The Public Cost of Unilateral Action

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Authors Andrew Reeves, Jon C. Rogowski
Paper Category
Paper Abstract Scholarship on democratic responsiveness focuses on whether political outcomes reflect public opinion but overlooks attitudes toward how power is used to achieve those policies. We argue that public attitudes toward unilateral action lead to negative evaluations of presidents who exercise unilateral powers and policies achieved through their use. Evidence from two studies supports our argument. In three nationally representative survey experiments conducted across a range of policy domains, we find that the public reacts negatively when policies are achieved through unilateral powers instead of through legislation passed by Congress. We further show these costs are greatest among respondents who support the president’s policy goals. In an observational study, we show that attitudes toward unilateral action in the abstract affect how respondents evaluate policies achieved through unilateral action by presidents from Lincoln to Obama. Our results suggest that public opinion may constrain presidents’ use of unilateral powers. Replication Materials: The data, code, and any additional materials required to replicate all analyses in this article are available on the American Journal of Political Science Dataverse within the Harvard Dataverse Network, at: Modern presidents have increasingly turned to unilateral means instead of legislation to address their policy priorities. Presidential candidates campaign on using unilateral powers, egged on by interest groups pressuring them for swift action, and presidents increasingly rely on executive actions to avoid the pitfalls of legislation. In 2016, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton campaigned on a “sweeping executive power agenda” in which she promised to circumvent Congress and enact policies ranging from gun control to strengthened financial regulations.1 This tact was fully supported by, among others, the Center for American Andrew Reeves is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1063, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130 ( Jon C. Rogowski is Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Harvard University, 1737 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 ( This research was generously supported by the Weidenbaum Center for the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. We are grateful to Jamie Carson, Dino Christenson, Jeff Cohen, Brian Crisp, David Doherty, Justin Fox, Will Howell, Gbemende Johnson, George Krause, Doug Kriner, Kenneth Lowande, Michael Lynch, Ken Mayer, Larry Rothenberg, Brandon Rottinghaus, Joel Sievert, Betsy Sinclair, Steve Smith, Sharece Thrower, and audiences at Purdue University, University of Georgia, University of Rochester, University of Virginia, Washington University in St. Louis, and the 2016 annual meetings of the Southern, Western, and Midwest Political Science Associations for helpful comments and discussion. Jonathan Allen, “Hillary Clinton’s Sweeping Executive Power Agenda Is Unprecedented,” Vox, October 8, 2015. http://www.vox. com/2015/10/8/9480589/hillary-clinton-executive-action. Sarah Rosen Wartell and John Podesta, “The Power of the President: Recommendations to Advance Progressive Change,” Center for American Progress, November 16, 2010. Podesta, the former head of the Center for American Progress, chaired the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Gregory Korte, “Trump’s Executive Actions Come Faster and in Different Forms Than Before,” USA Today, January 30, 2017. 97255592/. Progress, a liberal think tank, which urged the Democratic president to enact policy by bypassing Congress.2 In the first days and weeks of his administration, President Trump employed unilateral powers with aplomb, placing a travel ban on citizens of seven countries, weakening implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and reauthorizing the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines, all without so much as a congressional resolution in support. Whereas President Obama mostly issued executive actions privately and without fanfare, photo ops and signing ceremonies have accompanied the executive actions of President Trump.3 American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 62, No. 2, April 2018, Pp. 424–440 C ©2018, Midwest Political Science Association DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12340
Date of publication 2018
Code Programming Language R

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