Presidential leverage and the politics of policy formulation.

Author:Ponder, Daniel E.
Position:Essay
 
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When Terry Moe (1985) threw "The Politicized Presidency," into the alleged backwater of presidency studies, its splash was immediate. Moe argued that the gap between public expectations heaped on the office of the presidency and the inability of individual presidents to meet those expectations (see also Lowi 1985; Huntington 1981) were linked to important developments in the institutional presidency, namely, the tendency for presidents to centralize policy making in the White House so as to more closely control policy content and to politicize the executive branch by placing presidential loyalists deep into the bureaucracy to influence implementation of those policies. Moe focused attention on institutional dynamics in the presidency, arguing that presidents react to the gap between public expectations and their capacity to meet those expectations by taking measures to control policy making and implementation.

Many scholars soon evaluated various components of Moe's framework (e.g., Lewis 2008; Ponder 2000; Rudalevige 2002; Rudalevige and Lewis 2005). At the same time, many scholars looked deeply into the public presidency (Edwards 1983; Kernell 2007). Few, however, explicitly linked these two areas of research. (1) Not even Moe stepped in to bridge the gap, though his argument explicitly implicates both the public component (expectations gap) as well as the institutional (centralization and politicization). Recently, Jeffrey Cohen (2009) suggested linking the worlds of public and institutional parts of the presidency as a way to move scholarship forward. I take up Cohen's challenge and focus on the institutional dynamic of the presidency in context of the president's leverage afforded him by the public.

In this article I link policy centralization to a concept of the public presidency I call "presidential leverage," developed in a series of papers (e.g., Ponder 1996, 2005). Webster's New World Dictionary (1982) defines leverage as "increased means of accomplishing some purpose" (812), and another as the "power to get things done," such as exerting power over people with an advantage that is not openly referred to (Microsoft Encarta Dictionary 1982). I apply these definitions to resources presidents derive from their public standing, and I discuss them in more detail below. Here, by way of introduction, presidential leverage reflects the public's assessment of the president relative to trust in government and systematizes a state of affairs wherein presidents can derive influence over American politics. This state of affairs reflects the part of the definition that holds leverage is "not referred to openly," as would be the case with presidential approval or constitutional prerogatives (Microsoft Encarta Dictionary 1982). The index of presidential leverage that I develop below signals when conditions are ripe for presidents to act, but it is decidedly not the same or even as obvious as when a president has high approval. (2)

The working thesis is that presidential leverage plays a significant role in influencing location of public policy making and that the linkage of this determination is a strategic short-term good for presidents. I argue that as presidential leverage increases, presidents will centralize less because their status in the public mind provides a "warrant" (Skowronek 1993) to reach outside the White House to comfortably take advantage of the policy expertise in the bureaucracy without losing control of that content. (3) For theoretical reasons developed below, these presidents are less likely to centralize, more likely to procure innovative and complex policies, and perhaps more likely to enjoy congressional success (though I do not directly test this final assertion). Additionally, I show that presidents are largely free from their party's internal moorings (though Democrats are more likely to centralize than are Republicans), and instead respond more acutely to public cues of their place in the American system and the resultant authority that conditions their strategic choices.

The article proceeds as follows. The next section develops the concept of presidential leverage. Next, I establish the mechanism linking the public presidency with the propensity of presidents to centralize policy making or delegate to the bureaucracy (Ponder 2000; Rudalevige 2002; Rudalevige and Lewis 2005). From this framework, I derive testable hypotheses. I then briefly describe the data and methods necessary to test the hypotheses and then present the findings. The final section concludes and offers thoughts on the Obama administration as an out-of-sample example.

The Public Context: The Concept of Presidential Leverage

The concept of presidential leverage considers presidents in context of public attitudes toward the American political system writ large. Perhaps no modern president understands this better than President Bill Clinton, who remarked that 1994 was one of the worst years of his life (Clinton 2004), culminating in the loss of Democratic control of Congress and the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich and the "Republican Revolution." Clinton's approval ratings fell from a reasonably healthy 54% in January to just 39% in September and was marked by the president's inability to pass much of his own program through a Democratic Congress. Nearly a half year after the election, April 18, 1995, a questioner asked the president if his voice would be hard to hear with so much attention heaped on the Republicans. In what must be considered a low point in his presidency, Clinton responded with a plaintive wail, protesting "The president is relevant. The Constitution gives me relevance" (Harris 2005, 178). (4)

Ironically, Clinton's political fortunes began to turn around immediately thereafter. Clinton, looking and sounding presidential, reassured a stunned, scared, and grieving nation, after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He also benefited from two government shutdowns when the public blamed both on the congressional Republicans. And with that, the president's political resurrection had begun. While in 1994 Clinton lacked political leverage (while many in his party abandoned him), he not only reclaimed it in 1995 and 1996, but the public's verdict conditioned his resurgence.

Presidents do have constitutional prerogatives such as the threat and employment of the veto power (which certainly helped Clinton in the fight over the budget and subsequent government shutdown), but they are not the only things (see Neustadt 1960; Howell 2003). Approval by itself is something presidents can seek, but the context in which they act relative to other institutions is telling. In this simple example, Clinton's approval was down dramatically in the space of a year, public confidence in the presidency declined 5% from 1993 levels, while confidence in Congress (never high) was up in 1994 and 1995, but declined slightly into 1996 (Ragsdale 1998, 250-51). But where public trust in government was down steadily in 1995 and 1996, Clinton's stock grew both personally (approval) and institutionally (confidence in the presidency). Thus, in terms of the president's place in the context of a larger picture of American politics, President Clinton's leverage increased beginning later in 1995, and in 1996 he was easily reelected. (5)

This example illustrates a number of dynamics that together make up presidential leverage. Naturally, presidential approval plays an important role. Presidents have come to believe that public opinion and approval is vital for their success (e.g., Brace and Hinckley 1992). Timing of policy proposals, speech making, travel schedules, and so forth, are often linked to presidential approval. While presidents do try to use public approval, recent research has shown that public approval has at best a mixed effect on areas of vital importance to presidents such as policy success in Congress (Bond and Fleisher 1990; Edwards 1989, 2003; Fett 1994; Peterson 1990; Sullivan 1990).

Approval as it is normally measured takes account of the president bereft of context, independent of competing institutions. Stimson (2004) shows that presidential approval tracks well with a number of different macro indicators, such as the public's perception of the economy. Still, there are times that presidential approval outpaces or lags behind similar readings of competing institutions, particularly Congress. In such circumstances, presidents can gain strategic advantage, or "leverage," over their competitor institutions in both the political and policy realms. (6) Because it measures the individual president's standing with the public, approval serves as the numerator in the measurement of presidential leverage.

Political trust is the denominator. As Elaine C. Kamarck has it, "the evolving American state is being powerfully shaped by negative attitudes towards government among Americans" (2009, 1). In a separated system (Jones 1994), trust provides the context for political action. Hetherington (2005) argues that trust is not simply a matter of public attitude toward government but has real policy implications. For example, political trust drives support for policies that target underprivileged sectors of society (e.g., the poor), and if trust is lacking, the political will to address issues, such as race, health care reform, and spending, is similarly lacking. (7)

Levels of political trust have varied over time. Most agree that trust was reasonably high through the mid-1960s but fell afterward during Vietnam and Watergate. While some argue that trust waxes and wanes with factors such as the economy and events (e.g., Stimson 2004), others find trust remains persistently low, though subject to a fair amount of variation (Kamarck 2009; Keele 2007; Nye, Zelikow, and King 1997). Even if trust stays low, presidential leverage reflects the notion that presidents can find themselves at low or high points...

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