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President Obama, the Senate, and the Polarized Politics of Treaty Making*


  • Direct correspondence to Jeffrey Peake 〈〉. Jeffrey Peake shall share all data and coding for replication purposes. A previous version of this article was presented at the 2011 American Political Science Association meetings in Seattle, WA.



We examine President Obama's use of international agreements as he pursued his foreign policy agenda during his first three years in office. While President Obama uses executive agreements at similar levels as previous presidents, he has used the treaty mechanism far less often. This presents an interesting puzzle: Why has Obama used so few treaties when his own party controls the Senate?


We address this puzzle by analyzing Obama alongside other presidents in analyses of treaty use and in presidents’ experience with treaty delay employing ordinary least squares (OLS) and maximum likelihood estimation regression techniques. We also utilize the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Obama's use of treaty priority lists as qualitative case studies.


The various findings together suggest that the rise of partisan polarization, including conservatives’ propensity to oppose significant treaties, factors into Obama's decisions to use treaties when completing major diplomacy.


The partisan context of the Senate provides a substantial constraint on presidents looking to cement important new foreign policies through international agreements.