Unilateral presidential policy making and the impact of crises.

Author:Young, Laura

The Civil War was a tumultuous time in U.S. history. Not only was the young nation in the grips of a bloody war, but it was in a battle with its own brethren. Though hundreds of thousands of individuals lost their lives, thousands gained their freedom. In addition, the war restructured institutions in the United States, affecting the moral, social, and political landscape of the country. Important for those interested in the office of the presidency, it enlarged the scope of presidential powers.

In order to protect the government from potential threats during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus challenging Congress's sole right to make this determination. (1) Despite this precedent, however, Lincoln commanded his troops to suspend habeas corpus to any individual suspected of conspiring against the federal government. One of his generals, George Cadwallader, even refused Chief Justice Taney's grant of habeas corpus for suspected conspirator John Merryman, stating, "the privilege had been suspended by the President" further legitimizing Lincoln's expanding power. Eventually the Habeas Corpus Act of 1863, passed during the midst of the crisis, would officially grant this right to the President (Fisher 1888). Clearly, though, this privilege was not one inherent to the office of the presidency but one that grew over time.

The Founding Fathers left the power of the executive branch vague and, whether intentional or not, open for interpretation. From George Washington who refused to turn over documents regarding the Jay Treaty, all the way to George W. Bush's controversial U.S.A. Patriot Act, presidents have tested the bounds of their power, often succeeding in expanding them even further (Pious 2007, 68). The result is a much more powerful office than our forefathers had in mind.


A president looks for chances to increase his power (Moe and Howell 1999). Windows of opportunity provide those occasions. These openings create an environment where the president faces little backlash from Congress, the judicial branch, or even the public. Though institutional and behavioral conditions matter, domestic and international crises play a pivotal role in aiding a president who wishes to increase his power (Howell and Kriner 2008, 475). These events overcome the obstacles faced by the institutional make-up of government. They also allow a president lacking in skill and will or popular support the opportunity to shape the policy formation process. In short, focusing events increase presidential unilateral power.

Many scholars have argued a president has the ability to act unilaterally if certain institutional factors are amenable, if the popularity of the president is high, whether or not the president centralizes or decentralizes the policy-making process, or even if there is legislative gridlock or divided government (Canes-Wrone and Shotts 2004; Howell 2003; Neustadt 1990; Rudalevige 2002; Wildavsky 1966). Although these arguments provide insight into foundations of presidential power, they neglect the importance of exogenous events. What happens if institutional factors are not agreeable for the president to force his agenda, or if public opinion surrounding the president is not favorable, or if the president is unable to successfully use his power of persuasion? Are uncharismatic leaders facing unfavorable institutional conditions powerless? Because the perfect environment that fosters unilateral power happens infrequently, the president must seize other opportunities to achieve his goals.

I argue focusing events present the president with a unique opportunity to shape the policy agenda. Not all crises are the same, however. Consistent with Aaron Wildavsky's (1966) "Two Presidencies" theory, a foreign policy crisis will likely open the largest window for the president. A natural disaster or economic crisis, events typically falling under the realm of domestic policy, will not carry the same impact.

The inclusion of a crisis measure is an important addition to the literature. Although many scholars found institutional and behavioral factors influence presidential power, little is known about crises. Moreover, the studies that do examine them tend to focus on foreign policy crises or limit the descriptive power of natural disasters to explaining agenda setting. Comprehensive variables that capture different types of crises are also necessary.

To test my theory, I conduct a time series analysis using a model employed by William Howell (2003) in his book Power without Persuasion, which I modified to include the addition of foreign policy, economic, and natural disaster crises. I hypothesize institutional variables, traditionally considered to impact the ability of the president to establish policies on his own (e.g., divided government or majority party impact), have little or no influence when certain types of crises occur. I also expect to find that foreign policy crises increase the president's success in unilateral policy making more so than economic crises or natural disasters.

Because an economic crisis has a direct negative effect on individuals, I hypothesize this type of crisis will decrease a president's unilateral power since the public might hold the president responsible for its plight. Finally, literature suggests the public views a natural disaster that occurs infrequently, like an avalanche for instance, as a crisis. An event such as a tornado--which occurs quite frequently--becomes a "routine matter" (Birkland 1997, 56-37). Since frequent events do not meet the criteria for classification as a crisis, and because there are many types of natural disasters occurring at different rates, I expect to find mixed results depending upon the frequency of and total affected by each event.

The findings indicate foreign policy crises increase the unilateral power of the president. Additionally, institutional variables, such as divided government and majority party, are important during times of status quo but become less so when a foreign policy crisis occurs. Natural disasters provide mixed results. Though many appear significant, their magnitude is so minimal as not to matter. The only exception is epidemic outbreaks, which has a marginal impact on unilateral power. Economic conditions have no effect.

Why Crisis Matters

During periods of crisis, the time available to make decisions is limited. Because the decision-making process is often arduous and slow in the legislative branch, it is not uncommon for the executive branch to receive deference during a crisis because of its ability to make swift decisions. The White House centralizes policies during this time, and presidents seize these opportunities to expand their power to meet policy objectives. Importantly, presidents do so with limited opposition from the public or other branches of government (Howell and Kriner 2008). In fact, despite the opposition presidents often face when centralizing policies, research shows policies formulated via centralized processes during times of crisis receive more support from Congress and the American people (Rudalevige 2002, 148-49).

For several reasons, a crisis allows a president to promote his agenda through unilateral action. First, a critical exogenous shock shifts attention and public opinion (Birkland 2004, 179). This shift is a phenomenon known as the "rally round the flag" effect (Mueller 1970). The rally effect occurs because of the public's increase in "its support of the president in times of crisis or during major international events" (Edwards and Swenson 1997, 201). Public support for the president rises because he is the leader and, therefore, the focal point of the country to whom the public can turn for solutions. Additionally, individuals are more willing to support the president unconditionally during such times, hoping a "united front" will increase the chance of success for the country (Edwards and Swenson 1997, 201).

As a result, a crisis or focusing event induces an environment that shifts congressional focus, dispels gridlock and partisanship, and increases positive public opinion--each of which is an important determinant for successful expansion of presidential power (Canes-Wrone and Shotts 2004; Howell 2003). In other words, a crisis embodies key elements that the institutional literature deems important for presidential unilateral policy making.

The president's ability to focus attention on a particular issue is also of extreme importance if he wishes to secure support for his agenda (Canes-Wrone and Shotts 2004; Edwards and Wood 1999; Howell 2003; Neustadt 1990). The role the media play is pivotal in assisting a president in achieving such a result because of its ability to increase the importance of issues influencing the attention of policy makers and the priorities of viewers. Although it is possible a president can focus media attention on the policies he wishes to pursue through his State of the Union addresses or by calling press conferences, his abilities in this regard are limited, and the media attention he receives is typically short lived (Edwards and Wood 1999, 328-29).

High-profile events, on the other hand, are beneficial because they allow the president to gain focus on his agenda. This occurs because the event itself generates attention from the media without presidential intervention. Thus, the ability of crises to set the agenda and shift media and public attention provides another means for overcoming the constraints placed upon the president's ability to act unilaterally.

Finally, Rudalevige finds support that a crisis increases the success of presidential unilateral power even if the policy process is centralized. A crisis allows little time to make decisions. As a result, "the president and other elected officials are under pressure to 'do something' about the problem at hand" (2002, 89, 148). Because swift action is...

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