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Tough Times for the President: Political Adversity and the Sources of Executive Pow ...

Chapter 1:  Presidents in Tough Times
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Tough Times for the President:

2008 was gone; 2010 was, in the words of elections scholar James Ceaser, “the great repudiation” of Barack Obama.2

The president’s political situation following the 2010 midterm elections may have been a disappointment for him and his supporters, but it is not so unusual for American presidents. Even a cursory glance at the history of the office in modern times reveals that presidents rarely enjoy the sort of strong support and solid political foundation that Americans associate with “heroic” presidents. As the historical record demonstrates, even the “heroic” presidents of the twentieth century—such as FDR and Reagan—encountered difficulties along the way. Roosevelt encountered setbacks and a low period after the 1938 midterm congressional elections, when Southern Democrats overcame the president’s attempts to purge them from the party and went on to forge a coalition with Republicans and block further domestic policy changes. Reagan encountered pressure in 1982 and 1983 as a recession drove up the unemployment rate and Republicans lost twenty-six seats in the House in the 1982 midterms, then another low period when the Iran-Contra affair (1987–1988) rocked his administration. All presidents encounter difficulties along the way, although some suffer from more setbacks or adverse situations than others.

Nevertheless, the way Americans think about the presidency tends to focus on great expectations of what presidents can accomplish, not the more workaday political challenges that most presidents face. As a number of scholars have pointed out, the public tends to have high expectations of what the chief executive can achieve, but even expert observers continue to direct their attention to presidential “greatness,”3 “heroic” presidents,4 and various interpretations of presidential leadership.5 Observers pay much less attention to those situations in which presidents encounter political adversity that make all efforts at governing difficult, even if any person occupying the Oval Office is more likely to experience tough times rather than grand achievements.

What difficulties do presidents face? How do episodes of presidential adversity reveal aspects of the office not seen when times are good? How