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The Perils of the Perception of a Politicized Presidency

- August 3, 2012

The prospective rewards for a president who devotes substantial time to electoral concerns are readily apparent. Presidents who raise sufficient funds for their own reelection campaign and for their fellow party members and who pay disproportionate attention to the states important in the Electoral College and the nominating process hope to be elected to a second term in the White House and to help their fellow party members to victory at the polls as well. Electoral success allows a president to work to realize his policy goals and leave a legacy that brings the country closer to his vision of a more perfect union. Placing trusted political advisers in the White House helps a president to achieve these aims. But there are potential perils that can result from what has been dubbed the permanent campaign as well.

A president who focuses on electoral gain can fuel the perception of a politicized presidency and heighten public cynicism. Press accounts are often quick to attribute electoral motivations to many presidential trips.  Consider these headlines, all of which ran outside the traditional presidential campaign season:

Selling Stimulus, Obama Tours Battleground States

Obama’s Travel Mixes Policy, Electoral Politics

Obama Makes Himself a Stranger in 10 Red States

Bush a Frequent Flyer to States That Could Decide 2004 Race

Bluest of the Blue: Vermont Doesn’t Look Like [George W.] Bush Country; It’s Only State He Hasn’t Visited While in Office

On the Road Again — [George H.W.] Bush Mixes Politics, Business

Stories like these reinforce the notion that presidential travel and thus presidential attention are electorally motivated, and that certain parts of the country that don’t fit into a president’s Electoral College calculus are likely to be ignored by the White House.

The party not holding the White House enthusiastically reinforces the perception that the current president is focused on partisan electoral gain instead of the good of the country as a whole. In 2011, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus offered this criticism of President Obama: “The president is one of the most politically calculating people we’ve ever had in the White House. Almost all of his visits are political.” When George W. Bush traveled to South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas in March 2002 to hold fundraisers for Senate candidates, a spokesperson for congressional Democrats declared, “This is a clear example of the White House using people’s hard-earned tax dollars to finance its partisan political activities.” Similarly, Republicans derided Clinton as a “part-time president” and “fund-raiser-in-chief” who traveled around the country on “Fund-raiser One” instead of tending to his official duties as president. This criticism is more situational than principled, as each party neglects to mention that it is attacking a president of the other party for practices that presidents from their party engaged in themselves.

While presidents of both parties and their staff emphasize the care they take to ensure that the president effectively carries out his official duties even while tending to electoral concerns, media coverage and opposition criticism of targeted travel and taxpayer-funded political events, frequent fundraising, the scandals that occasionally result, and the placement of key political advisers like Karl Rove and David Axelrod in the White House can paint a picture of the president as a divisive figure with an eye on his party’s interests instead of a unifying national leader working for the national interest.

Thus the permanent campaign yields a presidency that is at times more powerful and at others more vulnerable and fragile. While success in advancing the president’s and his party’s electoral prospects can strengthen his political hand and enable him to enact his policy priorities, these same endeavors can lead to increased public cynicism and reduce the prospects for bipartisan cooperation and effective presidential leadership.

Note: For a more in-depth discussion of these dynamics, please see The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign.  Many thanks to John Sides and The Monkey Cage team for the opportunity to guest-blog here this week!