President Obama speaks at 1776, a hub for tech startups, on July 3 in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from David R. Mayhew, Sterling professor of political science at Yale University, and Matthew I. Bettinger,  a PhD student in political science at Yale University.


In the last century, six presidents have served a full eight years after taking the White House from the other party.  This record is pre-Obama, who hasn’t finished yet.

These six presidents were Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt (who went beyond the eight years), Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Three were Democrats, three were Republicans.

All these presidents navigated a first midterm, a successful reelection, and a second midterm.  Each one steered into a fourth Congress after a second midterm.  Obama will soon face his fourth Congress.  Going by the historical record, how does this upcoming Congress shape up?  What are the clues?

The six earlier presidents differed in the sizes of their party holdings in congresses, so generalizing across them is dicey.  FDR always had Democratic majorities in both House and Senate.  Reagan never had a Republican majority in the House.  In general, the Democratic presidents enjoyed bigger congressional majorities.

But the trajectories of the parties’ seat holdings — that is, the Democratic trajectories compared with the Republican ones — have not differed all that much going from the first Congress of a president’s service through the fourth.  Blending the six experiences into one chart seems allowable:

Average shares of House and Senate seats held by the parties of six pre-Obama presidents in their first through fourth Congresses (Source: Authors’ calculations drawing on Harold W. Stanley & Richard G. Niemi, Vital Statistics on American Politics)
Average shares of House and Senate seats held by the parties of six pre-Obama presidents in their first through fourth congresses. (Figure: David R. Mayhew/The Monkey Cage; Data: Authors’ calculations drawing on Harold W. Stanley & Richard G. Niemi, Vital Statistics on American Politics)

The above figure displays the average support each president enjoyed in the Senate and House during their first, second, third and fourth congresses.

No surprise, the first Congress is the most favorable time.  For one thing, Reagan aside, all six presidents enjoyed party majorities in both houses at that time (Reagan had just the Senate).

But after those early years, the statistics have soured.  See the distinctive House pattern in the chart.  On the House side, the presidents on average have taken a hit in a first midterm, pretty much stayed even with the board in a personal reelection year, then taken a hit once more again in a second midterm.  There is no special “six-year itch” on the House side.  Both midterms are bad news.  All this patterning is true (on average) for both the Democratic and Republican presidents.  So far, the trajectory holds also for Obama — although his party lost so unusually badly on the House side in his first midterm that little or nothing may happen to it in his second.

The Senate pattern is different.  In general, the presidents have started out with decent Senate majorities and kept them, even added to them, until the second midterm.  Then comes the hammering.  Then, senators aided by the president’s coattails six years earlier have run into trouble.  So far, with the election of November 2014 looming, the Obama Democrats have mapped onto this historical Senate experience well.

From the White House standpoint, the fourth Congress is the worst Congress party-wise.  On average, in party terms —  see the chart — both Senate and House have fallen under the 50-percent mark after the second midterm.  More concretely, five of the six pre-Obama presidents faced opposite-party majorities in both House and Senate in their fourth congresses.  FDR is the exception, but his fourth Congress of 1939-40 was no bargain.  The Democrats formally ran it, but it had smaller party majorities and was often dominated by a hostile cross-party conservative coalition.  For FDR, it was a grim time.

That is the election background.  Once in office, what did these fourth congresses actually do?  What was the legislative product?  The first thing to say is that there is no instance of a president pressing and winning a domestic program after a second midterm.  It is a zero.  Hope and change are yesterday’s stories.

But that doesn’t mean there has been no legislative action at all.  In a recent book, John S. Lapinski offers a list of the most important 100 laws enacted from 1877 through 1994.  That is 1.7 per Congress.  For the Wilson, FDR, Eisenhower and Reagan fourth congresses that lie within that time bracket, the score is six statutes or 1.5 per Congress.  The difference here is trivial.

Including the six Lapinski statutes (marked here with an L), but not just those, the fourth congresses of all the six presidents through George W. Bush generated the following enactments that in hindsight seem to be especially notable.

Tidying up is one theme.  Under FDR, an important reconfiguration of Social Security occurred in 1939, along with his Executive Reorganization Act (L) that had failed in stronger form in 1938.

There were veto overrides — the Volstead Act enforcing prohibition of liquor in 1919 (L-Wilson), a water quality act and an expensive highways act (Reagan), and an expensive farm bill (Bush).  Some presidents didn’t like certain measures but signed them anyway — the Esch-Cummins Transportation Act of 1920 reorganizing the railroads after World War I (L-Wilson) and the Hatch Act of 1939 barring political activity by federal employees (L-FDR).

Congress generated the Smith Alien Registration Act of 1940 (under FDR), the Landrum-Griffin Act regulating labor union practices in 1959 (L-Eisenhower), and Japanese-American reparations in 1988 (Reagan).  Statehood for Hawaii came in 1959 (Eisenhower).  Hashed out in back-and-forth bargaining were a civil rights act in 1960, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act deregulating banking in 1999 (Clinton), and a minimum wage hike, a GI bill for veterans and a refix of intelligence authority under Bush in 2007-08.

Foreign trade is an interesting area.  Its enactments have come more or less oblivious to political context — renewals of executive authority in 1940 (FDR) and 1988 (Reagan), an opening to China in 2000 (Clinton) and a nuclear deal with India in 2008 (Bush).  But the presidents had to press for these victories.  They didn’t just happen.

In a category by itself is the Nineteenth Amendment backing women’s suffrage, voted by Congress in 1919, a move Wilson and others promoted.

But now for the teeth-rattlers — the crisis legislation.  Nothing has been more significant.   What with Hitler on the march, history would look far different absent the huge U.S. defense buildup, the lifting of the Neutrality Act’s arms embargo and the peacetime draft voted in 1940 (L).  Those were the legislative preoccupations of FDR and everybody else in that year.  Also, the economy would look different absent the TARP bailout and associated measures in 2008 (Bush).

These crisis measures of 1940 and 2008 are a reminder that history can rise up and bite.  Events closed in on all the six presidents in their last two years.  The domestic economy was about as bad for Wilson in 1919-20 as for Bush in 2008.  Foreign policy kept shaping the agendas:  Wilson lost his Senate drive for the Versailles Treaty, FDR prepared for war, Eisenhower focused on Berlin, Reagan wound down the Cold War, Clinton waged a war in Yugoslavia and Bush dealt with Iraq and Afghanistan.

A fair amount of legislating has occurred in these last congresses, but it has had its own texture, and much of the policymaking of these years has been event-driven and non-legislative.  Lost in the dust has been any sense that governing consists of enacting a president’s domestic legislative program.  A different kind of reality has repeatedly won out.