Divide and Conquer

For Barack Obama, maybe getting nothing passed in Congress isn't so bad after all.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Since the new, Republican-dominated Congress was sworn in at the beginning of 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama has seen his domestic agenda stalled, his foreign-aid budget slashed, his signature victory -- last year's health-care bill -- threatened with repeal, and his government brought to the verge of a shutdown. But maybe he should look on the bright side.

Historically, American presidents have been much more popular during times of divided government. Over the last half-century, voters have been about 17 percent more likely to approve of the commander in chief's performance when Congress is controlled by the opposing party, according to a 2002 study in the Journal of Politics. Political scientists typically attributed this to the fact that voters tend to be more likely to assign blame than praise: When the president is less powerful, there's less reason to criticize him.

But what does this mean on foreign affairs, where the president has more power to act independently of Congress and thus should, by all rights, be the one to blame when things go wrong? In fact, as political scientists Brian Newman and Kevin Lammert of Pepperdine University found in a recent paper published in Presidential Studies Quarterly, the effect is slightly more pronounced when it comes to foreign policy: Voters are 18 percent more likely to approve of the president's handling of world affairs during a period of divided government. It's possible that voters are simply unaware of the president's greater control over foreign policy. The authors also suggest that during times of international crisis -- after the 9/11 attacks or during the first Gulf War, for instance -- the president and Congress tend to work more closely together, something voters usually support.

Since the new, Republican-dominated Congress was sworn in at the beginning of 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama has seen his domestic agenda stalled, his foreign-aid budget slashed, his signature victory — last year’s health-care bill — threatened with repeal, and his government brought to the verge of a shutdown. But maybe he should look on the bright side.

Historically, American presidents have been much more popular during times of divided government. Over the last half-century, voters have been about 17 percent more likely to approve of the commander in chief’s performance when Congress is controlled by the opposing party, according to a 2002 study in the Journal of Politics. Political scientists typically attributed this to the fact that voters tend to be more likely to assign blame than praise: When the president is less powerful, there’s less reason to criticize him.

But what does this mean on foreign affairs, where the president has more power to act independently of Congress and thus should, by all rights, be the one to blame when things go wrong? In fact, as political scientists Brian Newman and Kevin Lammert of Pepperdine University found in a recent paper published in Presidential Studies Quarterly, the effect is slightly more pronounced when it comes to foreign policy: Voters are 18 percent more likely to approve of the president’s handling of world affairs during a period of divided government. It’s possible that voters are simply unaware of the president’s greater control over foreign policy. The authors also suggest that during times of international crisis — after the 9/11 attacks or during the first Gulf War, for instance — the president and Congress tend to work more closely together, something voters usually support.

A few days after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama was benefiting from this effect: Fifty-one percent of Americans approved of his foreign policy, according to a May 5 Quinnipiac poll, compared with 41 percent at the end of March. If the numbers drop again, he’ll only have himself to blame.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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