The relationship between the presidency and Congress

The most important political relationship in the US is the one between the president and Congress. The annual struggle between the two largely determines the shape of US domestic and foreign policy.

Modern presidents, certainly from the early twentieth century, have set the political agenda and legislative programme. However, the nature of a separated system with shared powers means that the president cannot command congress and is dependent on the power of persuasion. The relationship with Congress is particularly important, as constitutionally the president requires the assent of Congress for all legislation, money, appointments and treaties.

A significant factor in this relationship is the traditional lack of party discipline in Congress. The separation of powers means that congressmen and -women stand on their own record for re-election, and their willingness to support the president will depend on how far that support will aid their own re-election prospects. This means that the discipline which characterises the UK House of Commons is absent from both the House and the Senate, and the president cannot automatically count on the support of even members of his own party. 

Biden's 100 Days

The separation of powers and presidential-congressional relations

The separation of powers significantly limits the president for three main reasons.

·     The president and Congress receive separate mandates Both branches feel that they have the right to govern, which means Congress is likely to be an active legislative branch, unwilling to simply respond to presidential demands. Indeed Congress can often claim a stronger mandate, as House elections renew its mandate every two years. Congressmen and Senators tend to vote according to their constituencies' views, rather than the wishes of the president. They will be reluctant to tow the party line in the face of hostile constituency views.

·     The president has limited patronage power over individual members of Congress Because the two branches are kept separate, the president does not work alongside a team within Congress, so cannot regularly promote or demote them. Unlike a British prime minister, the president will typically choose a Cabinet that lasts for the full four years of their presidency. If a congressional member of their own party will not support presidential policy requests, there is little a president can do.

There is a possibility of bipartisan control or divided government between president and Congress It is common for the president to be controlled by one party, while at least one chamber of Congress is controlled by the other. The separation of powers creates the likelihood of conflicting agendas, where compromise is inevitable if either side is to achieve their policy goals.

Agenda setting and shaping legislation

As a single executive office holder who is nationally elected, the president is in a stronger position than Congress to claim a national mandate to set the national policy agenda. This has become increasingly the case as radio and television have strengthened presidents' mandates. In 2016, President Trump ran a national campaign, selling his ideas to the country based on his political agenda, including the repeal of The Affordable Care Act, immigration reform and infrastructure expenditure. The mandate received made it easier for Trump to ensure that Congress debated his political priorities in 2017 and beyond.

Agenda setting is very important. It allows the president to act as the driving force of US politics. This is re-enforced by the president's position as both head of state and head of the government. It is this aspect of power and decision-making that led to the description of the president as 'Chief Legislator' — the dominant force in the legislative process. The president can dominate the agenda of US politics and can further influence legislation through veto power, signing a bill, speaking directly to Congress and meeting with individual members of the legislative body. The growth of the EXOP has helped the president to have high levels of authority, with access to arguably superior sources of information and advice. This has helped modern presidents to become the dominant force in the legislative process.

Factors which influence a president's success  with Congress

The level of presidential power is not static, but instead changes over their time in office according to a number of different factors.


High approval poll ratings give the president increased authority, and may create a political cost for members of Congress opposing a popular president. Conversely, poor ratings, certainly below 40%, will weaken the president's authority and impose limited costs at worst on congressional opposition. President Bush was at below 40% for much of his second term, and poor ratings blighted the prospects of his second-term agenda. This is why a president is most powerful in the first months of their first term which is called the 'honeymoon'.


There is no doubt that the president is in a much stronger position with his own party controlling both houses of Congress than not, and the larger the majority the better. However, although party control may be significant, it is certainly not sufficient to guarantee trouble-free passage for the president's legislation. Recent history suggests that Republican Congresses are generally more supportive of a Republican president than a Democratic Congress of a Democratic president. President Clinton from 1993 until 1995, and President Obama from 2009 until 2011,difficulties passing key legislation through chambers controlled by their own party. Trump could not persuade a Republican Congress 2016-18 to repeal Obamacare or pay for the boarder wall with Mexico.

As a generally more partisan chamber, the House will usually be more supportive of its own president than the Senate, though even there not always consistently. For example, although President Bush was able to rely on a solid House majority on economic issues such as tax cuts, it proved less solid on social issues such as Medicare and the No Child Left Behind legislation, and he was forced in both cases to rely on Democratic support.

The experience of the Clinton presidency from 1995 to 2001 with a Republican Congress also suggests divided government is by no means a complete disadvantage. It is inevitable that a president arriving in office with his 'own' Congress suffers from unrealistic expectations as to what is achievable in the 2 years of its life. With a Congress controlled by the opposition, the president benefits from reduced expectations and from no longer having to disappoint one or more elements of his coalition.

Importance of events

Unforeseen events can have an influential effect. The Oklahoma City bombings in 1995 occurred at a time when President Clinton was on the defensive against a Republican congressional leadership that was acting like a parliamentary majority, in the House at least. The bombing had the effect of putting the president centre stage and enabled him to regain the initiative. The pandemic changed the political landscape for Trump after 2019.

The election cycle and divided government

Presidential power is also affected by both mid-term elections and the next set of presidential elections.

First-term/second-term president

There is a marked contrast between the dynamic of the president's first and second terms. In the first term, members of Congress of the president's party are aware that, in all probability, the president will be the party's nominee in the next election, and, to some extent at least, public perception of his performance, and the existence or otherwise of presidential 'coat-tails', will have an impact on their own re-election prospects. They therefore have some incentive to make that perception positive.

This incentive largely disappears in the second term and the likelihood of their support diminishes. The presidential 'lame-duck' period is officially the president's period in office after the election of a new president in November until his inauguration on 20 January. However, it can start at any point in the second term, particularly after the midterms, which is the last election the president is able to influence significantly.

Mid-term elections Congressional elections in the middle of a president's term typically bring defeat to the president's party, which may lose seats and even their overall majority in one or more chambers of Congress. As a result presidents often experience a decline in power mid-way

through their term. The presidential party of Clinton, Bush and Obama all lost its overall majority in Congress during a mid-term election.

Lame duck presidency With presidents being elected in November but not replacing the incumbent president until January, the president in office finds it difficult to achieve policy goals. Politicians and the public often focus on the new president and their policy agenda. This term has been applied to the period before the election, especially in a president's final term when there is a great deal of focus on the presidential elections.

Case Study Presidents Obama and Trump versus Congress

In the 2010 mid-term elections, the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives. This led to the new Speaker, John Boehner, setting an alternative political agenda to the president's, based on economic austerity and major budget cuts.

The rival agendas of president and Congress clashed, resulting in gridlock, leading to the federal government being shut down in 2013. There was no agreement on the budget and many federal offices were closed until agreement could be found. Obama eventually had to accept budgetary cuts he would not have otherwise proposed.

While Obama set a political agenda of immigration reform after the 2012 election, Congress did not have to accept this agenda. Speaker Boehner refused to debate the immigration reform package, even though it had been passed by the Senate with the president's support.

In 2017 Trump was unable to pass the American Health care Act to maintain his promise of removing the Affordable Care Act. This shows that, even when a president has a majority in Congress, he cannot easily achieve legislative success. Opposition came from both conservative Republicans in the Freedom Caucus (who felt that the law did not go far enough in removing insurance regulations and cutting the deficit) and moderate Republicans, some representing districts which voted for Clinton as president (who were concerned about the loss of health insurance coverage for many people, as well as the projected increase in premiums). Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan were unable to build a coalition of Republican and moderate Democrat support in the House and had to withdraw the bill which was going to be even harder to pass in the Senate, given the slim Republican majority there

Case Study: Biden and Congress

How was Biden able to achieve this success give the high levels of partisanship in Congress?

He was willing to compromise- to the extent that many progressive d Democrats felt he had given up too much. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act focuses on investments in roads, railways, bridges and broadband internet, but it does not include investments that Biden has referred to as "human infrastructure," including money allocated for child care and tax credits for families. Democrats are looking to address those priorities separately.  

Biden is highly experienced in negotiating deals in Congress. His decades long career as a Senator provide him with personal relationships and knowledge of how Congress works. He is also learning from his experience as Vice President when he felt that Obama had not been ambitious enough. The vote, 69 to 30, was unusually bipartisan. The yes votes even included Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and 18 others from his party who shrugged off pressure by former President Donald J. Trump to derail it. 

Biden has used timing well. He is still in the honeymoon period of his presidency. In the first two years most presidents achieve their biggest legislative successes. Public opinion polls suggested the drive to upgrade America’s infrastructure, a product of months of negotiations between the White House and a bipartisan group of senators, was broadly popular. 

Biden was willing to split the traditional  understanding of infrastructure - roads and bridges from the newer 'social infrastructure- welfare, education. Traditional infrastructure has Republican support which means passage of a social infrastructure bill will be much harderRepublicans, who supported infrastructure investments, have dismissed the Democrats’ budget plan – part two of the two-track process – as a “socialist” waste of money and promised to oppose it. 

Presidents tend to be most successful in their first two years. 

Biden signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, fulfilling campaign promise and notching achievement that eluded Trump 15th November 2021 Donald Trump had repeatedly tried and failed to secure a bipartisan infrastructure deal. The infrastructure package is far short of the $2.25 trillion proposal that Biden unveiled in March. Included is $40 billion for bridge repair, replacement and rehabilitation, according to the bill text. The White House says it would be the single, largest dedicated bridge investment since the construction of the interstate highway system, which started in the 1950s. The deal also contains $16 billion for major projects that would be too large or complex for traditional funding programs, according to the White House. Some 20%, or 173,000 miles, of the nation's highways and major roads are in poor condition, as are 45,000 bridges, according to the White House.