Brandice Canes-Wrone ’93, the Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, has written extensively on the presidency and elections, including “Who Leads Whom? Presidents, Policy, and the Public.” She spoke to PAW three days after the election.
How are the president and the Congress going to get along this term? Can we expect more dysfunction?
Both the president and Speaker Boehner are likely to try to make moves to come together. The president is no longer running for re-election. He wants to cement his place in history. To really cement it, he’s going to have to take on some of the big challenges we’re facing, including the fiscal challenges. So the challenge is for Boehner to lead his members and for Obama to lead his party — because it’s not necessarily the case that his incentives will be aligned perfectly with those of [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid and [House minority leader] Nancy Pelosi.
What issues will be the great test for them beyond the so-called fiscal cliff?
I think immigration will be an interesting issue to watch. The Republicans have made noises that they are willing to work on immigration. In each party, there are constituents who would really like to see immigration reform, and then a set of constituents who are concerned about large-scale immigration reform, particularly for lower-income workers. There are different reasons for the opposition in each party.
What is Boehner’s motive to work with Obama?
On immigration, the Republicans want to do better with Latinos. It’s an electoral motive. Remember that Reagan had a bill that in today’s terms would be called an amnesty bill. People — not only conservatives, but also Democrats and independents — too easily forget that history.
In terms of the fiscal issues, the challenges are so big and the consequences so dire, I think that Boehner recognizes that we have to do something. And not just Boehner. Then it just becomes: What should we do? Both parties have an incentive not to take us over some sort of cliff.
How else might Obama’s second term be different?
Second-term presidents tend to shift more to the unilateral or executive side. So policy tools like executive orders tend to become more important. They often focus more on foreign policy because it’s something they can do unilaterally — I would not be surprised to see Obama’s foreign policy shift ever so slightly toward the Obama of the primaries [of 2008]. One of the surprises to many of his supporters is that, once in office, he has seemed not all that distinct from your typical Republican president in foreign policy. I think some of that was re-election oriented. I think one thing we’ll see is a greater emphasis on disarmament. That was not on the forefront of the agenda in the first term for fear of being seen as soft on national security.
What will it take to move politics away from the extremes?
I wish I had an answer. The politicians who, both at the state level and the national level, move beyond polarized politics tend to be the executives, the governors and presidents. It’s not fair to say it’s all up to Obama, but a president who is willing to take on the polarization that exists in Congress and who makes that a priority can do a lot. Here the smart money is on its not happening in the immediate future.
Did money make a difference in this election?
Both sides were evenly matched, so it’s an election where the money cancels itself out. One thing that Republicans and Democrats will have to rethink — and this relates more to early voting — comes from how so much of the voting is moving ahead. There’s a question about whether the way in which the conventions were scheduled disadvantaged Romney because he couldn’t spend the money he had raised for the general election until just a few weeks before some people were going to the polls to vote. Romney had to spend a lot of his primary donations in the spring, so he was at a big spending disadvantage in July and August, and that’s when Obama defined him.
— Interview conducted and condensed by Merrell Noden ’78