The polls have shifted very slightly again, with Obama on 48.7 and Romney 44.6, a 4.1 spread. A slight gain for Romney then. The polls should start to narrow a little soon, as voters realise that the election is next month, and start to realise that they actually have to pick a candidate or simply not bother. Much of this is going to depend on the assessment of Obama’s success as a president, because, frankly, Romney has the personality of a potato. I can’t remember ever being excited by a potato, so he needs voters to be disappointed in Obama, rather than blown away by him. So how does Obama fare?
The problem here lies in a general uncertainty about how to define the success of a presidency. Everyone knows that the President is the guy in charge, but nobody seems entirely sure what that actually means. The presidency has changed a lot over the centuries, and the very nature of the constitution cripples its power. This has given rise to several models of presidential leadership. The Maximalist approach, put forward by Burns, sees the President as leader of strong party, pushing through grand ideas. This could theoretically apply to Obama’s first two years, when the Democrats had control of Congress and forced through healthcare reform, but it falls apart the moment they lost overall control. He’d be seen as a bad president largely because the rest of his party couldn’t get elected, which seems slightly unfair.
Far more appropriate is Neustadt’s view of a President who, while still central to the political process, has to engage in power broking with a potentially hostile congress. It’s a fairly accurate view of Obama’s time in office as he’s compromised and done deals to allow him to get at least some policy through. The intransigence of the Republicans have stymied his attempts here, making him appear weak and impotent, although that could be seen as less his fault and more the result of an unusually hostile Congress. This puts us closer to a third model which essentially suggests that a presidency is dependant on a variety of players, and President can therefore only achieve what is possible given the conflicting agendas. This does seem to be closest to the reality of the past four years, with a presidency that has done what it can rather than what it wants to do.
So where does Obama fall? To be honest, the question can only be answered by looking at what the popular public perception of presidential power. While political scientists weigh up alternative models and realistic expectations, the public is largely stuck on a view close to the maximalists. They expect strong presidents regardless of the reality. Looking at it that way, Obama had two years of success and two years of weakness. As with everything else in this election, it’s split right down the middle.