A balance sheet of 'political capital'

U.S. President Barack Obama waves to supporters after his victory speech at McCormick Place Nov. 6, 2012 in Chicago, Ill.

This is what President George W. Bush told reporters two days after he won a second term: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital.  And now I intend to spend it.”

Political capital can be very valuable. It gives a politician a sense that the public has his back, that he can flex a little more muscle when he is negotiating with Congress.

But as President Bush learned, political capital isn’t something a two-term president gets automatically.

“It’s not a given, just by winning,” say Brian Brox, a professor of political science at Tulane University. “It’s how you win.”

A politician can get political capital if he wins by a lot -- think Ronald Reagan, in 1984, or Bill Clinton, in 1996.

President Bush’s margin of victory wasn’t huge, and let’s just say he may have ... mis-underestimated how little political capital he had. His push to revamp Social Security went nowhere.

According to Alan Abramowitz, who teaches political science at Emory University, “Political capital is in the eye of the beholder.”

That makes it a really risky asset. A politician can spend more than he actually has.

Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, says a president gets an extra boost of political capital if his party controls both the House and the Senate.  So where does this leave President Obama?

“Wow, I don’t really think the bank account of the president’s political capital is really restocked in any measurable way,” Binder says, adding it is hard to say what President Obama would do with the political capital he does have. “There was no big, bold presidential agenda laid out in this campaign.”

And Republicans held onto their majority in the House. They’ve got some political capital of their own. So who has more? We’ll find out in the coming days as the debate heats up over what to do about the “fiscal cliff” -- automatic spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to kick in at the end of the year.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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