January 20, 2010

Scott Meinke, associate professor of political science.

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Welcome to the first edition of "Ask the Experts," a new feature that will highlight the expertise of Bucknellians in a range of topics related to current news events and other timely subjects. || Ask the Experts archive

New editions of "Ask the Experts" will appear on the Bucknell University website on most Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters and on occasion throughout the summer.

This week, we asked Scott Meinke, associate professor of political science, to talk about President Barack Obama's upcoming State of the Union address, scheduled for Jan. 27.

Q: Looking ahead to President Obama's address, what administration priorities do you expect to see for the coming year?

A: I would expect that he is going to look beyond health care and that he is going to look toward jobs and employment. He is going to be aware that that is the No. 1 policy issue on many Americans' minds and he is going to be aware, politically speaking, that that is the most important thing for Democrats in the coming year. That will be a major emphasis if not the primary emphasis.

Q: What achievements will the president rightly claim in his first year?

A: If you look objectively at what the president tried to accomplish over the course of the last year, the president can cite some real progress. Health care has overcome many hurdles and could still be completed. He can claim significant progress on dealing with the economy, although he has been subject to a great deal of criticism and he owns the economy more now and is less able to blame it on predecessors. But because of the stimulus package, which was an enormous legislative achievement, he can point to significant progress. He can claim progress on dealing with both Iraq and Afghanistan, where he has taken major steps, although whether particular deadlines will be met is open to question. The president and his party in Congress can claim credit for some things that may have received less attention as well - for instance, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 that dealt with the right to bring suits about gender inequality in the employment arena. The House has taken steps on environmental legislation on carbon emissions, although the Senate has yet to take that up. But all these things are major steps that the president can claim some credit for. The picture that he will paint, the picture he has to paint, is one of unfinished business but of progress made toward his objectives.

Q: It was a tough first year for the president. Are there implications for the November elections?

A: The implications aren't positive for Democrats. There is a truism that presidents in the mid-term election almost always lose seats. With unemployment as high as it is and likely to still be pretty high by the time the mid-terms roll around, that makes the problem worse for the governing party. By the mid-terms, it will have been clear that the Democrats have been in power for two years and easier for the Republicans to pin the economic situation on the Democrats. There are reasons why presidents find themselves in this situation. Inevitably, governing is a process of compromising, of falling short on some promises in order to get some things done, of running up against the many institutional obstacles that the American system puts into place. It winds up making a lot of people mad. The mid-term is typically when the most people are most dispirited about things and the opposition has the best opportunity to rally against the administration. But historically, if you look at Reagan and Clinton for instance, there have been presidents who were able to turn things around for themselves and, sometimes, for their party. So the news is not all bleak for Democrats, but for 2010 it's not great. They have a lot of be concerned about.

Q: The president's popularity has fallen since taking office. Why?

A: Part of it is the inevitable failure to meet expectations, particularly on the economy in Obama's case. We expect more of presidents, whoever they are, than they are really capable of in our system. Expectations for Obama were as high or higher as for any modern president. In contrast with the previous administration, his charismatic style of leadership and the serious situation the country found itself in on many fronts meant that the expectations were incredibly high. Those expectations are quickly deflated for those who are not already strong supporters. Look at the breakdown of the numbers of who supported Obama at the beginning, which was a large majority of the population that included some Republicans, an enormous chunk of Independents. The falling off in his support involves most of those Republicans and some Independents and some Democrats. Some of the lost support is likely from partisans unhappy with compromises Obama has made, and those supporters may come back by the time re-election comes around. The drop-off is not historically unprecedented. If you line up Reagan's popularity in his first term with Obama's popularity in his first term so far, they correlate very closely. What Obama is experiencing is partly Obama, but a lot of it is the situation in which he finds himself and the way we view presidents and what we expect of them versus the realities of the institution that they work in.

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