The President, Congress, and Partisan Polarization

Right now, it seems that President Obama and congressional leaders can’t come together on anything. On issues big—the federal budget or U.S. involvement in Libya, for example—and small—the date and time of a Presidential address to a joint session of Congress—neither the executive nor legislative branches seems willing to give an inch. The Washington press corps and the cable television punditocracy have resorted to words like “brinksmanship,” “dysfunction,” and “broken” to describe the present political climate. The cause of this dysfunction is too often taken for granted. On matters of politics and policy, the gulf between the Democratic and Republican parties is too great for compromise. Or so the argument goes…

As an intern in Washington, D.C. this spring and summer, I experienced this dysfunction first hand. On the ground, it definitely felt as though the relationship between the President and Congress was broken. However, political science teaches us that things are rarely so black and white as they seem. I saw a little bit of that this summer. For example, it wasn’t just President Obama and House Republicans that had trouble coming together. President Obama, Leader Pelosi, and Majority Leader Reid didn’t exactly agree on everything either. I’m participating in the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress this year to try and gain a better understanding of these issues.

To do so, I’ll be researching the relationship between the executive and legislative branches in times of intense partisan polarization. As dysfunctional as things seem right now, contentious politics is nothing new. In the nineteenth century, the slavery debate grew so contentious that civil war erupted and President Lincoln was assassinated. More recently, the Clinton-Gingrich showdown of the 1990s led to welfare reform and a balanced budget. The effect of partisan disagreement on both the political process and policy outcomes, then, is a little more complex than it appears at present. In my research, I’ll be examining how presidents and congresses throughout history have interacted. Along the way, I hope to gain a little perspective on my own experiences this summer.


About campbellsg

About Me: I'm a senior majoring in American Government and English Literature at Washington and Lee University. About My Topic: I'm writing about how partisan polarization affects the relationship between the executive and legislative branches.
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