-election and the nominal head of the Democratic Party. He is also America's policy setter, head of state and its commander in chief. He possesses what political scientists term the "incumbency advantage" -- the power to exploit the tools of the presidency to try to keep his job.

He can mix government business with political appearances, and the taxpayers will pay most of the price tag for Air Force One along the way. He can create business councils and rural councils to advise the White House and reward his supporters. The president decided to schedule NATO and G-8 international summits in his adopted hometown of Chicago five months before Election Day 2012 simply because it was his decision to make. Holding the meetings outside of Washington offers the Windy City what he hopes will be an economic and public relations boost and rewards a friend and former aide, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

On any given day, Americans are hard-pressed to compartmentalize Obama's national mission from his personal ambitions when he, just like presidents before him, so readily melds the presidency with his candidacy. It's not easy for anyone to say where policy and politics don't collide.

Last Thursday, for example, the president campaigned at three political events in New York after delivering a wartime speech earlier in the day at Fort Drum, where he described his Afghanistan withdrawal plan to U.S. soldiers. That trip came on the heels of the morning's hubbub in Washington after budget talks led by the White House fell apart when GOP negotiators refused to consider tax increases. The budget impasse occurred a few hours after the administration announced the United States would sell off 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in an unusual and coordinated effort with global oil-producing partners to influence supplies and prices heading into a high-demand summer season.

"No political figure in American politics has as much control over the national agenda as the president, and this power can be used to considerable electoral advantage," James E. Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, wrote in his recent book, "The American Campaign."

Campbell's empirical research suggests that presidential campaigns are predictable, and that White House incumbency is a key predictor, meaning it offers a proven leg up over challengers. That is especially true when voters in the prior election have just swapped the party controlling the White House. Campbell calls this the "party incumbency advantage." (Jimmy Carter was a notable exception.)

Running for office from the White House is not without its electoral drawbacks, however. The president is being held partially or entirely responsible for a limping economy, and long before he can target a Republican nominee, Obama faces a legion of GOP critics united in one thing and one thing only: That the man who currently works in the Oval Office has made a hash of things. His challengers on the campaign trail and in Congress have freer rein than he does to fire away -- a point Obama made to House Democrats during a private meeting June 2 at the White House. "What I say is different from [Republican] members of Congress. When I say something, I don't always have the luxury of playing brinksmanship," the president explained, according to a lawmaker who attended the meeting and took notes.

But the advantages still outweigh the strictures. A time-tested playbook for exploiting incumbency is known as the Rose Garden strategy, and Obama is a willing adherent. This approach calls for presidents to look as if they're levitating above partisan politics. Incumbents must show voters that they are performing the weighty duties of the presidency -- especially those with flag-waving appeal, such as protecting national security, representing America's interests abroad and commanding the military.

So busy is Obama with the challenges of governing, spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in May, that he has not focused on the Republican candidates jockeying to unseat him. "I think, broadly speaking, this is not a topic that's very much on his mind right now," Carney explained to skeptics in the briefing room. "He's obviously been busy with other things. . . . [T]he overwhelming focus of his time right now is on his policy agenda, both national security and domestic. And that, honestly, is what we spend most of our time talking about."

And that brings up another element of the strategy: communications. There is no more important megaphone than the one a president wields. The TV news networks may have granted Obama only 15 minutes to address the nation in prime time Wednesday night to describe his Afghanistan timetable, but it was 15 minutes of East Room messaging that no Republican rival could match.

Especially as he wrestles with partisan opposition inherent in divided government, Obama has flexed his executive muscles to champion his policy agenda, score points, court friends, block the legislative branch, and elevate his constitutional clout above that granted to Congress. Many of the president's actions are touted, if not expressly rendered, to serve as political bonuses as he seeks a second term.

Some examples:

Disaster declarations. Acting through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Obama has been swift and generous in making millions of dollars in federal support available to states hard hit by at least 46 natural disasters thus far in 2011. This is the kind of election-year outreach to key electoral states that all presidents, regardless of party, are quick to deploy. Or not deploy, depending on the local political considerations.

This spring, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry sought help to offset the costs to his state of damages caused by wildfires, the administration demurred. The governor, a fiery and frequent Obama critic who is weighing a run for the White House, is on record with the whimsical suggestion that Texas could secede from the Union to protest Washington's excessive spending, particularly for entitlements. FEMA denied Perry's request for some reconstruction aid he sought, and he complained. But Carney insists "there was no discrimination here between red and blue states" on disaster assistance. Maybe so, but when Perry declined to meet with the president when Obama visited El Paso last month, White House aides also made a point of telling reporters that Perry had also turned down an offer of a national security briefing on immigration.

Health care law waivers. The administration has granted temporary compliance reprieves from provisions of the new health care law to employers and insurers under a deadline that extends to Sept. 22, 2011. The administration has denied that the deadline is tied to the 2012 election season. The Health and Human Services Department has granted waivers to employers seeking to sidestep the law's requirement that insurance plans begin to phase out annual coverage limitations on how much they'll pay for certain health services. HHS has granted about 1,400 waivers and denied about 100 requests (advising those who have been turned down to reapply). Republican lawmakers and other critics accuse the administration of selectively rewarding certain businesses and labor unions that supported the law by granting them compliance reprieves. The administration denies any favoritism, and says waivers are intended to keep employers from dropping health coverage or raising insurance costs.

Regulatory relief. In an overt appeal to conservatives and the business community, Obama signed an executive order in January commanding the executive branch to pore through existing regulations and scrub those that are redundant, obsolete or burdensome, especially to small businesses that shoulder high federal compliance costs. This presidential response to one of conservatives' pet peeves was intended to be both a weapon and a shield against critics who assail Obama's leadership on job creation and business support. The White House unveiled the results of the administration's regulatory "look back" in May, and the president frequently references the results in meetings with corporate and industry representatives.

Friending people. To shore up the political support he will need in 2012, Obama is reaching out to various constituencies to show his solidarity with their concerns, even if tangible new progress out of Washington may have to wait. The nation's mayors from both parties have rediscovered a friend in the White House as they seek to plug holes in their budgets using federal dollars. The White House and the mayors have allied against conservatives in Congress who want to make deep cuts in spending and deficits, and Obama is promising to hold the line to help struggling cities and states.

Similarly, Latinos disappointed that Obama and Congress failed to tackle immigration reform during the president's first term have been reassured in speeches, commencement appearances, fundraising appeals and personal outreach from the White House that they have not been forgotten by President Obama. Because the Hispanic population in many key electoral states has expanded since 2008, the Obama campaign believes Latinos could make or break the president's re-election bid.

Attempting to hold his base, Obama made the first-ever presidential campaign appearance before an audience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender supporters Thursday in New York City. The president sought to tamp down displeasure that he will not endorse gay marriage, a position the LGBT community thought Obama had staked out when he responded to a 1996 survey early in his political career. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer struggled this month during a Netroots conference of liberal activists to explain how Obama is "evolving" in his outlook on gay marriage. In his New York speech, Obama delivered a carefully crafted sentence -- one his spokesman advised before the speech should not be read as an explicit endorsement.

"I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country," the president said.

And he's not stopping there. On Wednesday, the president and first lady will host a reception at the White House in honor of LGBT Pride Month.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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