Standard and Unilateral Powers Models of Presidential Power
The President doesn’t control gas prices but is blames for them
Americans tend to be unhappy with the president when gas prices rise.
Expectations outpace reality
The president is often seen as the stand-in for the government. In reality:
The president is not the government
The president is not the presidency
Voters and the media often exaggerate what presidents can do alone
Example of President is not presidency
Example of President is not Presidency, 2
“In Gun Bill Defeat, a President’s Distaste for Twisting Arms” NYT, 4/22/13
“Standard Model” of Presidential Power
Premise: the president is not as powerful as people think, particularly in domestic politics. Some reasons:
Cannot fully control own executive branch (president v. presidency)
Cannot control actions of other branches
Party polarization has made things worse (though also created some new opportunities)
Presidents oversell their own power, creating inflated expectations
Dissenting View: Unilateral Powers Model
Premise: the president’s unilateral powers have increased over time and will continue to do so, endangering democracy
Congressional inaction, fragmentation, polarization presidents doing more unilaterally, sometimes breaking norms or laws
Increased use of executive orders, rule-implementation
Example: immigration policy
Congress unwilling to push back
Increased unilateral action in foreign policy
Big Questions for Module
What are the sources of presidential powers?
“formal” and “informal”
How much control does the president have over the executive branch?
Where is the president weaker than people expect, and where he is strong?
The President’s Informal Powers I
the Modern State and the Bureaucracy
Formal Versus Informal Powers
Formal powers: those powers enumerated or implied by the constitution.
Informal powers: those powers the president has gained through changes in the federal bureaucracy, communication technology, and campaigning.
The constitutional presidency is not powerless, but on paper, the President is clearly second to Congress.
The growth in presidential power comes mainly from informal rather than formal powers.
Key changes increasing Informal Powers
Growing role for government growing executive branch
Delegation doctrine and implementation
Changes in media, communication, and culture
President as national symbol
Changing presidential campaign styles
The Institutional Presidency 1
The power of the presidency is tied to how much the federal government does.
19th century: some strong presidents, but weak presidency
Little or no executive branch
Andrew Jackson: Strong President, Weak Presidency
The Institutional Presidency 2
The increase in government responsibility after the New Deal required a regulatory state—a modern state part of a modern presidency. Some key concepts:
1. Delegation doctrine: Congress creates program that executive agency must carry out
Social Security checks
Environmental Protection Agency testing water, air
The Institutional Presidency 3
2. The creation of a robust executive branch also gives the president considerable power in implementing the law. Some examples:
Theodore Roosevelt, Sherman Anti-Trust Act
Obama v. Trump, Affordable Care Act
Obama v. Trump, immigration policy
The Institutional Presidency 4
3. Growing role of national government also means increasingly president has agenda-setting powers
State of the Union address
Presidential election campaigns
The Institutional Presidency 5
4. Executive orders: presidents have considerable power to reorganize the executive branch or change its rules and policies.
Often delegated by Congress, e.g. Trump’s 2019 “emergency acts” re: the Wall
Has the force of law
Can be overturned by law
(but may need veto override) or by the next President
Executive Order 9981: President Truman Desegregates the Armed Forces in 1948
Executive Order example: “Mexico City Policy”
Neustadt and Bargaining
5. Another important consequence of the institutional presidency: the president now has many resources for bargaining with members of Congress and interest groups.
Neustadt’s theory: presidents must bargain and convince other political actors that your interests are their interests
Presidents must use reputation, “prestige” and most importantly, bargaining:
Reputation: healthy fear of president needed, bargains are honored, detractors punished.
Prestige: how the public will assess Congressional interactions with president?
Bargaining: giving pork, appointments to members of Congress, providing positive media attention, opportunities for credit-claiming.
Under this view, a good president is a good politician
Trump and Neustadt
Trump is popular with most Republicans
Trump punishes detractors, particularly in his own party
Entered as popular vote loser
Reputation as erratic bargainer
Little incentive for Democrats to bargain
Trump sometimes bargains poorly, e.g. 2019 government shutdown over wall
Bargaining Has Gotten Harder
Since Neustadt wrote in the 1960s, bargaining has become more difficult.
Weaker party leaders/party control of members
More interest groups to bargain with
The President’s Informal Powers II
Technological and cultural change
Informal Powers and the Media
Increasing importance of communication
What developments have made presidential rhetoric a more powerful tool for achieving policy goals?
The advances in mass media (especially TV)
Growing expectations for agenda-setting
Growth in nationalism
Changing campaign norms
Theory: “Going Public”
This dynamic has led more recent presidents to push for their policy goals by what political scientist Sam Kernell calls “going public,” or making direct appeals to voters.
In some ways, the opposite of bargaining
Public opinion shifts
Congress changes position
Going Public: An Example
In 1981, Reagan’s budget/tax plans ran into opposition from the Democratic House (Senate was Republican).
Worked: enough Democrats in the House caved
President Reagan “Going Public”
Limits of Going Public
Congress hates it (they get nothing)
Looks bad if you fail
Your position must be “latently popular,” important to public
You must be popular
You may have to promise the moon
Recent Example: Trump and the Wall
Trump gave an Oval Office address on funding for border wall, January 9th, 2019.
While the speech was popular, with viewers, it did not change many minds.
Going Public was easier with fewer entertainment choices
Going Public was easier with fewer entertainment choices, 2
Today, many, many things to do rather than watch non-cable television.
Finally, absent true crises (e.g. 9/11), people likely to watch presidential address are high information, and more partisan
Or: those who are watching are least likely to change their opinion
Bottom line: going public is a limited tool
Summing up Neustadt and Kernell
In Neustadt’s theory, presidents must be politically skilled to be powerful (good at negotiating)
Kernell’s theory adds that presidents who communicate well can also be more powerful.
The Constitutional Presidency
The President and Article II of the Constitution
Creating the Presidency
Had to reject the Articles, which had no president
Institutional principles: “Energy” and “Unity” (Federalist #70)
Or: speed and accountability
How many presidents?
How long a term? How many terms?
The danger of dual executives
Formal Powers: Veto
Purpose of veto
Frequency over time
Norms versus rules in constitutional development
Jackson’s national bank veto first real “policy veto”
Jackson’s twelve vetoes attacked by his political opponents
Formal Powers: Appointment
The president appoints:
Their own staff/Cabinet members
Ambassadors to foreign countries
Question: how much deference should Senate show to president in confirmation votes?
Formal Powers: Treaties
Mix of legislative and executive functions
2/3rds of Senate required to ratify proposed treaty (why so high a threshold?)
President Wilson’s Failed Attempt to Bring US into League of Nations
Formal Powers: Pardon
Unchecked power—its purpose?
Ford and Nixon
G.W. Bush and Libby
The Surrender at Appomattox
President Ford Signs Nixon’s Pardon
Obama’s Pardon Power Frequency
Formal Powers: Commander-in-Chief
We’ll deal with this in a separate lecture at the end of the module.
(Foreign policy is the main area where the president is actually as strong as our expectations.)
Formal Check: Impeachment
Impeachment applies to 1) bribery, 2) treason, and 3) “high crimes and misdemeanors”
Third term not limited to crimes per se; could mean abuse of power, fleeing country during war
Understood not to include just dislike of policies
Impeachment (House, majority vote)
Conviction/removal (Senate, 2/3rds vote)
A political process, not a judicial one
Have political parties and polarization made impeachment impossible?