Time and time again, I speak to my students about the importance of the perception of power to the institution of the Presidency. The Founders of the United States never intended for Presidents or the overall institution of the Presidency to have the power and influence that is seen in the modern presidency. Presidents and leaders in Congress have to manipulate perceptions of power as they approach election season. Sometimes when I engage in discussions on these issues I talk to students about “juice.”
Juice is the perception of power on the streets. When I go into talking to them about juice I date myself because I get excited telling them all about Tupac Shakur’s breakout role in the early 90s film entitled “Juice.” In politics, having public support and holding control over the perception of power is “juice.”
Modern Presidents like Obama, Bush, Clinton and others (especially since FDR) see the perception of their power goes through ebbs and flows throughout their terms in office. Many times the Presidents and those within the institution of the presidency have a lot to do with those fluctuations. Presidents have to appeal to the public and attempt to work with Congress in their efforts to govern. Currently, President Obama is engaging in a much publicized battle over perception with Republican leaders in the House in an attempt to extend the payroll tax.
On the surface, extending the payroll tax seems like a slam dunk for elected officials on both sides of the aisle. Republicans and Democrats all want to have something tangible to hold up to voters in the middle as an example of governing with concern for the middle class as they embark on the 2012 election season. But the Republican leaders in the House, most likely prompted by the Tea Party fringe, want to manipulate the perception of the President’s power. On the other hand, the President wants to manipulate the perceived power dynamic in his favor also. Each of them want to come across as the one(s) who saved the day for the middle class. They want to be able to reach out to the public and talk about how the other side is using the issue of the payroll tax extension as a campaign point instead of a serious matter of governing in the interest of the people.
Each side wants to lean over to the ears of the American people and say, “I am your buddy, those folks on the other side don’t care if you have the money to pay off these holiday bills. Look at all I am doing to extend this payroll tax and what they are doing to take money out of your pocket.” At the moment both sides have legs to stand on in this debate. The Democrats’ plan pushed the discussion out two more months; opening the door for the House Republicans to claim they are the folks who want to deliver the extension for the entire year even at the risk of losing it. At this point, governing is being dictated by political positioning and concerns over the perception of who has the power in Washington.
President Obama wants the American people to believe that he has enough power to push for actions and legislation that will be best for the people. At the same time he wants the public to believe that Congress has enough power to thwart his efforts to do things in the interest of the people. It is a fine line he is walking. For him to convince folks to vote for him, he has to show them that he has accomplished a lot in his time in office but he would have accomplished much more with a Congress that was more willing to work with him. He needs to win his election but also convince voters that he could do more if there was change in his favor in Congress. This is quite a tall order.
The Republicans in Congress have a similar task ahead of them. They need to show the voters that the President is an obstacle to their plan to benefit the American people. They need to win their elections while convincing voters they would be best served by a new face in the White House. There needs to be a perception that they had some victories despite the President while not opening the door for him to claim victories. They need to make it seem like the President has misused piles of power that were placed at his disposal with his 2008 victory.
The questions voters on all sides need to ask is whom is responsible for what and what are the real power dynamics in currently in place between the Presidency and Congress? How will President Obama use power if given another four years? And how will different compositions of Congress lead to different outcomes in another term? If President Obama wins by any margin with the economy in this condition, the door will be open for him to claim a mandate in the second term. President Bush claimed a mandate in 2004 with the slimmest of victories over John Kerry. That is not a tactic exclusively used by Republicans. Expect the Obama administration to use it with a victory to sway public opinion their way when dealing with Congress regardless of the party composition after the 2012 election.
Voters need to ask the right questions as they sort through the stages of the Republican primary fights for their presidential nomination, Congressional election battles and ultimately the General election campaign for all the positions. Americans need to recognize what is the importance of the perception of power. They need to know how important it is when observing and analyzing the Presidency, especially since Article II of the Constitution does not clearly detail many of the powers currently held by modern presidents or even what has come to be expected of a president by the American people. The growth the executive branch, the expanded presidency and the evolution of the media along with the gradual accumulation of power has led to the increases in Presidential power. The presidency has slowly by surely acquired more and more “juice” over the generations and given little of it back over that time. The flight over control of perceptions of power is in full swing and it include the President, Congress and the candidates for President.