On Tuesday, in his State of the Union address, President Obama will do what every president does this time of year. For about 60 minutes, he will lay out a sprawling and ambitious wish list highlighted by gun control and immigration reform, climate change and debt reduction. In response, the pundits will do what they always do this time of year: They will talk about how unrealistic most of the proposals are, discussions often informed by sagacious reckonings of how much “political capital” Obama possesses to push his program through.
Most of this talk will have no bearing on what actually happens over the next four years.
Consider this: Three months ago, just before the November election, if someone had talked seriously about Obama having enough political capital to oversee passage of both immigration reform and gun-control legislation at the beginning of his second term—even after winning the election by 4 percentage points and 5 million votes (the actual final tally)—this person would have been called crazy and stripped of his pundit’s license. (It doesn’t exist, but it ought to.) In his first term, in a starkly polarized country, the president had been so frustrated by GOP resistance that he finally issued a limited executive order last August permitting immigrants who entered the country illegally as children to work without fear of deportation for at least two years. Obama didn’t dare to even bring up gun control, a Democratic “third rail” that has cost the party elections and that actually might have been even less popular on the right than the president’s health care law. And yet, for reasons that have very little to do with Obama’s personal prestige or popularity—variously put in terms of a “mandate” or “political capital”—chances are fair that both will now happen.
What changed? In the case of gun control, of course, it wasn’t the election. It was the horror of the 20 first-graders who were slaughtered in Newtown, Conn., in mid-December. The sickening reality of little girls and boys riddled with bullets from a high-capacity assault weapon seemed to precipitate a sudden tipping point in the national conscience. One thing changed after another. Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association marginalized himself with poorly chosen comments soon after the massacre. The pro-gun lobby, once a phalanx of opposition, began to fissure into reasonables and crazies. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in the head two years ago and is still struggling to speak and walk, started a PAC with her husband to appeal to the moderate middle of gun owners. Then she gave riveting and poignant testimony to the Senate, challenging lawmakers: “Be bold.”
As a result, momentum has appeared to build around some kind of a plan to curtail sales of the most dangerous weapons and ammunition and the way people are permitted to buy them. It’s impossible to say now whether such a bill will pass and, if it does, whether it will make anything more than cosmetic changes to gun laws. But one thing is clear: The political tectonics have shifted dramatically in very little time. Whole new possibilities exist now that didn’t a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the Republican members of the Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight are pushing hard for a new spirit of compromise on immigration reform, a sharp change after an election year in which the GOP standard-bearer declared he would make life so miserable for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. that they would “self-deport.” But this turnaround has very little to do with Obama’s personal influence—his political mandate, as it were. It has almost entirely to do with just two numbers: 71 and 27. That’s 71 percent for Obama, 27 percent for Mitt Romney, the breakdown of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 presidential election. Obama drove home his advantage by giving a speech on immigration reform on Jan. 29 at a Hispanic-dominated high school in Nevada, a swing state he won by a surprising 8 percentage points in November. But the movement on immigration has mainly come out of the Republican Party’s recent introspection, and the realization by its more thoughtful members, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, that without such a shift the party may be facing demographic death in a country where the 2010 census showed, for the first time, that white births have fallen into the minority. It’s got nothing to do with Obama’s political capital or, indeed, Obama at all.
The point is not that “political capital” is a meaningless term. Often it is a synonym for “mandate” or “momentum” in the aftermath of a decisive election—and just about every politician ever elected has tried to claim more of a mandate than he actually has. Certainly, Obama can say that because he was elected and Romney wasn’t, he has a better claim on the country’s mood and direction. Many pundits still defend political capital as a useful metaphor at least. “It’s an unquantifiable but meaningful concept,” says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “You can’t really look at a president and say he’s got 37 ounces of political capital. But the fact is, it’s a concept that matters, if you have popularity and some momentum on your side.”
The real problem is that the idea of political capital—or mandates, or momentum—is so poorly defined that presidents and pundits often get it wrong. “Presidents usually over-estimate it,” says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “The best kind of political capital—some sense of an electoral mandate to do something—is very rare. It almost never happens. In 1964, maybe. And to some degree in 1980.” For that reason, political capital is a concept that misleads far more than it enlightens. It is distortionary. It conveys the idea that we know more than we really do about the ever-elusive concept of political power, and it discounts the way unforeseen events can suddenly change everything. Instead, it suggests, erroneously, that a political figure has a concrete amount of political capital to invest, just as someone might have real investment capital—that a particular leader can bank his gains, and the size of his account determines what he can do at any given moment in history.
Naturally, any president has practical and electoral limits. Does he have a majority in both chambers of Congress and a cohesive coalition behind him? Obama has neither at present. And unless a surge in the economy—at the moment, still stuck—or some other great victory gives him more momentum, it is inevitable that the closer Obama gets to the 2014 election, the less he will be able to get done. Going into the midterms, Republicans will increasingly avoid any concessions that make him (and the Democrats) stronger.
But the abrupt emergence of the immigration and gun-control issues illustrates how suddenly shifts in mood can occur and how political interests can align in new ways just as suddenly. Indeed, the pseudo-concept of political capital masks a larger truth about Washington that is kindergarten simple: You just don’t know what you can do until you try. Or as Ornstein himself once wrote years ago, “Winning wins.” In theory, and in practice, depending on Obama’s handling of any particular issue, even in a polarized time, he could still deliver on a lot of his second-term goals, depending on his skill and the breaks. Unforeseen catalysts can appear, like Newtown. Epiphanies can dawn, such as when many Republican Party leaders suddenly woke up in panic to the huge disparity in the Hispanic vote.
Some political scientists who study the elusive calculus of how to pass legislation and run successful presidencies say that political capital is, at best, an empty concept, and that almost nothing in the academic literature successfully quantifies or even defines it. “It can refer to a very abstract thing, like a president’s popularity, but there’s no mechanism there. That makes it kind of useless,” says Richard Bensel, a government professor at Cornell University. Even Ornstein concedes that the calculus is far more complex than the term suggests. Winning on one issue often changes the calculation for the next issue; there is never any known amount of capital. “The idea here is, if an issue comes up where the conventional wisdom is that president is not going to get what he wants, and he gets it, then each time that happens, it changes the calculus of the other actors” Ornstein says. “If they think he’s going to win, they may change positions to get on the winning side. It’s a bandwagon effect.”
ALL THE WAY WITH LBJ
Sometimes, a clever practitioner of power can get more done just because he’s aggressive and knows the hallways of Congress well. Texas A&M’s Edwards is right to say that the outcome of the 1964 election, Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, was one of the few that conveyed a mandate. But one of the main reasons for that mandate (in addition to Goldwater’s ineptitude as a candidate) was President Johnson’s masterful use of power leading up to that election, and his ability to get far more done than anyone thought possible, given his limited political capital. In the newest volume in his exhaustive study of LBJ, The Passage of Power, historian Robert Caro recalls Johnson getting cautionary advice after he assumed the presidency from the assassinated John F. Kennedy in late 1963. Don’t focus on a long-stalled civil-rights bill, advisers told him, because it might jeopardize Southern lawmakers’ support for a tax cut and appropriations bills the president needed. “One of the wise, practical people around the table [said that] the presidency has only a certain amount of coinage to expend, and you oughtn’t to expend it on this,” Caro writes. (Coinage, of course, was what political capital was called in those days.) Johnson replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
Johnson didn’t worry about coinage, and he got the Civil Rights Act enacted, along with much else: Medicare, a tax cut, antipoverty programs. He appeared to understand not just the ways of Congress but also the way to maximize the momentum he possessed in the lingering mood of national grief and determination by picking the right issues, as Caro records. “Momentum is not a mysterious mistress,” LBJ said. “It is a controllable fact of political life.” Johnson had the skill and wherewithal to realize that, at that moment of history, he could have unlimited coinage if he handled the politics right. He did. (At least until Vietnam, that is.)
And then there are the presidents who get the politics, and the issues, wrong. It was the last president before Obama who was just starting a second term, George W. Bush, who really revived the claim of political capital, which he was very fond of wielding. Then Bush promptly demonstrated that he didn’t fully understand the concept either.
At his first news conference after his 2004 victory, a confident-sounding Bush declared, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. That’s my style.” The 43rd president threw all of his political capital at an overriding passion: the partial privatization of Social Security. He mounted a full-bore public-relations campaign that included town-hall meetings across the country.
Bush failed utterly, of course. But the problem was not that he didn’t have enough political capital. Yes, he may have overestimated his standing. Bush’s margin over John Kerry was thin—helped along by a bumbling Kerry campaign that was almost the mirror image of Romney’s gaffe-filled failure this time—but that was not the real mistake. The problem was that whatever credibility or stature Bush thought he had earned as a newly reelected president did nothing to make Social Security privatization a better idea in most people’s eyes. Voters didn’t trust the plan, and four years later, at the end of Bush’s term, the stock-market collapse bore out the public’s skepticism. Privatization just didn’t have any momentum behind it, no matter who was pushing it or how much capital Bush spent to sell it.
The mistake that Bush made with Social Security, says John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and a well-followed political blogger, “was that just because he won an election, he thought he had a green light. But there was no sense of any kind of public urgency on Social Security reform. It’s like he went into the garage where various Republican policy ideas were hanging up and picked one. I don’t think Obama’s going to make that mistake.… Bush decided he wanted to push a rock up a hill. He didn’t understand how steep the hill was. I think Obama has more momentum on his side because of the Republican Party’s concerns about the Latino vote and the shooting at Newtown.” Obama may also get his way on the debt ceiling, not because of his reelection, Sides says, “but because Republicans are beginning to doubt whether taking a hard line on fiscal policy is a good idea,” as the party suffers in the polls.
THE REAL LIMITS ON POWER
Presidents are limited in what they can do by time and attention span, of course, just as much as they are by electoral balances in the House and Senate. But this, too, has nothing to do with political capital. Another well-worn meme of recent years was that Obama used up too much political capital passing the health care law in his first term. But the real problem was that the plan was unpopular, the economy was bad, and the president didn’t realize that the national mood (yes, again, the national mood) was at a tipping point against big-government intervention, with the tea-party revolt about to burst on the scene. For Americans in 2009 and 2010—haunted by too many rounds of layoffs, appalled by the Wall Street bailout, aghast at the amount of federal spending that never seemed to find its way into their pockets—government-imposed health care coverage was simply an intervention too far. So was the idea of another economic stimulus. Cue the tea party and what ensued: two titanic fights over the debt ceiling. Obama, like Bush, had settled on pushing an issue that was out of sync with the country’s mood.
Unlike Bush, Obama did ultimately get his idea passed. But the bigger political problem with health care reform was that it distracted the government’s attention from other issues that people cared about more urgently, such as the need to jump-start the economy and financial reform. Various congressional staffers told me at the time that their bosses didn’t really have the time to understand how the Wall Street lobby was riddling the Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation with loopholes. Health care was sucking all the oxygen out of the room, the aides said.
Weighing the imponderables of momentum, the often-mystical calculations about when the historic moment is ripe for an issue, will never be a science. It is mainly intuition, and its best practitioners have a long history in American politics. This is a tale told well in Steven Spielberg’s hit movie Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abraham Lincoln attempts a lot of behind-the-scenes vote-buying to win passage of the 13th Amendment, banning slavery, along with eloquent attempts to move people’s hearts and minds. He appears to be using the political capital of his reelection and the turning of the tide in the Civil War. But it’s clear that a surge of conscience, a sense of the changing times, has as much to do with the final vote as all the backroom horse-trading. “The reason I think the idea of political capital is kind of distorting is that it implies you have chits you can give out to people. It really oversimplifies why you elect politicians, or why they can do what Lincoln did,” says Tommy Bruce, a former political consultant in Washington.
Consider, as another example, the storied political career of President Franklin Roosevelt. Because the mood was ripe for dramatic change in the depths of the Great Depression, FDR was able to push an astonishing array of New Deal programs through a largely compliant Congress, assuming what some described as near-dictatorial powers. But in his second term, full of confidence because of a landslide victory in 1936 that brought in unprecedented Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Roosevelt overreached with his infamous Court-packing proposal. All of a sudden, the political capital that experts thought was limitless disappeared. FDR’s plan to expand the Supreme Court by putting in his judicial allies abruptly created an unanticipated wall of opposition from newly reunited Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats. FDR thus inadvertently handed back to Congress, especially to the Senate, the power and influence he had seized in his first term. Sure, Roosevelt had loads of popularity and momentum in 1937. He seemed to have a bank vault full of political capital. But, once again, a president simply chose to take on the wrong issue at the wrong time; this time, instead of most of the political interests in the country aligning his way, they opposed him. Roosevelt didn’t fully recover until World War II, despite two more election victories.
In terms of Obama’s second-term agenda, what all these shifting tides of momentum and political calculation mean is this: Anything goes. Obama has no more elections to win, and he needs to worry only about the support he will have in the House and Senate after 2014. But if he picks issues that the country’s mood will support—such as, perhaps, immigration reform and gun control—there is no reason to think he can’t win far more victories than any of the careful calculators of political capital now believe is possible, including battles over tax reform and deficit reduction.
Amid today’s atmosphere of Republican self-doubt, a new, more mature Obama seems to be emerging, one who has his agenda clearly in mind and will ride the mood of the country more adroitly. If he can get some early wins—as he already has, apparently, on the fiscal cliff and the upper-income tax increase—that will create momentum, and one win may well lead to others. “Winning wins.”
Obama himself learned some hard lessons over the past four years about the falsity of the political-capital concept. Despite his decisive victory over John McCain in 2008, he fumbled the selling of his $787 billion stimulus plan by portraying himself naively as a “post-partisan” president who somehow had been given the electoral mandate to be all things to all people. So Obama tried to sell his stimulus as a long-term restructuring plan that would “lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth.” The president thus fed GOP suspicions that he was just another big-government liberal. Had he understood better that the country was digging in against yet more government intervention and had sold the stimulus as what it mainly was—a giant shot of adrenalin to an economy with a stopped heart, a pure emergency measure—he might well have escaped the worst of the backlash. But by laying on ambitious programs, and following up quickly with his health care plan, he only sealed his reputation on the right as a closet socialist.
After that, Obama’s public posturing provoked automatic opposition from the GOP, no matter what he said. If the president put his personal imprimatur on any plan—from deficit reduction, to health care, to immigration reform—Republicans were virtually guaranteed to come out against it. But this year, when he sought to exploit the chastened GOP’s newfound willingness to compromise on immigration, his approach was different. He seemed to understand that the Republicans needed to reclaim immigration reform as their own issue, and he was willing to let them have some credit. When he mounted his bully pulpit in Nevada, he delivered another new message as well: You Republicans don’t have to listen to what I say anymore. And don’t worry about who’s got the political capital. Just take a hard look at where I’m saying this: in a state you were supposed to have won but lost because of the rising Hispanic vote.
Obama was cleverly pointing the GOP toward conclusions that he knows it is already reaching on its own: If you, the Republicans, want to have any kind of a future in a vastly changed electoral map, you have no choice but to move. It’s your choice.
The future is wide open.
This article appears in the Feb. 9, 2013, edition of National Journal as There’s No Such Thing as Political Capital.