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Could Obama's liberalism hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016?

- April 13, 2015

In this Sept. 12, 2012 photo, President Obama, accompanied by then-secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Hillary Clinton is now formally a presidential candidate, to pretty much no one’s surprise.  One of the important challenges she faces is simple history: it has been difficult for a political party to hold the White House for more than two terms.  The political scientist Alan Abramowitz, whose presidential election forecasting model explicitly includes this tendency, calls it the  “time for a change” factor.
Now, new research offers an explanation for why a party’s control of the White House so frequently ends after eight years.  In short, it’s about policy.  And this poses a challenge for Clinton because the Obama administration’s key policy achievements are distinctly out of step with the trend in public opinion. If voters in 2016 are suffering from “Obama fatigue,” his administration’s liberal policies could be one reason.
The research is by University of Texas political scientist Christopher Wlezien. Drawing on one of his earlier studies, he first shows that the public tends to move in the opposite ideological direction as the incumbent in the White House.  Under Republican presidents, public opinion tends to shift in the liberal direction.  Under Democratic presidents, it tends to shift in the conservative direction.
As of 2012, public opinion was as conservative as it had been in decades, as Larry Bartels previously noted on this blog.  This is based on the political scientist James Stimson’s compilation of hundreds of survey questions that, taken together, capture the ideological “mood” of the country.  Here is Bartels’s graph of those data.

Graph by Larry Bartels

Graph by Larry Bartels

You can see the spike in the public’s conservatism since Obama took office.
Wlezien then examines the relative prevalence of liberal and conservative laws passed under each administration.  (See the paper for more on how those are identified.)  He finds that, in general, liberal laws tend to out-number conservative laws.  But this tendency is pronounced under Democratic presidents and grows more so after two terms in office.  Here is his graph:
Graph by Christopher Wlezien

Graph by Christopher Wlezien

You can see the spike in liberal policies during Obama’s first term.
Wlezien finds that this policymaking is correlated with presidential elections. When the ideological direction of policymaking deviates widely from the historical average, or from what we would expect based on the public’s ideological mood, the incumbent party loses vote share. And once policymaking is taken into account, the simple impact of serving one vs. two terms in the White House — the “time for a change” factor — has a much smaller impact.
And so the challenge for Clinton is clear. Voters appear to punish the president’s party for pushing policy in one direction while public opinion is heading in the opposite direction. And this is exactly what has happened under Obama.