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Do Presidential Honeymoons Exist?

- January 21, 2009

I’ll start with the upshot. The nitty-gritty will go below the fold. Political science research suggests that Obama will have a successful honeymoon period. Legislative output in the first 100 days of a president’s term increases when the economy is bad and when members of Congress from the president’s party have greater support in the electorate. Moreover, presidents working under unified government really don’t need to rely on a honeymoon. Bills they support are equally (and highly) likely to be passed in inaugural years and subsequent years.

Clearly, conditions in the country favor Obama, especially the weak economy and unified Democratic control. I wouldn’t expect to see legislative output corresponding in volume to FDR’s first 100 days. Indeed, it’s not clear that sheer volume is necessary to address current problems. But I would expect to see many bills that he favors get passed. It will help that Obama he is clearly willing to work with Congress and doesn’t merely expect them to follow behind him. “There’s no pride of authorship,” he said apropos of a stimulus bill.

Some links to relevant research are below the fold.

One definition of a honeymoon is “lots of legislative output” — a la FDR’s famous first 100 days. By that definition, there is no systematic evidence that presidents routinely experience a honeymoon. In a 2001 article (gated), John Frendreis, Raymond Tatalovich and Jon Schaff examine from 1897-2005 and found that the number of laws enacted in the first 100 days has declined over time. However, two factors are associated with greater legislative output:

bq. Greater public support for congressional candidates of the President’s party and adverse economic conditions are associated with higher levels of enactments over the entire period.

A second definition of success is: are Presidents more likely to get what they want from Congress? By that definition, there is evidence of a honeymoon. In this article (gated), Casey Dominguez examines presidents from Kennedy to Clinton and finds that, on bills where the president has taken a position, there is a higher likelihood of passage in the first 100 days than in later periods in his inaugural year. The average success rate in the first 100 days is 88%, compared to 78% and 74% in the second and third 100 days. Presidents are also more successful in their inaugural years than in other years (87% vs. 75%). (And this is not because presidents are strategically supporting bills they know will win.) However, the effect of the first 100 days is present only in times of divided government. Under unified government, presidential success doesn’t really vary between inaugural years and other years.