Richard PiousAs an expert on national politics and the American presidency, how do you assess the election of Barack Obama?

This is a huge historic moment. Our nation has elected a president with African ancestry. For a country with a legacy of slavery, the progress we’ve made is real, not just symbolic. And for me, the best thing about the 2008 presidential race is this: After you compare the competence and intelligence of the Obama campaign with the incompetence and stupidity that characterized the McCain-Palin campaign, the idea of white supremacy should be put to rest.

Do you consider the election historic in other ways? What about Obama’s pledge of profound change?

This was an election about change. But it’s change from a Republican administration to a Democratic one. It’s not a plebiscitary change from the politics of the past to leadership by “THE ONE.” The Democratic Party is an established, ongoing organization—not a movement—and we have government by party, not by plebiscite. If we’d elected one of the other Democrats seeking the party’s nomination, we wouldn’t have seen much of a difference in that candidate’s victory margin over the Republicans, and we wouldn’t be seeing much of a difference in the new president’s cabinet choices and policy proposals. Even before Obama and McCain were nominated, the mathematical models developed by political scientists for the November election were accurately predicting a Democratic victory, and many of them, such as Robert Erickson’s at Columbia University, accurately forecast the margin of victory. The incumbent party loses when it has a drawn-out unpopular war combined with severe recession. This isn’t rocket science.

In this election, the Democrats gained seven points over the Republicans in party identification. And those gains involved a lot of groups, including Hispanics, Asians, and young voters. The election-day turnout rates for Hispanics, young people, and African-Americans also increased greatly. But for political scientists, this wasn’t the “landslide” that journalists are proclaiming. It may yet indicate a realignment and a new period of long-term Democratic dominance. We won’t know this for another decade, after two more presidential elections and after seeing how long the Democrats hold onto their Congressional majority. After 1964 the Republicans regrouped and won the election in 1968; similarly after 1976 Republicans won the White House in 1980.

 Do you agree that the crises Obama’s inheriting and his personal strengths create an opportunity for him to become one the country’s greatest presidents—like FDR?

Obama resembles FDR in the economic conditions he faces, in the dominant position of his party in the House and Senate, and in his powers of communication and good reasoning. Many people forget that FDR didn’t campaign on what became the New Deal; he promised if elected to cut federal expenditures by 10 percent. But his mind was open, as is Obama’s. And FDR got a lot through in the first two years, when a new president with healthy margins of Congressional support has a chance to make big policy breakthroughs. Obama will be able to do the same.

Typically, after two years and a midterm election, the president’s party loses Congressional seats, and the administration moves into a new phase political scientists call “regime maintenance,” in which the White House tries to hold together a coalition in both Congress and the general electorate. For example, the 1964 Johnson landslide was followed by policy breakthroughs, but after the 1966 midterm election, a lot of LBJ’s remaining Great Society legislation stalled in Congress. In FDR’s second term, the president was weakened by the Court-Packing Crisis of 1937, which empowered a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats to block him.

So, for even more reasons that most people realize, Obama must move quickly.

Yes, and unlike FDR, who refused to work with Hoover, Obama began to gear up before his inauguration, and although he says there is “one president” at a time, in effect there is a “co-presidency” in developing policy for the economic recovery. On January 20, after being in session for two weeks, the Democratic Congress will have a bunch of measures for the president to sign. Much of this legislation has been incubating in Congress for years.

What about executive power? Many want to see Bush’s directives overturned, but also want to see the restoration of a democratic balance of power.

Executive power is not a partisan issue. The Republicans didn’t create the imperial presidency, and Democrats have used executive power enormously. Presidents with large majorities in Congress have less need to rely on executive power, or what’s called prerogative power, in the broader sense. Those presidents use the veto less, and make less use of signing statements that reserve the president’s so-called “right” not to enforce provisions of a bill after he signs it into law that he views as unconstitutional, or to interpret it as he wishes rather than in terms of congressional intent.

As for new rules the Bush administration is creating in its final months, it will take a certain amount of time for the Democratic administration and Congress to change or get rid of them. But Congress passed a law that allows Congressional action on a lot of new regulations. And President Obama can recommend to Congress that it rescind regulations under its own mechanisms in that statute.

What about the Obama administration’s influence on the third branch of government? What changes do you expect to see on the Supreme Court?

On the Supreme Court, most of the conservative appointees are younger and the liberals are older—so how much the tenor of the court will be changed is not clear in the short term. We will see a lot of Democratic appointments on the appeals courts, which will reverse some of the conservative majorities on those courts, move them into better ideological balance, and alter the case law that moves up to the Supreme Court. Same thing with the district courts: if Obama serves two terms, he’ll be able to appoint close to half of the judges at that level, given the turnover on the bench.

-Anne Schutzberger, photograph by Brandon Schulman

This conversation took place in December 2008.