Tag Archives: presidential popularity

Jean-Louis Thiébault – Presidents without popularity: the cases of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande

This is a guest post by Jean-Louis Thiébault, emeritus professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille, France

French presidents are elected by direct universal suffrage. Universal suffrage gives them a strong democratic legitimacy they need to govern. But the last two French Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and François Hollande (2012- …) experienced a rapid decline in their popularity just after their election. The fall was therefore premature. It lasted almost until the end of the presidential term. Faced with rising discontent, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have adopted different strategies to win back their popularity: the first has tended to make his less flamboyant presidency; the second to get out of his initial posture of “normal president”.

The level of popularity of the new president had always been particularly high in the aftermath of the presidential election. It is the “state of grace”. But it is used to denote the moment of political life during which public opinion of a country is largely favorable to a new president who comes to power after an election. Journalists also often speak of the “100 days” as a privileged period for a new elected president (Duhamel and Parodi, 1982). The essential feature of the latest presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, is the steady decline in their popularity, more or less rapidly after their election. In july 2007, a total of 65% were satisfied, what made of Nicolas Sarkozy the most popular president after taking office, with the exception of Charles de Gaulle. Nicolas Sarkozy failed to convert its electoral victory in presidential popularity. Elected with 53,06% of the vote, his popularity as president quickly became less important. The “state of grace” was consumed within six months. With 55% approval rating for his first month in office, François Hollande underperformed all presidents, with the exception of Jacques Chirac in 2002 (51%). But this high level of popularity did not last. In May 2008 and 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy got his most mediocre score since his election with 32% of confidence. From September 2009 to January 2010, the approval rating of the president remained below 30%. The year 2010 was characterized the reactivation of themes on security. But these issues have failed to mobilize public opinion. The end of 2010 was marked by a major rupture. Seduction has deteriorated. Political leaders and communicators can not maintain a media activism for several years (Neveu, 2012).

The evolution of the popularity of Hollande struck by its starting point, particularly low for a president who has been elected. With 55% of approval rating for his first month in office, he was worse than many of the other presidents. He was in a unique situation at the beginning of the term (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015). Six months after he took office, 35% of French people had confidence in François Hollande and 61% do not trust him. Discredit that struck the president was the result of a feeling of absence, or even of stagnation, during the summer of 2012, and dissonances in the government team. All this has contributed to what François Holland, with 35% of confidence, was the weakest president after six months in office. Francois Hollande also known soon a decline in public opinion. In September  and november 2014, his approval rating was 13%. It was the worst approval rating of a president. He faced even a strong sense of disappointment in his own electorate.

The purpose of this second part is to explain the reasons for the continuity of the declining popularity of the two presidents and especially the inability they found to remedy. The means used to regain a certain level of popularity failed. The key to this unpopularity lies not only in the crisis of results of economic and social policies, particularly on the employment front. It is also the result of a divorce between the president and much of its social base that is the real explanation of this strong presidential unpopularity.

The economic factors

The main structural factor of rapid weakening of the popularity curve of the two presidents was the weakness of the French economy, with social consequences in terms of unemployment, budget deficit and public debt. Upon assuming office, the last two presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande faced the consequences of the great economic and financial crisis that began in summer 2008 and which has particularly affected the US but many countries Europe such as France. This is Nicolas Sarkozy who faced the first onslaught of the crisis and has implemented actions to prevent the impact on the French economy. At the end of 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy has focused all its energy trying to limit the spread of the crisis to the whole financial and economic system. This activism on the national and international scene allowed him to stem the precipitous decline of its popularity curve. The management of the crisis during the EU presidency by France allowed him to regain 8 points in some months (41% in January 2009). Yet in early 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy got his most mediocre score since his election with 32% of confidence. The 2010 year was a year of social depression and distrust. For the first time since his election, his situation was delicate.

François Hollande faced also a strong sense of disappointment in public opinion. His disgrace was the result of mass unemployment, debt explosion, loss of competitiveness, a costly social protection system. He hoped to stabilize the unemployment curve. But to really reduce unemployment implied a growth which remained uncertain. Public deficits remained heavily excessive.

The political factors

Nicolas Sarkozy has quickly abandoned the idea of a rupture with the government style of Jacques Chirac, that he never ceased to invoke and which had contributed greatly to his success. Very quickly after the election, the word of rupture disappeared. The president did everything, decided everything. He was all over at the front line. He has developed new practices converging towards a new way of exercising power. From the first weeks of investiture of the new president, the new practices were evident. Formulas have been found to summarize the new exercise of power : “hyperpresidency” (Gordon, 2007), “omnipresidency”, “ultra-presidentialism”. It is this new exercise of presidential power, which has led to criticism. With Nicolas Sarkozy, the domination of the president reached a previously unknown intensity. The first months in office have given to see a real domestication of the prime minister. The choice of ministers was always essentially dictated by the president. The organization of the executive was marked by an impressive number of presidential speeches, announcing the launch of a given reform, a sending of several letters of mission, often not countersigned by the prime minister, to committees of ad hoc experts, the creation of a sort of parallel presidential government (Le Divellec, 2012).

François Hollande wanted to be a “normal president”. He wanted to enjoy the rejection of the highly publicized government style of his predecessor. Shortly after the beginning of the presidency, the one who wanted to differentiate itself from Nicolas Sarkozy has indeed failed. His behavior embodied the non-rupture with the mandate of Nicolas Sarkozy. In the first sixth month of his term, The unpopularity of François Hollande is due to the multiplication of errors, communication blunders, malfunctions and signs of amateurism. The new president had no experience of exercise of power. The explanation for this early unpopularity was often given as being that of a “hollow victory” of the president. He would have won against the demands of the country. The punishment for the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, would have weighed stronger than the rallying around the socialist candidate, François Hollande, and his program. A more plausible explanation is that as the “state of grace”, that lasts roughly the first hundred days of presidency, is not primarily due to a rally to the winner, to the fact that voters and the media would give a blank check to the candidate nominated by the ballot box. The “state of grace” is also mainly due to the attitude of the opposition. The losing party usually abandon the political battlefield, at least for a time, the outcome of the polls being both the selection of a new president and rejection of the personality, the program and the party of the opponent. But in 2012, right-wing opposition has not remained sluggish (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015).

The unpopularity of the president is not a new phenomenon. It results from excessive expectations that voters have vis-à-vis their president. The origin of these expectations is to look in the institutions of the Fifth Republic, increasingly unsuited to the reality of political life. The main electoral event, the presidential election, opposes candidates who have to believe they can, alone, start the economy, increase the influence of France in the world, combat social inequalities and fight against insecurity. Therefore, victory is priced at basically ambitious and unrealistic campaign promises. And this is unlikely to change, as the goal of the election is to elect a man (or a woman), able to find only solutions to all the problems of France (Grossman, 2014).

Personal factors

Personal factors are related to the behavior of the new president. But in this period of “state of grace”, the president may be led to commit his early mistakes that may have political repercussions, even if it is private business of the president. Thus Nicolas Sarkozy made several mistakes of behavior in the first days after his election, because he was looking for greater transparency of his way of life and his private life. François Hollande wanted to adopt a behavior more suited to the traditional conception of the presidency. But it has experienced rapid setbacks. Abuse of transparency and privacy explains the speed of the collapse of the popularity of the two presidents. For many analysts, Nicolas Sarkozy’s unpopularity was almost all the result of his behavioral style. The same type of judgment was brought for his successor. The unpopularity of François Hollande seems to be reduced in his way to embody the presidential office. Once elected, he appeared out of step with the weight of the office and the gravity of the situation of the country, too peaceful, too conciliatory, too careful or too timid to impose an undisputed leadership.

The international political factors

The predecessors had found in world affairs an autonomy from a domestic politics increasingly constrained. Faced with the growing impotence of the executive, beset by difficulties, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande sought in international relations and defense policy a tranquility that failed to tranlate in the polls. Neither the international crisis caused by Georgia in the 2008 summer, or the financial and economic crisis in the fall of 2008 that Nicolas Sarkozy faced, seriously reversed the inexorable process of decrease of presidential popularity. Yet Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy was characterized by an omnipresence and hyperactivity. Foreign policy under the 5th Republic was always part of the “reserved area” to the president. But the concept has been pushed much further during the Sarkozy presidency. External relations have for four years been decided by the president himself. Personalization has been a key feature of this foreign policy. The foreign ministers were sidelined and forced to make up figuration (Meunier, 2012).

In January 2013, François Hollande decided to intervene militarily in Mali. François Hollande triggered the war for the first time during his term. According to the constitution, the president is the head of the military. It is the president who decides to project the military, and him alone. The rapid deterioration of the situation led the president to intervene. He understood all the political benefit there was to settle the more sustainably as possible in the position of military chief. After his first overseas operation, Francois Hollande has made halting a while, on the ground of French politics, his irresistible erosion in the polls, which resumed a few weeks later. He did not succeed in reversing his image, structurally in deficit in the eyes of French voters (Revault Allonnes, 2015; Boisbouvier, 2015).

In August 2013, eight months after Mali, the president was about to unleash a new war in Syria. François Hollande decided to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad after the massacre with chemical weapons perpetrated on August 21, 2013 in the suburbs of Damascus. The red line that Barack Obama had fixed has been crossed. France was determined to hit Syria. But Barack Obama invoked the trauma of the recent interventions of the American military in Afghanistan and Irak, and the weight of the Congress to justify the need to quickly seek the vote of the latter. Francois Hollande took the opportunity to explain that he had not the slightest intention, for its part, to consult the French parliament. He stated that he had no reason to forego the opportunities offered him by the institutions of the 5th Republic. Due to US dropping, the Syrian crisis has resulted in a major setback for French presidency (Revault Allonnes, 2015a).

The impact of the attacks

In January 2015, after the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, there was a recovery in the popularity of François Hollande. The president had plunged with a popularity of 13% in September 2014. It was the lowest level. In December 2014, he goes back only to 15%. In January 2015, he rebounded to 20%. But this surge did not withstand the test of time. In June 2015, six months after the attacks, his popularity remains still at 19%. It has reconstituted only some part of his popularity. In the days and weeks following the attacks, the president and his ministers have made number of ads on urban  and education policies. But these tendencies lasted a few weeks at most. If the political balance of power was clearly less unfavorable, at least for a time, the president has not used it to launch major public policy projects. From the first hours of the post-11 January, it is mainly in the field of anti-terrorism, in all its facets, that was the replica of the executive (Revault Allonnes, 2015).

To regain a certain level of popularity, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have used a new communications policy, a new institutional practice, and a rollback of certain public policies.

A new communication policy

The two presidents have taken some measures to regain their popularity, especially the type of communication policy. Indeed, just installed in the Elysee Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy has saturated the media space. He was regarded as a professional, with a strong ability to exploit the media. Moreover, Nicolas Sarkozy was surrounded by a strong communication team. The resources of the president also held the possibilities of influence at its disposal on a range of media, whose owners were close to him. These resources were serving the deployment of a strategy of intense activism, linking media events and announcements of reforms, so that the president had ever the initiation. It was a saturation and permanent campaign strategy (Neveu, 2012).

Early in his term, Sarkozy strongly rejected the theories of Jacques Pilhan on the need to adopt a more reserved attitude in communication (Le Débat, 1995). However, the 2011 year was marked by the return of the influence of the former adviser to François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who died in 1998 (Bazin, 2009). After four years of exercising power, facing a heavily degraded image in public opinion and trying to conquer again an electorate disappointed by his behavior, Nicolas Sarkozy has managed to make a spectacular change. This strategic shift was imposed on him more than he really wanted. But he had no choice.

François Hollande refused to have an open communication policy (Pingaud, 2013). He wanted to stand out from its predecessor. He wished, in particular through the concept of “normal president”, to give up the temptation of the permanent spectacle of his predecessor. Uncomfortable with the television tool, Hollande has adopted a dated style of communication, therefore so inefficient. He decided therefore to adopt a more open attitude to communication under the influence of a new communication team with Gaspard Gantzer. Arriving at the Elysee Palace in April 2014, he is responsible for leading all presidential communications, for coordinating it after two years and half of difficulties with that of the prime minister, for advising the president on his activities and for working to “strategic management of his public speech” (Revault Allonnes, 2015b)

A new institutional practice

At the beginning of his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy has developed new practices converging towards a new way of exercising presidential power, the so-called “hyperpresidency”. During the years 2010 and 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to review thoroughly his model of presidential power. These years were marked by a slight decrease in intensity of the presidential domination. This new practice was a tactic to correct a degraded popularity. The concept of « re-presidentialization» took the place of that of “hyperpresidency”. This term is used by the communication team to show that the president was now all concentrated entirely on his role as president. He gave the impression of wanting to take care of the the essential. Now the president no longer wished to be distracted by the turmoil of media or small events. The objective was clear: to erase the traces of the first years of the five-year period. This new option was associated with an organizational change. Sarkozy decided not to receive the leaders of his party (UMP) every Monday as he was accustomed. The “re-presidentialization” required him to take the height and to be no longer involved in affairs of the majority party. But Nicolas Sarkozy, whose approval rating was in the fall of 2010 at around 25% did not change the prime minister, François Fillon. A presidential mandate is structured around two elections. In the first part of the mandate, the new majority seeks to fulfill the promises of the candidate, and in the second it must value the work of the president. With a new prime minister, it is a new perspective with a new tone and new decisions. A change of prime minister in the 5th Republic started always a new dynamic.

François Hollande wanted to be a “normal president”. He wanted to enjoy the rejection of the « hyperpresidential » style of his predecessor. He has changed the prime minister. The electoral defeat of the 2014 municipal elections gave the final blow to the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. François Hollande appointed Manuel Valls as the new prime minister. The idea to give a little space for maneuver and movement structured his choice. The change of prime minister appeared as a way to recapitalize a deficit of public opinion. With Manuel Valls as prime minister, Francois Hollande made the choice to appoint a popular personality while the level of popularity of the president was at a very low level. It is clear that the arrival of Manuel Valls did not change the rule of a public opinion in permanent hostility, or prevent the continued fall of François Hollande in public opinion. He even reached in September 2014 the lowest level ever measured for a president (13%) (Lecerf, 2015). The change of prime minister has not convinced. In fact, the popularity of the prime minister has no more value electorally speaking. Apparently, voters well integrated the institutional rule,  implied by five-year term: the president is at the center of the game and the prime minister is not the fuse he was before 2002 (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015).

 The reversal of some public policies

The best example to explain the reversal of some public policies by Nicolas Sarkozy is furnished by fiscal policies  To rebuild its image over time and regain the favor of the electorate, Nicolas Sarkozy did not hesitate to revisit some decisions made at the beginning of his five-year term, as the tax shield. The tax shield was a key measure, maxing out at 50% of revenue payments to the state by taxpayers under the income tax. On the contrary, tax increases were decided by François Hollande in 2012 and early 2013, which had the effect of increasing the tax burden in 2014. In September 2013, he announced the end of the tax increases. This call for a tax break appeared as a turn to the one which he had announced during his campaign that he would reform tax in France. His intervention was expected after a 2013 summer where discontent against tax increases has been steadily gaining momentum, while blurring settled on the government’s ambitions in this area. The government was to find 6 billion of new taxes to balance the budget, but the finance minister had publicly expressed concern in mid-August 2013, a “tax ras-le-bol” in French. François Hollande acknowledged that in the fall of 2012, given the scale of deficits, an extra effort was requested to taxpayers. He thought it was time to make a tax break.

Conclusion. The downward trend in the popularity of presidents

The unpopularity of presidents has become an habit. One may wonder whether a president can long remain popular face heavy elements that make up the economic and social landscape of France in times of crisis: an unemployment rate of 10%, a decreasing growth, aggravated deficits and debt abysmal. This unpopularity of presidents characterizes a period during which threats strength the anxiety of French people and illustrates the difficulties of governments to curb the course of the economic and social crisis. Structural dissatisfaction seems to have set in French people towards their leaders. Since 2002, none of the presidents have been able to achieve a sustainable relationship of trust with the French voters. A component of this unpopularity notes the difficulty of leaders to address the main concerns of their citizens. This situation is analyzed in terms of another factor. Since the first oil crisis in 1973, there have always been more French people saying that in France, things “tend to go worse” than French people saying they “are improving.” Since 2000, it is common to have more than 80% of French people concerned about the evolution of their country. The unpopularity of the leaders cannot be dissociated from this growing pessimism of citizens. Something new has been added in 2012 to this pessimism. Usually, the election or even the re-election of a president was accompanied by a burst of confidence. This was the case in 2007. Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory then caused a surge of optimism. The negative judgment have focused on another form of breakdown, the loss of illusions by public opinion on the expected benefits of alternation. The lack of enthusiasm for Francois Hollande is also a lasting consequence of the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Given the growing interdependence of France vis-à-vis its European partners, the promises of presidents quickly prove unsustainable. Indeed, the French president can neither revive growth by itself or reform the international finance and, even less, the European treaties. Disappointment is then up to the ambition of the promises. For twenty years now, presidents have a significant popularity at the beginning of their mandate, but this popularity plummets rapidly. Above all, contrary to what may have happened to previous presidents, the last two presidents do not rely and they remain weak. But the institutions are still solid (Grossman, 2014)

References

François Bazin, Le sorcier de l’Elysée, l’histoire secrète de Jacques Pilhan. Paris : Plon, 2009.

Christophe Boisbouvier, Hollande l’Africain. Paris : La Découverte, 2015.

Olivier Duhamel et Jean-Luc Parodi, « Dimensions de l’état de grâce », Pouvoirs, Revue française d’études constitutionnelles et politiques, no 20, février 1982, 171-178).

Philip Gordon, « The hyperpresident », The American Interest, november-december 2007, 1-5.

Emiliano Grossman and Nicolas Sauger, « ‘Un président normal’ ? Presidential (in)action and unpopularity in the wake of the great recession », French Politics, vol 12, no 2, 2014, 86-103.

Emiliano Grossman, « Hollande et les sondages : les limites du modèle politique français », Slowpolitix blog, 4 février 2014).

Edouard Lecerf, « 2014 : des tours, des retours», in Olivier Duhamel, Edouard Lecerf, TNS-SOFRES. L’état de l’opinion 2015. Paris : Seuil, 2015, 11-16.

Armel Le Divellec, « Présidence de la République et réforme constitutionnelle. L’impossible ‘rationalisation’ du présidentialisme français », in Jacques de Maillard, Yves Surel (dir.), Les politiques publiques sous Sarkozy. Paris : Les Presses de Sciences Po, 2012, 91-110.

Nonna Mayer et Vincent Tiberj, « Où est passée la gauche ? De la victoire de 2012 à la déroute de 2014 », in Olivier Duhamel, Edouard Lecerf, TNS-SOFRES. L’état de l’opinion 2015. Paris : Seuil, 2015, 17-36.

Sophie Meunier, « La politique étrangère de Nicolas Sarkozy. Rupture de fond ou de style ? », in Jacques de Maillard, Yves Surel (dir.), Les politiques publiques sous Sarkozy. Paris : Les Presses de Sciences Po, 2012, 133-151.

Erik Neveu, « Les politiques de communication du président Sarkozy », in Jacques de Maillard, Yves Surel (dir.), Les politiques publiques sous Sarkozy. Paris : Les Presses de Sciences Po, 2012, 47-69.

Denis Pingaud, L’homme sans com’ . Paris : Seuil, 2013.,

David Revault d’Allonnes (a), Les guerres du président. Paris : Seuil, 2015.

David Revault d’Allonnes (b), « Gaspard Gantzer, le nouveau visage de la com’ présidentielle », Le Monde, 4 février 2015.

« L’écriture médiatique. Entretien avec Jacques Pilhan », Le Débat, no 87, novembre-décembre 1995, 3-24.

Ryan E. Carlin and Shane P. Singh – Executive Power and Economic Accountability

This is a guest post by Ryan E. Carlin and Shane P. Singh from Georgia State University and the University of Georgia respectively

Accountability’s centrality to democratic theory makes it “one of the holy grails of empirical political science research” (Samuels and Hellwig 2010, 393). It refers to the public’s ability to “discern whether governments are acting in their interest and sanction them appropriately” (Manin, Przeworski, and Stokes 1999, 40) through elections, civil society, the media, protests, and public opinion. Are some executives held more accountable than others by design? Can they shape their own accountability by the decisions they make?

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Politics, we posit that both presidents’ legislative powers and how frequently they resort to legislation by decree shape the extent to which the public holds them accountable for economic outcomes. Two forms of responsibility attributions connect presidential powers to accountability. “Role responsibility” concerns the obligations citizens expects presidents to fulfill and the consequences for failing to do so. Presidents endowed with vast lawmaking powers accrue great role responsibility for outcomes on their watch. “Causal responsibility” is doled out when presidents’ intentional actions are seen as proximate causes of economic outcomes. In proportion to the decree powers presidents use to legislate unilaterally, they will incur causal responsibility for the outcomes.

To test our expectations, we gathered data from the Latinobarometer on presidential approval, sociotropic economic retrospections, and several common controls from 94,861 respondents in 120 surveys from 18 Latin American presidential systems over the years 2002-2009. We tested whether the degree to which socioeconomic retrospections were related to presidential approval was a function of two measures of presidential power: an index of the legislative powers afforded to the president by the constitution and the total number of decrees and decree laws the president issued in the previous year, as measured with the Global Legal Information Database.

As predicted, economic evaluations influence the approval of powerful presidents more than their weaker counterparts. That is, economic accountability is calibrated to account for presidents’ legislative powers and prerogatives—their role responsibility for outcomes. Accountability also keeps pace with decree usage, a finding consistent with a mechanism of causal responsibility attribution. We can see this graphically through the marginal effects of economic evaluations on the probability of approving of the president according to legislative powers and the use of decrees as captured in Figure 1.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 15.35.23

To put some flesh on these results, imagine an individual whose president has Legislative Powers that register in the 10th percentile of our sample—Honduras since 1982. Results illustrated in the left-hand panel of the figure suggest that a unit increase in retrospective economic evaluations corresponds with, on average, roughly a 12.5 percentage-point increase in the likelihood that she will approve of the president. If this same individual were transplanted to a country where the president’s Legislative Powers ranked in the 90th percentile—Brazil since 2001—a unit increase in economic retrospections should boost the likelihood that she will approve of the president by around 16.4 percentage points.

Turning to the link with decrees, illustrated in the right-hand panel of the figure, for a citizen whose president falls in the 10th percentile for decree issuance, a unit increase in economic evaluations corresponds with, on average, about a 13.5 percentage-point increase in the likelihood that she will approve of the president. If that citizen’s president falls in the 90th percentile for issuing decrees, the same increase precipitates around a 15.9 percentage-point rise in the chances of approving of the president.

So presidents who enjoy strong legislative power and who use it extensively invite greater economic accountability. Not only do these measures of role responsibility and causal responsibility influence economic accountability independently but, as Figure 2 shows, their effects are even greater when analyzed in interaction.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 15.36.07

The public, thus, holds presidents to account for economic outcomes to a greater degree where their governing role responsibilities are vast and their causal responsibility is made more obvious by frequent use of such power. In other words, accountability for economic outcomes is strongest where presidents are strong legislators both de jure and de facto.

In presidential systems, executive power can be a blessing or a curse. When the public perceives a humming economy, strong presidents who use their legislative powers habitually can expect their popularity to grow multiplicatively. But when they feel the economy slumping, vast presidential powers compound the problem, sending support in a downward spiral. This may seem unfair, given the difficulty even strong presidents face in advancing their agendas (Saiegh 2011) and delivering outcomes citizens prefer (Mainwaring and Shugart 1997)—and the fact that congress may ask the president to act unilaterally in order to get things done (Carey and Shugart 1998). Nevertheless, we conclude that the more lawmaking power constitutions grant presidents, and the more they use these powers, the more responsibility they assume for economic policy outcomes in the public’s eye.

Our results weigh in on second-generation debates about presidentialism and democracy. In a thoughtful essay on why the “difficult combination” of presidentialism and multipartyism (Mainwaring 1993) has outstripped scholars’ predictions for durability and governability, Chaisty, Cheeseman, and Power (2014) credit presidents’ mastery of various power tools to build and manage multiparty coalitions. Yet the authors are quick to warn:

“The very same presidential tools that enhance governability may also undermine accountability – a tradeoff that has been largely overlooked even as analysts celebrate the survival of multiparty presidential democracy.” (86).

Our findings, however, suggest no tradeoff between the powers that facilitate governability and the vertical accountability mechanism of public opinion between elections. In fact, citizens appear able to calibrate responsibility attributions according to presidents’ possession and use (or even abuse) of lawmaking power. Thus, our preliminary diagnosis is that presidential powers pose no barrier to accountability at the level of mass politics.

But viewing these findings in light of our related research, blogged at Presidential Power earlier this year, renders a less sanguine conclusion. Democratic attitudes, the basis of regime legitimacy, are most positive under a middling—neither too high nor too low—degree of presidential powers (Singh and Carlin 2015). In other words, crafting an institutional framework to optimize both of these core democratic ideals under presidentialism may, therefore, prove rather challenging.

References

Carey, John M., and Shugart, Matthew Soberg, eds. 1998. Executive Decree Authority. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Chaisty, Paul, Cheeseman, Nic, and Power, Timothy. 2014. Rethinking the ‘Presidentialism Debate’: Conceptualizing Coalitional Politics in Cross-Regional Perspective. Democratization 21 (1):72-94.

Mainwaring, Scott. 1993. Presidentialism, Multipartism, and Democracy: The Difficult Combination. Comparative Political Studies 26 (2):198-228.

Mainwaring, Scott, and Shugart, Matthew Soberg, eds. 1997. Presidentialism and Democracy in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Manin, Bernard, Przeworski, Adam, and Stokes, Susan Carol. 1999. Elections and Representation. In Democracy, Accountability, and Representation, eds. Przeworski, Adam, Stokes, Susan Carol and Manin, Bernard. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 29-54.

Saiegh, Sebastian M. 2011. Ruling by Statute: How Uncertainty and Vote-Buying Shape Lawmaking. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Samuels, David, and Hellwig, Timothy. 2010. Electoral Accountability and the Clarity of Responsibility: A Conceptual and Empirical Reassessment. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties 20 (4):393-414.

Singh, Shane P., and Carlin, Ryan E. 2015. Happy Medium, Happy Citizens: Presidential Power and Democratic Regime Support. Political Research Quarterly 68 (1):3-17.

Ryan Carlinpolitical scienceRyan E. Carlin is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy at Georgia State University. He received his Ph.D. in 2008 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research interests are comparative political behavior and public opinion, with a regional emphasis on Latin America. His work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, USAID, the Mellon and Ford Foundations, and the Latin American Studies Association. He is co-editor of The Latin American Voter (University of Michigan Press, 2015) and his work has appeared in numerous academic journals and volumes. His website is found at https://sites.google.com/site/ryanecarlin/.

SinghShane P. Singh is an Associate Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He received his Ph.D. in 2009 from Michigan State University. His research focuses on the institutional and contextual foundations of political behavior and attitudes. His work has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and his research has appeared in many academic journals and edited volumes. His website is found at http://www.shanepsingh.com.

Ryan E. Carlin, Gregory J. Love, and Cecilia Martínez-Gallardo – Terrorism and presidential approval

This is a guest post by Ryan E. Carlin, Gregory J. Love, and Cecilia Martínez-Gallardo from Georgia State University, University of Mississippi, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill respectively

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris—as well as high-profile terrorist attacks in democratic countries far and wide, including Argentina, Spain, the U.S., and India—raise important questions about the causes terrorism and about how it can be prevented in the context of democratic politics. The attacks and the protests that have followed them also raise the question of whether leaders in democratic systems are likely to suffer political consequences—including the potential of being kicked out of office—for what citizens perceive as substantial security failures.

Much of what we know about how the public metes out blame or credit for policy outcomes comes from the field of political economy. One of the most common hypotheses in this field states that the public is more likely to hold leaders accountable for economic performance when “clarity of responsibility” is high. Under unified government, for example, citizens will be more likely to blame or credit the executive (president, prime minister, etc.) for economic policy, which they see as reflecting the executive’s vision and priorities. The perception that the economy’s fate rests in the executive’s hands makes it difficult for leaders to shift blame for failures but easy to take credit for successes. In such circumstances, when the economy roars leaders ride a wave of popularity. But when it tanks so does their public approval.

If unified government illuminates who is responsible for economic performance, divided government obscures it. When the opposition controls the legislature, economic policy must bear both the opposition’s and the government’s stamp of approval. The perception that political actors share responsibility for crafting economic policy makes citizens less likely to think executives are solely responsible for the economy – and less likely to credit or blame executive leaders for economic outcomes – under divided government

Although this hypothesis has a good track record of explaining patterns of accountability for economic outcomes, it does not explain when citizens will hold executives accountable for terrorism and security outcomes. In our work, we argue that there are two central reasons for this: first, there are important differences in who citizens perceive to be responsible for economic and national security outcomes. Second, security and economic policy failures present different opportunities for executives to create a narrative frame that benefits them. We explain each of these reasons below.

First, in most countries executives share responsibility for economic policy with other domestic and international political actors — and citizens know this and take it into account when assigning credit or blame for economic outcomes. But citizens, and most constitutions, place responsibility for terrorism and national security squarely on the shoulders of the executive. This makes it hard for leaders to shift blame for security breakdowns. Claiming that their hands were tied strains credulity. In addition, security failures create a bully pulpit from which the opposition can roundly criticize the executive and, since they share no responsibility, gives them a cheap way to score political points.

Second, although it is extremely difficult to put a positive spin on economic crises, security policy failures produce different options for executives. Under unified government, sitting executives can blame the violence on the attackers rather than on their government’s failure to prevent the attack. Threatening and evocative media coverage reinforces this frame and helps executives rally the public to their side and in support of their policy response. Thus, while unified government makes it more likely that the executive will get blamed for economic failures, it makes it less likely that terrorism and security crises will hurt executives’ public support.

Under divided government, by contrast, opposition leaders have enough resources at their disposal – speakerships, committee chairmanships, better access to the media, etc. – to allow them to counter-frame and, thus, challenge the executive’s narrative. This back and forth hurts the ability of the executive to impose its preferred narrative. As a result, when it comes to security and terrorism, divided government makes it more likely that citizens will blame the executive for a policy failure or crisis.

When it comes to terrorism and security policy, then, the classic “clarity of responsibility” hypothesis, developed to explain accountability for economic outcomes, seems to function in reverse. The contrast between presidents Alan Garcia of Peru and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia provides a good example. In mid-2007 García was faced with withering criticism from Peruvian opposition leaders in Congress and a 7.1 percentage point drop in approval following a Sendero Luminoso attack that killed 60 people. In contrast, Uribe enjoyed a united government that allowed him to shape the narrative more easily and to escape blame following attacks that killed or wounded 196 people in 2002.

To explore this idea empirically, in our research we look at how acts of terrorism influence executive support in 18 Latin American democracies in the context of either unified or divided government. We use historical data that covers the period from 1980 to 2007. For terrorism casualties we use data from START’s Global Terrorism Database; data on clarity of responsibility come from Witold Henisz’s Political Constraints Database; presidential approval data come from our own Executive Approval Database; economic data are taken from the International Monetary Fund’s International Financial Statistics and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s CEPALSTAT; and controls for level of democracy are from the Center for Systemic Peace’s Polity IV Project. If our argument is correct, terrorist attacks should reduce presidential approval less under unified government than under divided government.

This is exactly what we observe.

Figure 1. The Effects of Inflation and Terrorism on Presidential Approval Conditional on Clarity of Responsibility

Martinez-Gallardo-Fig-1

Source: Carlin, Love & Martinez-Gallardo (2015).

Figure 1 shows the relationship between inflation (right panel) and casualties attributed to terrorism (left panel) and presidential approval at different levels of clarity of responsibility (or the degree to which government authority is divided). The Figure highlights our main finding: while presidents facing an opposition congress (low clarity of responsibility) can somewhat avoid blame for a failing economy, executives under the same circumstances are likely to be punished for security failures. In other words, the consequences of an economic crisis for executives’ approval are worse under divided government, when voters have a hard time deciding whom to blame for policy outcomes. In contrast, security crises are more likely to dent executives’ approval when the government is unified because they cannot credibly shift blame.

The conditionality of accountability we examine in this research and in a previous paper focused on political scandals, highlights the challenges involved in understanding democratic accountability. Our work suggests it is important to look not only at the political environment – whether the government is unified or divided—but also at the nature of the particular policy issue. By taking both factors into account, performance accountability can be viewed as a complex relationship between issue ownership, blame shifting, and the effectiveness of executive and opposition narratives. In particular, the issue ownership executives have over security policy is clearly a blessing and a curse. Executives can often feel emboldened and less constrained by the legislature when dealing with matters of national security and physical safety. However, when a country suffers a security failure, executives find it hard to shift blame onto an opposition legislature, and instead face vocal criticisms that tend to lower their public support.

The first version of this post appeared at the LSE USApp– American Politics and Policy blog: http://bit.ly/1xy0Scr

kuleto1Ryan E. Carlin – Georgia State University
Ryan Carlin is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. His main research field is comparative political behavior, especially in Latin America. His other research interests include natural disaster politics, social preferences, rule of law, and political institutions.

Love

Gregory J. Love – University of Mississippi
Greg Love is an Associate Professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. He specializes in the politics of Latin America and developing countries broadly. One of his specific research interests is how political careers develop and change in transitional democracies and how these changes affect the quality of governance. He has conducted extensive field research in Mexico and Chile for this and other projects.

Ceci

Cecilia Martínez-Gallardo – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Cecilia Martínez-Gallardo is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her teaching and research interest are in Latin American political institutions, especially government formation and change. Her work focuses on the political and institutional factors that affect coalition politics in these countries. She has also worked on government formation and stability in Western Europe and as well as policy reform in Latin America.

 

United States – Barack Obama and the Political Stalemate of a Second Term

While the U.S. congressional midterm elections are just a few weeks away, the outcome is not likely to change anything about the current political stalemate in Washington. The Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives, and while the Senate is currently too close to call (based on recent polling), a one- or two-seat advantage for either the Republicans or Democrats won’t matter much in regards to President Barack Obama’s remaining two years in office. Despite Candidate Obama’s promise to restore faith in the political system and govern from a bipartisan stance in 2008, the reality for President Obama has been mostly gridlock since the 2010 midterm elections in which his Democratic Party lost control of the House as well as a handful of seats in the Senate.

In looking ahead to Obama’s last two years in office, there is little hope for legislative success on any major domestic issues. Despite much-needed immigration reform, and a current policy which both parties agree is broken, Obama has postponed taking even limited executive action until 2015. A battle is now looming in the Senate over confirmation of Attorney General Eric Holder’s replacement. And, with Obama’s approval rating stuck at or near 40 percent, and the liberal Democratic base unhappy with Obama’s recent foreign policy decisions regarding military strikes against ISIS, not to mention longer-term disapproval of his administration’s use of drone strikes, Obama seems to be running empty on political capital.

Lately, Americans seem destined to suffer through a mostly lame-duck presidency for the entire four years of a second term. Despite talk of enduring legacies in the afterglow of a president’s reelection victory, by the second inauguration, the political fortunes of the newly-minted second term president seem to shift dramatically. Immediately following his reelection in 2004, George W. Bush proclaimed that voters had given him political capital and he intended to use it. However, 2005 and 2006 turned out to be perhaps his worst years in office, which included plummeting approval ratings in the aftermath of the federal government’s ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the U.S. Gulf Coast, and the revelation by the New York Times of the Bush administration’s secret wiretapping program. By the end of 2006, and with the help of a few congressional scandals, Bush and the Republicans had lost control of both houses of Congress, which left little opportunity for Bush to accomplish much during his final two years in office.

Bill Clinton didn’t fare much better during his second term, though his approval ratings were helped out by a period of strong economic growth. Still, despite the promise of productive bipartisanship with the Republican-controlled Congress after reaching a balanced-budget deal in 1997, the next year was dominated by personal scandal that culminated in Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives in late 1998. Despite his acquittal by the Senate in early 1999, the momentum for any Clinton policy initiatives had been lost.

While each of the last three presidents has faced unique political circumstances and challenges, many other factors contribute to this trend of political stalemate during a second-term presidency.

First, it is common for a president’s party to lose congressional seats during midterm elections. This can be particularly problematic for Democrats as Republicans routinely enjoy higher voter turnout in non-presidential elections.

Second, the American political environment is dominated by a never-ending presidential campaign cycle. Media speculation about who will run, and who might win, in the next presidential election can begin as early as a few weeks before a current campaign even ends, which can leave many within the political process looking past the current president as they consider how the next election might impact their own political fortunes.

Third, the presidential term limits imposed by the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution automatically make a second-term president a lame duck. First introduced by a Republican-controlled Congress in 1947 as a response to FDR’s election to an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, and ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the states in 1951, the two-term limit removes any possibility that a popular president might seek a third term (and thus maintain accountability among the electorate). Of the two-term presidents since the 1950s, only Clinton might have considered a third term. The age and health of both Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan would have prevented each from running again, and George W. Bush’s unpopularity by 2008 would have created a major electoral hurdle. For Obama, it is hard to imagine him wanting to run again, especially with his lingering low approval rating, but his skill as a candidate, and his relative youth for an outgoing president (he will be 55 when he leaves office), would keep the possibility open.

In the final analysis, presidents tend to have their best chance of doing big things during their first two years in office. While many questioned Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform during his first year, in hindsight, there was never going to be a better time than when he had his highest approval ratings and the largest majority of Democrats in the Congress. Presidents and their advisors probably recognize that reality, and are best served by a strategy that Political Scientist Jim Pfiffner calls “hitting the ground running” when they first take office. In addition, perhaps Americans should adjust their expectations for a second-term presidency, as the window for major domestic policy change seems to be permanently closed by the tough political environment that a lame-duck president must face. Despite the seemingly rational logic that a president who will never again have to face voters can make tough political decisions about important public policies (such as reforming Social Security), members of the president’s party in Congress do not have that same luxury. Foreign policy seems to be the one area in which second-term presidents can still make relevant decisions, which probably provides little comfort to President Obama, who campaigned on a platform to end U.S. involvement in the Middle East and who promised to provide broad domestic policy changes. Instead, for the next two years, his presidency seems destined to be relevant mainly within the foreign policy arena.

France – Government gets a shellacking in mid-term Senate elections

Elections to the Senate, the upper house of the French legislature, were held on Sunday. The Senate is an indirectly elected body, though the electorate is large, mainly comprising local councillors and there are many of them. Since recent changes, the mandate of a Senator lasts six years and one half of the senate is elected every three years.

In 2011, the left gained a slim majority in the Senate. This was first ever left-wing majority in the upper house since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The left has traditionally been disadvantaged at Senate elections, because there are many councillors and, hence electors, from rural areas who have tended to support the right. While the left enjoyed a slim majority after 2011, the government did not. The left’s majority included the Communist, Republican, and Citizens group, which included representatives from left-wing parties not in the government. Moreover, the majority also included the Greens. However, they left the governing coalition with the Socialists in March 2014. Partly because the government of socialist President François Hollande never enjoyed a majority even when the Greens were in office, it was defeated a number of times in the Senate after it took office in 2012.

Following the election at the weekend the state of the parties is roughly as follows:

  • UMP (right-wing opposition) – 145 seats (+12)
  • UDI (centre-right opposition) – 38 seats (+6)
  • Socialists (government) – 112 seats (-16)
  • RDSE (government) – 12 seats (-7)
  • Greens (opposition) – 10 seats (no change)
  • Communists and left opposition  – 17 seats (-3)
  • National Front (extreme right) – 2 seats (+2)

So, as expected, the left has lost its overall majority. Moreover, the Socialist group is weakened further. This was expected, but it will make life for the government of PM Manuel Valls more difficult. Not entirely unexpectedly, but newsworthy nonetheless, was the arrival for the first time of the National Front (FN) in the Senate. One of the noteworthy elements of the election of their two Senators is that they received the votes of electors who were not representatives of the FN on local councils. This is perhaps a sign that the FN is becoming more mainstream, less untouchable.

These two lessons of the Senate elections confirm general trends. The popularity of President Hollande is still hovering around an all-time low at less than 20%. He has become a figure of ridicule. This is being felt within the Socialist party itself. The President and PM are having difficulty keeping their majority together in the National Assembly. It is not unrealistic to think that the government may lose its majority there in the coming months. At the same time, the National Front is polling very well. There is no chance, as yet, of its candidate being elected President of the Republic in 2017. However, there is every chance that the candidate, which is almost certainly going to be the party leader, Marine Le Pen, will win through to the second ballot.

The prospect of a weak PS and an unelectable FN is one of the reasons why former president Nicolas Sarkozy made a political come back only last week. If he were to stand as the UMP’s candidate in 2017, he would be well placed to win again, though the same could be said about any UMP candidate at the moment, notably Sarkozy’s main rivals on the right, former PMs Alain Juppé and François Fillon. Sarkozy’s chances are not unrealistic. Some of his judicial issues have gone away at least for the time being. He is also a dogged political fighter with a history of reinventing himself and identifying popular (or populist) issues.

As things stand, the FN will continue to make headlines over the next couple of years, but the significant battle is the one that is taking place within the UMP.