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Obama and the Advantage of Incumbency

Obama and the Advantage of Incumbency

By Alexis Simendinger - June 27, 2011


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."

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

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