Does the presidency moderate the president?

Author:Edwards, Barry

American voters are frequently reminded of the fact that only the president is elected by the entire country. As the nation's chief executive, the president is uniquely charged with representing the whole country. The president's broad perspective on policy issues is thought to be a defining characteristic of presidential leadership. This view emerged during ratification debates and has been consistently asserted by legal scholars, political scientists, and, most passionately, by U.S. presidents. The claim that the president sees issues from a different perspective than members of Congress do and therefore acts differently is widely asserted, but seldom, if ever, tested as an empirical proposition.

I study the effect of the presidency on presidents by comparing the legislative records of 23 individuals who served in both Congress and the White House. The question is whether someone acts differently when representing the entire nation than he does when representing a single state or congressional district. In this analysis, I am interested in political decisions that may be viewed as the expression of personal preferences subject to the constraints of politics. By observing these individuals' legislative records before and after they became presidents, we can determine whether the presidency moderated their behavior. (1)

It is important to know how the presidency is likely to affect the policy decisions of someone who aspires to be president. Candidates often claim they will think broadly and work with members of the opposite party, but are these empty campaign promises? Is a candidate's record in Congress a reliable indicator of how s/he will act as president? Selecting the president is perhaps the most important decision voters make and this research helps us evaluate how candidates might act in the White House. Additionally, to the extent that one is troubled by the polarization of the presidency, it is vital to properly diagnose the source of the problem: should we blame presidents or the presidency? Restoring centrist presidential leadership may not be a matter of picking the right person for the job, but rather reforming the presidency.

I begin by discussing two contrasting positive theories of presidential representation, noting the evidence in support of each view. Next, I show how these models of representation can be tested by analyzing the legislative records of 23 men who served in both Congress and the White House. Implementing this design requires extensive analysis of roll-call data to estimate the ideal points of presidents and members of Congress on the same scale. Having made these estimates, I find that the presidency effectively moderated presidents' policy preferences for more than a century, but no longer moderates presidents. Rather than moderate presidents, the modern presidency appears to amplify the partisan leanings of the president. The modern presidency compels presidents to assert relatively extreme preferences in the legislative process. I discuss some potential limitations of this analysis and conclude by stating the implication of this research.

The Unique Perspective Thesis

The differences between the national and local constituencies of presidents and members of Congress is thought to compel presidents to act differently than legislators. The unique perspective thesis is broadly advanced in modern analysis of the presidency. According to (now) Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan (2000, 2335), "[Bfecause the President has a national constituency, he is likely to consider, in setting the direction of administrative policy on an ongoing basis, the preferences of the general public, rather than merely parochial interests." Political scientists have similarly maintained that the president has a uniquely broad perspective on national issues. "Elected by a nationwide constituency," Bond and Smith (2008, 461) observe, "the president tends to see issues from a national perspective." Cronin and Genovese (1998, 198) also emphasize presidential moderation: "Once in office, presidents often bend over backwards in an attempt to minimize the partisan appearance of their actions."

Implicit in the unique perspective thesis is the influence of the median voter. Both presidents and members of Congress seek the median voter's support, but legislators' constituencies are smaller and may be homogeneous with special economic interests. The nation may be evenly divided between two major political parties, but some states and congressional districts overwhelmingly support one party or the other. For presidents, the median voter is the median of median voters, almost by definition more moderate than median voters in districts throughout the country.

In addition to facing a different electorate, presidents play a different role in the legislative process than members of Congress. Members often can vote yea or nay knowing their vote is not decisive while the president's desk is typically the last stop a bill will make. A president does not have as much latitude as a member of Congress to take political positions without worrying about policy consequences. The president may relent to congressional majorities rather than delivering a futile veto message. Historically, Congress has been the creative engine of government; the president, merely an agent of Congress tasked with enforcing laws (Thurber 2013; Shull 2000). According to Selinger (2014, 28), historic era presidents restrained their ambitions to preserve national unity: "The task of steering the ship of state between the partisan extremes and preventing polarizing divisions from escalating into violence was a crucial impetus for action for the antebellum presidents." The president's role discouraged his displaying overt partisanship and intruding upon the legislative process.

According to some presidency scholars, the Framers designed Article II of the U.S. Constitution to insulate the president from the influence of factions and expected the president to enforce laws for the benefit of the entire nation (Nzelibe 2005; Levy 2000, chap. 2). (2) This original vision of the presidency did not rely entirely upon individual largess, but rather attempted to impose enduring constraints on whomever came to occupy the office. The Constitution curbs zealous executives through regular elections, provisions for impeachment, and the checks and balances of other branches of government. (3)

The claim that the president advances broad national interests, rather than the special interests of narrowly defined groups is most passionately asserted by the president himself. The idea that the president operates on a higher plane than ordinary legislators is politically appealing (Rhodes 2014). "Most citizens abhor partisanship and prefer that the president be responsive to the broader public will, rather than simply those responsible for their election" (Wood 2009, 15). In the 2012 presidential election, both President Obama and Governor Romney emphasized the president's unique responsibility to represent the entire country. Obama told a national television audience, "you represent the entire country ... if you want to be president you've got to work for everybody, not just for some" (Walsh 2012). (4) Likewise, Governor Romney emphasized centrist leadership: "[W]e're going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle. I was in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat. I learned how to get along on the other side of the aisle" (National Public Radio 2012).

The Partisan Presidency

Emerging accounts of the presidency call the viability of the unique perspective thesis into question. The partisan model of representation holds that presidents represent their party more than the country as a whole. Rather than bend to the median voter's preferences, partisan presidents may use the national stage to influence mass opinion (Nzelibe 2005; Eshbaugh-Soha and Rottinghaus 2013; Wood 2009; Cohen 2015). In his recent book, The Myth of Presidential Representation, Wood (2009) argues that the president does not adapt his message to public opinion; instead, the president uses executive authority to shift public opinion in support of his policies. The partisan presidency may enable presidents to advance a bolder agenda than members of Congress.

The notion that presidents merely execute laws passed by Congress appears antiquated in the modern political era. The presidency and the political environment in which presidents operate have changed significantly over time. There are at least three reasons the presidency may no longer moderate presidents' political preferences. First, the institutionalization of the presidency enables presidents to vigorously assert their partisan preferences; in particular, presidents can announce their views on legislation early and often. Second, presidents have become the focal point of partisan opposition in Congress. Third, the polarization of American politics potentially undermines the median voter's moderate status. This article may not be well positioned to adjudicate among the possible causes of presidential partisanship, but these are developments that motivate this research.

During Franklin Roosevelt's administration, the executive branch swelled and assumed unprecedented power over foreign and domestic policies (Lowi 1985; King and Ragsdale 1988). Because institutions shape behavior, this dramatic evolution of the presidency may have changed how presidents lead. Institutional power is likely to embolden presidents. Modern presidents, supported by the executive bureaucracy, are policy leaders, rather than glamorous clerks (Neustadt 1991). Modern presidents lead their parties by defining and promoting partisan legislative agendas. Executive authority may make the president less likely to compromise for the sake of passing laws and more likely to assert partisan preferences to lead, rather than be led by, Congress.


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