Here’s how to predict the Biden presidency

Originally posted at 3Streams on November 30.

Predicting the presidency is no easy task given the small sample size of presidents and the idiosyncratic features of each president. But if political scientists don’t use the information available to them to make predictions, journalists and bloggers will, and with less awareness of the available scholarship. George Edward’s Predicting the Presidency and The Strategic Presidency offer some of the most tried and true predictors of presidential success in Congress, and I will use Edwards’ scholarship to forecast Joe Biden’s opportunities.

One could scarcely endure the hardships of running for president if one didn’t believe one was capable of making a mark on history. Presidents are also surrounded by people who believe they will change things for the better, and winning an election only contributes to the hubris. Biden can accomplish a lot unilaterally, including the repeal of Trump’s executive orders, the reassurance of allies, and a new tone in presidential rhetoric.

However, the focus of presidential campaigns is rarely administrative reform or foreign policy, but instead on domestic policies that will require new legislation. When it comes to legislation, context matters more than the individual traits of a president. To the extent that the past is a guide, what Biden can accomplish in Congress depends on the answers to the following questions:

1. Does the president have a majority of his own party in Congress?

2. How ideologically coherent is the president’s party?

3. Is there ideological polarization in Congress?

4. Are there cross-pressures in the opposing party?

5. Does the president have a mandate?

6. How malleable is public opinion?

Here are the answers:

1. Does the president have a majority of his own party in Congress?

The makeup of Congress matters more than a president’s skill or the context of the election.

Once you control for the size of their Democratic Party majorities, Lyndon Johnson was no more effective than John F. Kennedy or Jimmy Carter at passing legislation. Johnson passed little in his last two years, when he worked with a more normal-sized Democratic majority. There is a good chance Biden will become the first Democratic president since Grover Cleveland to begin the presidency without control of both chambers of Congress. And even though Kennedy and other Democrats had a conservative southern wing, members of their own party had an electoral interest in keeping them popular. Many Republicans have started without Congressional control, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, but there were more opportunities for cross-partisan coalitions in their times.

Even if Democrats win both Georgia seats, Biden will have a difficult time persuading Senators Manchin and Sinema to go along with the legislation activists were discussing a month ago.

2. How ideologically coherent is the president’s party?

If the Democratic Party fractures ideologically, Biden would need to expend resources unifying the party before he can even think about winning over Republican Senators. The Democratic Party is already showing signs of fracture. Instead of savoring Biden’s victory, many Congressional Democrats began fighting over how to interpret election results immediately before and after Biden’s victory speech call for national unity. Some red state Democrats immediately claimed the use of words like socialism and phrases like defunding the police for the lost House seats. Others insisted that the election was close because Democrats did advocate for a more forthrightly progressive agenda. Biden had lost the “twitter primary” and was one of the last choices for party activists who wanted a candidate who embodied the intersectionally disadvantaged. Some progressive activists are publicly petitioning to oppose some of Biden’s proposed appointments, including Janet Yellen and Bruce Reed, because they had been deficit hawks at one point.

3. Is there ideological polarization in Congress?

Presidents are less likely to build cross-partisan majorities in polarized times, and our historic levels of polarization shows no signs of subsiding. Both President George W. Bush and Barack Obama sought to reduce polarization, but discussed below, presidential speeches rarely change public opinion. Many Republicans, including the president, took inordinately long to concede the election. Some clung to far-fetched conspiracy theories rather than acknowledging that the other side has won, perhaps because people vicariously win or lose through their group-identity politics. No-Child Left Behind might have been the last major domestic legislation to pass with bipartisan support.

Frances Lee argues that congressional polarization is fundamentally a product of two parties that are evenly matched, and this election proves they are still evenly matched. We are in the longest stretch of evenly-matched congressional parties in U.S. history. In such cases, a losing party hopes to enact its agenda by regaining control of Congress in the future, rather than compromise with the winning party. Agreeing with the other party on anything provides it with legitimacy and undercuts the case for electing/keeping one’s party as a majority in Congress. The election reaffirmed that parties are closely divided; perhaps we cannot expect a reduction in polarization until one party is defeated in several consecutive elections.

4. Are there cross-pressures in the opposing party?

Republicans may split over how to interpret the presidential election loss, but overall, the election results were too muddled to prompt any serious soul-searching in the short-term. An impeached president of their own party had the most consistently negative public approval of any modern presidents before the pandemic, which would have rendered reelection difficult for the most skilled of presidents. Nonetheless, the election was too close for comfort in battleground states, and congressional members of the presidents’ party mostly outperformed the president. Some Republicans are now framing themselves as an alternative to Trump, but Trump will likely have a strong media presence. It is also unclear whether Republicans opposed to Trump are cross-pressured on anything other than their attitudes towards Trump.

5. Does the president have a mandate?

Biden does not have a mandate. To have a mandate, presidents need to have run on a specific agenda and win in perceived landslides. Biden’s popular vote percentage thus far falls between that of William Howard Taft’s in 1908 and Barack Obama in 2012. If you exclude the uncontested elections of George Washington and James Monroe in 1820, the victory ranks 29 out of 56, placing Biden in the middle. (Biden’s electoral vote percentage is the 43rd highest out of 56, placing him on the lower end.) Trump won with less and claimed a mandate, but it did him little good in Congress.

Even if Biden had won in a landslide, a landslide is not enough for a mandate. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had two of the largest landslides of the 20th century when they ran for reelection, but neither had a mandate because their reelection was not premised on the accomplishment of a specified legislative agenda. Edwards argued that only Roosevelt in 1936, Johnson in 1964, and Reagan in 1980 had a concrete enough agenda to count as a mandate. Biden campaigned on unifying the country and taking the pandemic seriously, leaving too much room for interpretation to count as a mandate for a particular policy.

6. Seventy years of opinion polling shows that aggregate opinion rarely changes in the span of one presidency, and even more rarely in response to presidential speeches. Even the most celebrated of presidential communicators have been most effective when rally people behind what they already support, rather than try to change people’s minds. Roosevelt could rally people behind popular public works; Reagan could rally people behind a popular tax cut; and Obama could rally people behind a popular stimulus. But these were policies majority opinion already supported. When these presidents tried to change people’s minds on court-packing, involvement in World War II, support for the Contras, and Obamacare, public opinion did not budge.

Biden will have public opinion on his side for a stimulus and other popular measures to address the pandemic and its economic fallout. Polls show majority supports for a mask-requirement, but not a national lockdown. Polls also show support for some Democratic Party positions on climate change and gun control, though not for paying $10 a month or more to fight to former. Past presidents used public opinion in Electoral College battleground states rather than national public opinion to guide their policy. President Obama hesitated to support gay marriage even after national public opinion supported it, because he was worried about opinion in swing states like Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina. It is hard to weaponize public opinion for more ambitious changes within these constraints.

One might argue President Biden will govern in the most unfavorable context since George H.W. Bush . Bush began his presidency with two opposing chambers of Congress, and knew that Republicans were unlikely to improve their standing in the midterm elections. This will come as a letdown to Democrats given that many pundits and scholars, including me, discussed the possibility of presidential Reconstruction. Just a month ago, some scholars were discussing which ambitious proposal Biden should take on first: a climate change bill, DC/Puerto Rico statehood, court-packing, or a stimulus.

The George H.W. Bush presidency therefore offers some lessons for Biden. Bush handled the unfavorable context by pursuing only a limited agenda where he shared some common ground with Democrats, including the Clean Air Act and deficit reduction. Chief of Staff John Sununu had given up at the start, saying, “There’s not a single piece of legislation that needs to be passed in the next two years for this president. In fact, if Congress wants to come together, adjourn, and leave, it’s all right with us.” Bush’s presidency largely reacted to events instead of steering them, and his foreign policy agenda was less a result of choice and more of the greater freedom from Congress that presidents enjoy, combined with historic opportunities for leadership abroad.

Of course, Democratic Party activists today are much less satisfied with the status quo than Republicans were in 1988, and overestimate the Bully Pulpit and the ability to bargain with Congress. To maintain what unity the Democratic Party has, Biden will need to be seen as trying, using both tools even though presidents only sway congressional votes 2 % of the time. He is most likely to deliver concrete results on those issues where some Republican Senators could break away, such as a stimulus bill or criminal justice reform. When choosing where to spend limited presidential bandwidth, he will face a trade-off between a) satisfying the party activists and b) building the groundwork for future governing opportunities for Democrats. The latter means proposing legislation on the policies that will help elect red state Democrats and win Electoral College battleground states. Democrats got a national health care policy with the Affordable Care Act, but without majority support, it came at the cost of Obama’s ability to pass legislation in the next six years. Democrats will need to decide whether such battles are worth the electoral cost.

Not all presidents play with the same hand of cards, and some presidents are dealt losing hands, especially when it comes to the legislative presidency. Obama was elected with a more favorable hand than Biden and could give one heck of a speech. He still could not accomplish some of the ambitious proposals of progressive activists. But some poker players know how to make the most of a pair of twos, and Biden might be one of them.

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