Is Obama "unbound"? That's what Tim Egan recently suggested at the New York Times, writing that the president is "acting like a man who’s been given the political equivalent of a testosterone boost." Facing no more elections, and no longer worried about protecting his party's majority in either chamber of Congress, Obama has been "liberated by defeat, becoming the president that many of his supporters hoped he would be."
Egan's not the only one to notice. Remarking on Obama's recent announcement of the dramatic shift in Cuba policy, Stephen Walt tweeted, "See what presidents can do in foreign policy when they no longer need to get elected & therefore worry less about special interest groups?" Or, as journalist Hayes Brown remarked while watching Obama's Friday press conference, "'I don't give a fuck' Obama is my favorite Obama ever."
Even presidents that can't run again face political pressures, the same sorts of pressures that affect their their whole careers.
Indeed, it was hard not to watch that press conference or any of the president's other recent actions and get a sense that he's seemed pretty gleeful, energetic, and creative lately. Is there something to this idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is "unbound," free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to voters and special interests?
Political scientists and economists have examined this question through investigations of legislative "shirking"—the idea that a legislator might vote differently from her constituents' preferences once she's no longer able to run for re-election. The evidence for shirking is mixed. Keith Poole and Thomas Romer found that legislators largely stick to their voting patterns, even after they're ineligible to run again. Jeff Jenkins and Tim Nokken examined the behavior of members of Congress in lame duck sessions and similarly found little evidence of shirking. A study by Lawrence Rothenberg and Mitchell Sanders a few years back, however, examined retiring U.S. House members and found some evidence that they actually did begin to vote differently, and less frequently, when they were on the way out. But on balance, the literature doesn't find much support for the idea that unbound politicians change their behavior to a large degree.
If politicians aren't actually changing their political behavior once they're ineligible for re-election, what explains their consistency? Well, even presidents that can't run again face political pressures, the same sorts of pressures that affect their their whole careers. They're part of a political party and usually want to see it succeed. They have a legacy they want to see protected. They have heirs and proteges they want to see have strong careers.
For an example of all this, note Jonathan Bernstein's recent post about Obama's shift in Cuba policy. Obama wasn't doing this because he suddenly didn't care about special interests. Indeed, the normalization of Cuba policy was very smart Democratic politics, appealing to a number of important Democratic-leaning interests, and may also be a boon to Hillary Clinton's presidential prospects in 2016.
Beyond that, the idea that Barack Obama hid who he truly was through eight years in the Illinois Senate, four years in the U.S. Senate, and six years in the White House, and only now finally gets to reveal his true self to the world seems a bit silly. Parties are pretty good at recruiting people who will be faithful to the positions they care about. Yes, occasionally a politician will stray from the positions he first espoused, but those folks are rare. If you've gotten as far as the presidency, chances are you're the sort of politician that parties know they can depend on to stick to your long-held viewpoints, whether your electoral circumstances change or even if you face no election at all.