United States presidents have found the exercise of effective leadership a difficult task in recent decades. For Obama and Trump, the impediments have proven numerous. To lead well, a president needs support or at least permission from federal courts and Congress, steady allegiance from public opinion and fellow partisans in the electorate, backing from powerful, entrenched interest groups, and ideological accordance with contemporary public opinion about the proper size and scope of government.
That is a long list of requirements. If presidents fail to satisfy these requirements, they face the prospect of inadequate political support or, as defined here, “political capital,” to back their power assertions. In recent years, presidents’ political capital has shrunk while their power assertions have grown. Trump and Obama are the latest examples of this pattern, which can make the president a volatile, frustrated player in the national political system.
The concept of political capital captures many of the requirements for effective leadership. Political scientist Paul Light defines several components of political capital: party support of the president in Congress, public approval of the president’s conduct of his job and the president’s electoral margin. Light’s research reveals that these factors are central to the “players’ perspective” in Washington. That is, those “in the game” view these items as crucial for presidential effectiveness. On a practical level, the components of political capital are central to the fate of presidencies.
In the following paragraphs, I chart the trajectory of presidential political capital since 1992, using data from a variety of sources. The measures involve three central “governance” elements: presidential job approval, support for the president’s party and congressional support for the president. Problems of political capital appear in public opinion regarding the president and his party, congressional elections, and votes on the House and Senate floor.
The Gallup Approval Ratings
Three variables involve the Gallup job approval ratings. One is average annual job approval, measured by the Gallup poll of presidential job approval ratings. The second is the standard deviation – a common measure of variation around the average – of annual job approval for the Gallup presidential job approval polls of that year. A third is net annual job approval, the annual average difference between presidential job approval and disapproval scores each year, which reflects the public polarization around the president’s performance.
The analysis also presents measures of presidential party identification using Gallup data. These include annual percentage identifying with the president’s party and annual standard deviation of the president’s party percentage. Also included is presidential net party advantage, which measures the difference between the average percentage identifying with the president’s party and the percentage identifying with the opposition party.
Additional measures concern congressional support for presidents. One such measure is the percentage of fellow partisans holding House and Senate seats. Another measure is voting support as evident in Congressional Quarterly support scores for votes on which the president has announced a position. Examined here are the averages of annual scores for each chamber.
The Public Mood
Also employed is James Stimson’s annual “public mood” indicator based on thousands of survey questions on national issues from and tabulated on a liberal-conservative continuum. A higher number indicates a more liberal score. Stimson argues his measure is “a time series of public liberalism/conservatism,” resulting in “a continuous time series of citizen preferences for each year.” Stimson describes the variable as his “best effort at measuring the public’s movement regarding support for government programs or movement on the liberal-conservative continuum.”
One “Stimson” variable employed here is the annual public mood score itself, ranging from 0 to 100 with a higher number indicating a more liberal issue position. Democratic presidents are coded in this score as liberals and Republican presidents as conservatives. A second is annual mood shift, the difference in annual mean public mood score from that of the previous year, with a negative value indicating a shift away from the president’s ideological position and a positive score a movement toward a president’s ideological position.
During the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama presidencies both average and net job approval levels remained low and volatile. Lower volatility augurs poorly for a president’s political capital when it accompanies low levels of allegiance to a president’s party. The proportion of senators of the president’s party reached its lowest level since 1933 in this era. The period also had lower volatility in congressional membership, reflecting the stable and closely competitive electoral balance between the congressional parties since 1993. Fewer fellow partisans and lower membership volatility are not good news for a president’s political capital. The membership numbers may be stable, but the partisan balance does not consistently facilitate effective presidential leadership.
Persistently negative public mood trends also bode ill for presidential political capital. It is difficult to maintain public job approval, public support for one’s party, and congressional support when the public issue mood is moving consistently against a president. In sum, the national political system altered in ways inimical to effective presidential leadership.
Obama and Trump
Obama’s record over his eight years in office is a prime example. His net public job approval is the lowest for any president since polling began in 1937. Obama’s average presidential party identification during his time in office is also the lowest ever for a Democratic president in the history of polling. The public mood shift during his presidency is in a markedly conservative direction. After Republicans took the House in 2010, his legislative success in that chamber plummeted to well below the average for his immediate predecessors.
What about Donald Trump’s political capital? His 2016 popular vote election margin was negative at -2.1 percent. Though it is early in his presidency, his average public job approval is so far the lowest in the history of presidential polling and his net public approval is the lowest ever as well. Presidential party identification remains low, as it has been for recent GOP presidents. He has, however, enjoyed strong support from the GOP House and Senate on floor votes thus far.
The initial Trump presidency is unique in the history of presidential political capital. His political capital in Congress has remained strong, but with the public it is unprecedentedly weak. Trump, like Obama, Clinton and George W. Bush, has his good share of political capital problems. They may well plague his future in office.
Steven E. Schier