Presidents look very different at the end of their eight years in the White House than they do at the beginning of their first term. Historically, presidents are hard pressed to push their agenda in these years except in emergency circumstances or by pursuing legislation that has more support among the opposing party than the president’s own party. The president and his staff are exhausted after several years of toil. Because the president is on his way out, there is little incentive for Congress to work with the president especially if it is controlled by the opposing political party.
A Republican majority, a lame-duck Democratic president, an upcoming presidential election, and an increasingly polarized political environment paint a bleak picture for Obama’s domestic agenda in the next two years. Despite these realities, presidents possess unique tools that can aid them in the end of their term. First, presidents have direct and implied Constitutional powers that help them succeed on the domestic front. While the president does not have the authority to make laws, he does enjoy some means of legislative control; the presidential veto being the primary one. In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama threatened to use this veto power if Congress passes laws that take away health insurance benefits, among others. While he cannot pass the legislation he wants, Obama is able to prevent legislation he does not like from becoming law.
Secondly, when presidents speak, people pay attention. Whether he’s speaking before the nation at the State of the Union address, being interviewed by news outlets, or talking to popular YouTube stars, Obama maintains a very public face. Historically, presidents have used the State of the Union address to set a legislative agenda and to raise the salience of important issues. This address has long been a platform for presidents to articulate their priorities and to engage and inspire the public toward those priorities. Presidents can also “go public” to bring attention to particular issues. Doing so puts pressure on Members of Congress to act through growing pressure from their constituents.
Finally, the chance circumstances that presidents find themselves in can be favorable or unfavorable to their late-term prospects. The 2008 financial crisis, for example, contributed to George W. Bush’s historically low approval rates in his last two years of office, averaging between 20-30%. Thanks to a growing economy, dropping unemployment rates, and a record-breaking stock market, Obama’s approval ratings have improved. The economy will always be a powerful force in presidential elections and approval ratings; a force that cannot be controlled or dictated by a single campaign or party. Growing presidential approval ratings indicate increasing presidential popularity among the public and make the act of opposing the president more costly. The public becomes more vocal in the support of the president and his policies and they put more pressure on their elected representatives to follow suite.
Only time will tell what the end of Obama’s presidency will bring. What would you like to see the President pursue, or not pursue?