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Understanding divided government

For the second time in the past two weeks, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has knocked President Obama for failing to pass his agenda through Congress. 

"The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership," she wrote. 

Dowd isn't alone. At the president's news conference on Tuesday, ABC's Jonathan Karl asked, "Do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?"

And in First Thoughts yesterday, we wrote about how the president's priorities -- outside of immigration reform -- have stalled.

But here's the simple truth for all political writers and armchair pundits to understand: This is what happens when you have divided government.

Indeed, the greatest legislative achievements in American history have come when one party controls the White House and Congress -- usually by overwhelming numbers.

In the 1930s, as Congress was passing Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Democrats held between 69 and 75 Senate seats, as well as 300-plus House seats.

In 1965, during Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, Democrats controlled 68 Senate and 290-plus House seats.

Talk about supermajorities.

Even the top legislative accomplishments under Obama -- the stimulus, the health-care law, financial reform, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal -- came when Democrats held 60 Senate seats (or close to it) and a majority in the House.

But when there's divided government? That's typically a recipe for gridlock.

The exceptions have come when at least one party has had an incentive to compromise -- think Bill Clinton signing welfare reform into law before his re-election, or the tax cuts under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (who doesn't like tax cuts?), or immigration reform (so far) under Obama. 

They've also come when it's an absolute necessity to compromise -- think the Social Security fix during the 1980s, the debt-ceiling deal in 2011, and the fiscal-cliff deal at the end of 2012.

But that's about it under divided government. And Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) suggested why in a recent talk explaining the defeat of the gun-control compromise he co-authored. “In the end it didn’t pass because we’re so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it."

So why is there this misperception about a president's powers on domestic policy when there's divided government?

Much of it comes from the president's dual roles -- as both head of state (think a king or queen) and head of government (think prime minister or chancellor). As head of state, the president rallies the nation during times of adversity, consoles it during times of tragedy, and tries to shape public opinion when he can.

But as head of government, the president's powers are limited, especially when it comes to domestic policy. As the late academic Richard Neustadt put it, the president has the power to persuade, cajole, and bargain; outside of that, his powers in domestic affairs are surprisingly weak. 

And that's particularly true when a president's party doesn't control all the branches of government.

As Maureen Dowd said about a current Oval Office occupant: "The ... Presidency that began with such grandiose designs has become so becalmed, so shrunken, so defeated, so aimless, so anomic, so technical that George Bush now looms as a giant who bestrode the earth."

She wrote that about Bill Clinton in 1997 -- at another time of divided government just after a president's re-election.