The Polarizing Force of Presidential Leadership

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President Barack Obama speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, April 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Two initiatives that began at the start of the 113th Congress are on the Senate floor this week: gun control and immigration reform.

Gun control — the president’s number one issue — isn’t faring so well. The amendment to the legislation to expand background checks, brokered by Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), failed to pass today by a 54-to-46 vote. The compromise was central to the legislation that senators rolled out in the wake of the Newtown massacre. The Senate will vote this afternoon on other amendments to the legislation — some of which would increase gun control and some of which would actually weaken it.

And yesterday, months after they first announced their intention to do so, the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” released an immigration reform bill that offers a 13-year-long path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (and a faster path for those who entered the country before they were 16). The bill isn’t what many on both the left and the right had hoped for, but Washington watchers are marveling at its “mere existence,” and the fact that it comes with built-in, wide-ranging bipartisan support.

One reason for that wide-ranging support, as Evan Soltas writes in WonkBlog this morning, goes against a common Washington trope: It’s usually the case that if a given issue isn’t advancing, it’s because the president hasn’t shown leadership on it. That’s not true in this case, says Soltas. Proponents of immigration reform are lucky that eight Senators — and not the president — are leading on the issue.

Presidential leadership is a polarizing force. Political scientist Frances Lee has shown that when presidents take public positions on even non-controversial subjects, the chances of a party-line vote skyrocket. By campaigning for an idea, the president associates its success with his success. Because the president’s success typically decides his party’s success in the next election, his success is the other party’s failure. And so the minority party, which understandably does not want to fail, has little reason to cooperate.

This creates an almost comically vicious cycle wherein presidential leadership pushes the minority party away from a bill, the minority party’s opposition throws the bill’s prospects into doubt, and so the commentariat fills with more calls for the president to lead harder and more aggressively — which only adds further fuel to the process of presidential polarization.

That polarization may well mean the Senate passes weak gun control legislation, if it manages to pass any at all. And that’s only the Senate, it also has to pass the Republican-dominated House.

Learn more: The Washington Post breaks down the key provisions of the immigration bill and the NewsHour has a complete list of amendments to the gun control legislation that will be voted on today.

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