U.S. Presidency Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Theory

III. Applications and Empirical Evidence

A. The Transition

B. Staffing the Cabinet

C. Staffing the White House

IV. The President and the Institutions of Government

A. The President and Congress

B. The President and the Executive Branch

C. The President and the Courts

V. Policy Implications

A. Social Policy

B. Economic Policy

C. Foreign Policy

VI. Future Directions

VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction

The phrase the president of the United States often conjures grand and expansive titles: leader of the free world or most powerful man in the United States. These labels belie the truth that the president’s power is nuanced and derived from the Constitution, from congressional statute, and from aggrandizement by individual presidents. This research paper explores the presidency and the executive branch, first examining the various theoretical perspectives on the sources of presidential and executive branch power. In this section, different academic disciplines that help shed light on this institution are also considered. The paper next turns to what political scientists have learned about the president with regard to governing and policy making. Finally, this research paper concludes with thoughts about the direction of the study of the presidency.

II. Theory

In many ways, the powers of the presidency are contradictions born out of the constitutional debates among the framers. Informed by their experiences of tyranny under King George, many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted no executive at all, or at least one with very limited powers. It is striking that despite the clear deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation (which had no executive branch), discussions of their failings did not include the absence of a chief executive. One of the pressing debates of the convention was whether to have a singular or plural executive and whether the powers and responsibilities invested in the executive branch should be divided across more than one office. This option would have weakened the presidency, thus allaying the fears of those who saw danger in a powerful chief executive. Indeed, some have argued that the term president was chosen because it was an innocuous title, likened to a presiding officer who would exercise little independent power (McDonald, 1994).

A hallmark of our republic is the separation, dispersion, and sharing of power among the three branches of government. An examination of the U.S. Constitution illustrates this. Although the president has the power to command the military, to enter into treaties, and to make executive branch appointments, those powers are constrained by Congress’s ability to declare war and the Senate’s ratification, advice, and consent roles regarding treaties and appointments, respectively. The framers spent half of the relatively short article on the presidency (1,023 words as compared with 2,267 words in Article I on the legislature) discussing how the president would be selected for the office and when a president could be removed from it.

This description of the office probably sounds foreign to a casual observer of the contemporary U.S. presidency. The office and the public’s expectations of it have grown substantially since the nation’s early days. This growth can be attributed to the aggrandizement by individual presidents, by ceding of power by congressional statute, and by the post–New Deal expansion of the role of government.

Though the modern presidency is marked from the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents before him(see Table 1) articulated their views on presidential power. Some, like William Howard Taft (1909–1913), viewed the president’s power to be strictly derived from Article II of the Constitution. In his view, the executive’s power was limited only to what was prescribed by the Constitution (Taft, 1916). At the other extreme was President Richard Nixon (1968–1974), who famously remarked in an interview with David Frost on May 20, 1977, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal” (Winther, 2008).

Other presidents, such as Theodore Roosevelt (1901– 1909), have taken a moderate view, arguing that presidents have a duty to take any actions that are in the country’s interests, so long as they are not explicitly prohibited by the Constitution (Roosevelt, 1913).

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, faced with the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II, presided over an enormous growth spurt of the federal government that substantially increased the executive branch scope in the lives of ordinary Americans. Government helped to create a permanent web of social and economic programs (unemployment benefits, social security, and aid to the poor) that the executive branch would administer. Combined with congressional action in 1921 to create the Bureau of the Budget, which allowed the president to set the parameters for budget debates with Congress, this era saw a substantial growth of the executive branch. Roosevelt’s administration has become the benchmark by which future presidents’ productivity has been judged. In this era of the modern president, political scientists generally have pointed to the extraconstitutional powers of the president as his most significant. Arguably the most influential book on the presidency, Richard Neustadt’s (1960) Presidential Power argues that the power of the president is the power to persuade. Neustadt’s hypothesis is that presidents can greatly increase the likelihood of policy success by attending to their professional reputations with other political elites in Washington, D.C., and to their public prestige.

Prior to Neustadt’s (1960) work, political scientists largely focused on the limited constitutional powers of the president in trying to understand the office. It is not hyperbole to say that Neustadt fundamentally changed the way scholars think about the office. His work illuminated the path to a number of rich veins of research, for example of congressional–presidential bargaining.

Another perspective that focuses on the personal presidency draws on political psychology. There are a number of approaches. Psychobiography examines biographical information about the president to develop a psychological profile to predict his behavior. One of the most well-known (and criticized) of these approaches is The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House by James David Barber (1972). Barber argued that characteristics of the president’s core personality, such as his style of doing the tasks of his job, his worldview about the great issues of his day, and his character or approach to life, combine to influence his being the president. Most of the attention and criticism of his argument has been focused, though, on his typology of presidential character. Barber finds two primary dimensions: the level of energy a president brings to life (active or passive) and the extent to which a president enjoys the job (positive or negative). These two dimensions produce four dominant types: active positive, active negative, passive positive, and passive negative. Barber’s typologies have been criticized as being overly simplistic and difficult to measure consistently.

Contrast these presidency-focused heuristics with those that examine the institution or historical epoch of the presidency. Neoinstitutionalism focuses on the resources for and constraints on all presidents. This school of thought takes the perspective that all presidents face these challenges and focuses on these factors as explanations for presidential behavior.

One such work emphasizes the moment in which presidents find themselves. Stephen Skowronek (1997) argues that presidents are constrained by the relationships their policies have to the dominant partisan regimes. He suggests that presidential possibilities and achievements must be seen through the lens of history, what he calls political time. Political time is a function of partisan eras. A dominant partisan regime can be vulnerable to change, or it can be resilient. Similarly, a president might stand in opposition to the regime or be affiliated with it. Combine these two dimensions, and one understands the possibilities for leadership that open for a president, regardless of his or her own personal qualities. For example, a president who stands in opposition to a vulnerable regime (Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt) or one who is affiliated with a dominant one (Teddy Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson) has prima facie greater opportunities than one who is opposed to a dominate regime (Richard Nixon) or is affiliated with a vulnerable one (Jimmy Carter).

Table 1. U.S. Presidents in Chronological Order

  1. George Washington 1789-1797
  2. John Adams 1797-1801
  3. Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809
  4. James Madison 1809-1817
  5. James Monroe 1817-1825
  6. John Quincy Adams 1825-1829
  7. Andrew Jackson 1829-1837
  8. Martin Van Buren 1837-1841
  9. William Henry Harrison 1841
  10. John Tyler 1841-1845
  11. James Knox Polk 1845-1849
  12. Zachary Taylor 1849-1850
  13. Millard Fillmore 1850-1853
  14. Franklin Pierce 1853-1857
  15. James Buchanan 1857-1861
  16. Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865
  17. Andrew Johnson 1865-1869
  18. Ulysses S. Grant 1869-1877
  19. Rutherford B. Hayes 1877-1881
  20. James Garfield 1881
  21. Chester A. Arthur 1881-1885
  22. Grover Cleveland 1885-1889
  23. Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893
  24. Grover Cleveland 1893-1897
  25. William McKinley 1897-1901
  26. Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909
  27. William Howard Taft 1909-1913
  28. Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921
  29. Warren Harding 1921-1923
  30. Calvin Coolidge 1923-1929
  31. Herbert Hoover 1929-1933
  32. Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933-1945
  33. Harry S Truman 1945-1953
  34. Dwight D. Eisenhower 1953-1961
  35. John F. Kennedy 1961-1963
  36. Lyndon Johnson 1963-1969
  37. Richard Nixon 1969-1974
  38. Gerald Ford 1974-1977
  39. James Carter 1977-1981
  40. Ronald Reagan 1981-1989
  41. George H. W. Bush 1989-1993
  42. William J. Clinton 1993-2001
  43. George W. Bush 2001-2009
  44. Barack H. Obama 2009-2017
  45. Donald J. Trump 2017-

III. Applications and Empirical Evidence

The race for the presidency, through the partisan nomination season and the general election, is a marathon. The victorious president-elect would be forgiven for the understandable urge to take a long vacation. However, as presidents-elect and their staffs well know, the weeks immediately following the election are a period where crucial decisions are made. These staffing and organizational choices, coupled with the president-elect’s ability to marshal the perception of a mandate, can set the stage for a successful first few months in office.

A. The Transition

All presidents wish to claim a mandate, though the concept is an illusive one. Electoral landslides (Johnson over Goldwater in 1964, Nixon over McGovern in 1972, or Reagan over Carter in 1980) are seen as clear signals from the electorate. These decisive electoral outcomes, however, are relatively rare. Often, a mandate is claimed when the electoral margin of victory is combined with a statement on the previous administration. Take, for example, Reagan’s defeat of Carter, a sitting president. Reagan not only won 51% of the popular vote to Carter’s 41% (a third-party candidate accounted for the remaining percentage), but also articulated clearly a vision for the country that was a definite departure from the status quo.

There is relatively little an incoming president can do to affect his mandate. The president does have, however, control over early staffing choices. These choices, if made well, will set him or her up for greater likelihood of success in the critical first 100 days of his or her administration. A president not only must make critical and highly public choices about cabinet appointments but also must make choices about personal staff.

B. Staffing the Cabinet

The president nominates his or her cabinet (mostly composed of those individuals heading the executive branch agencies such as the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, Commerce, and Interior), though each individual must be confirmed by the Senate. When the Senate is controlled by the party in opposition to the president (this is called divided party government), the calculus for choosing cabinet nominees is different than when the president’s party controls both the White House and one or both chambers of Congress (called unified party government).

The vetting process, investigating to discover information about the nominee’s personal or professional life, is always extensive and sometimes begins even before the conclusion of the election. However, the context of the vetting process is markedly different under divided party government when the outcome of the confirmation process is largely in the hands of the president’s partisan opposition. Often, the extent to which opposition-party senators feel free to criticize vociferously a presidential nominee is a function of the president’s perceived electoral mandate. A nominee is most likely to face strong opposition when negative information comes to light about his or her personal life. For example, President Clinton nominated Zoe Baird to be attorney general. Ms. Baird withdrew her nomination, however, after information surfaced that she had neglected to pay social security taxes for a former household employee. Similarly, President Barack Obama nominated former Congressman Tom Daschle for Secretary of Health and Human Services but withdrew his nomination when an unpaid tax bill was discovered. Failed nominations usually follow this pattern, with the nomination withdrawn prior to a vote being taken in the Senate. The reasons for this are sensible; a nominee rejected by the Senate is politically damaging for the fledgling administration—as was the case of President George H. W. Bush’s choice for secretary of defense, John Tower, or President Dwight Eisenhower’s choice for secretary of commerce, Lewis L. Strauss.

C. Staffing the White House

The choices presidents make for their staff, though less public, are just as critical. Within the executive office of the presidency (EOP) is the White House Office (WHO). Within the WHO are those staff people with whom presidents work most closely and on whom they rely. These are usually people from a president’s past, perhaps the campaign. Though the urge to draw exclusively from this pool of past confidants is understandable, presidents are wise to include in this circle those with experience in Washington, D.C., especially experience dealing with Congress. When presidents are elected as outsiders (Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992), their staffing choices often include those without such experience. Carter’s staff was informally called the Georgia Mafia, and Clinton’s was Friends of Bill. Although this might increase presidents’ comfort levels with the information and advice these staffers bring, they run the risk of making poor choices because their staffs may lack crucial expertise in understanding the unique context of the nation’s capital.

The White House staffing structure as we know it came about with the advent of the modern presidency in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, through a combination of congressional legislation authorizing a larger permanent staff and Roosevelt’s executive order reorganizing the executive branch, creating the EOP and moving the Bureau of the Budget into the EOP. More is said later about the creation and use of executive branch agencies to grow presidential power.

The role of White House staff is to help the president make crucial day-to-day decisions in governing. As such, one of the most important functions they provide is to make sure information reaches the president in a timely fashion, in a method that suits their boss’s particular working style and personality and that is carefully honed so as not to overwhelm him with an overabundance of superfluous detail. As the discussion of presidential personality illustrates, the work habits and preferences of presidents as human beings have an effect on their work as presidents and on the structure of the work environment in which they flourish.

White House staffs are organizations and as such can be structured in a variety of ways. They can be structured loosely without formal hurdles to presidential access. This style is often called spokes of the wheel or collegial; aides know they have access to the president and can freely give their advice and perspective. Although this puts a fair amount of pressure on presidents’ time and resources, it ensures they are informed by a wide range of views and opinions and increases the volume of the data and information they personally see (Johnson, 1974).

A variant on the collegial spokes of the wheel is the competitive model. Here, staff members are given overlapping responsibilities, with the full knowledge that someone else is working toward a solution to the same problem as they are. This fosters competition, and the assumption is that the competition will produce the best effort. Franklin Roosevelt used this system.

By contrast, the office can be structured hierarchically, with a clear chain of command. In this configuration, decisions are taken by junior staff when those staffers have authority and resources to make the decisions. Only the difficult or controversial choices get pushed up the chain. There is a gatekeeper, usually called a chief of staff, who closely monitors the president’s time and schedule. This ensures that the president is only involved in the most important issues and that smaller, more trivial matters are kept off his or her desk. The danger is that the filtering system will become too rigid and that important details or issues will be kept from the president. This can lead to a potentially damaging situation going unaddressed.

Alexander George (1980) argued for what he called multiple advocacy or a hybrid approach where competition is managed so as to get the quality information without the potential for a corrosive work environment that can emerge from a situation where a staffer might feel his or her job is in jeopardy with each assignment. This system requires not a chief of staff screening access to the president, but rather an honest broker who can effectively synthesize the best and worst of each point of view. This honest broker reduces resource strain and overload on the president. It also is crucial that the president not tip his or her hand as to initial preferences since the proclivity to say “Yes, Mr. President” is hard even for top staff members to resist.

These preferences for staffing structures go hand and glove with presidential preferences for the nature of the information presidents receive. Presidents vary in the format for information: oral briefings in meetings versus written policy memos. They also vary in the quantity of data they wish personally to see. Sometimes a president wants the essence of a problem condensed to a one-page summary (e.g., Reagan), and some prefer in-depth briefing books (e.g., Carter).

The type of staffing structure presidents choose is one of the few things about the decision-making process they can control. There are many facets of this context that constrain their choices: past promises, preferences of advocates for a particular position whose support they may need in the future, and the sheer volume of important issues. Given this difficult environment, it is critical that these processes fit the president as a person.

IV. The President and the Institutions of Government

A. The President and Congress

In many ways, Congress is the institution with which the president’s ability to work effectively will be tested. Although there are nonlegislative vehicles for achieving the president’s policy agenda (which are discussed later), the most enduring are laws. Additionally, history tends to shine a more favorable light on presidents who are able to pass large proportions of their legislative agendas. Presidents’ agendas are indications of their priorities and on what they are willing to stake their reputations (Light, 1980).

The crafting of an agenda is a function of many factors (Light, 1980). First, a president has to consider commitments and promises from the campaign and weigh the costs versus benefits of trying to fulfill each. Breaking a high-profile promise that was salient to an important component of his or her electoral coalition will have greater consequences than breaking a less visible promise or an issue on which the country is divided. Additionally, once in office, the president may find that fulfilling the promise would have unforeseen and unintended consequences, and he or she may choose to moderate his or her position.

The climate of the times also bears on the choice of items on which to focus. In crises (economic or military), items can rise to the top of the agenda even if they were not mentioned in the campaign. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, illustrate this point. This threat to the country’s national security precipitated a historic overhaul of the executive branch (in creating the Department of Homeland Security from an amalgam of existing agencies) as well as the far-reaching Patriot Act Congress passed in 2001.

As political scientists have tried to understand agenda creation and fulfillment, one of the methodological issues that arise is how to measure the agenda. Paul Light (1980) made use of the executive branch process for tracking legislation as it moves through Congress. Inmost administrations, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) regularly examines enrolled bills (bills that have passed both the House of Representative and the Senate and are headed to the president’s desk for signing or veto) and determines whether they are in accord with the president’s stated preferences. This in accord (I/A) list then serves as a list of issue preferences.

However, not all preferences are also priorities. To determine the issue on which the president would likely invest his or her resources, Light (1980) cross-referenced the I/A list with the State of the Union addresses. The resulting list was taken as the president’s agenda. He supplemented these data with interviews from White House staffers to get a sense of the way in which the agenda is crafted as well as the factors that influence agenda success.

Light’s (1980) central thesis is that a president starts an administration with a set of resources. Presidents are the most rested they will be at any point in their administrations, and goodwill and public support from the campaigns create a honeymoon with voters and members of Congress alike. These resources, which Light calls capital, will decline precipitously in an inverse relationship to increasing effectiveness—essentially learning on the job. These two cycles, decreasing influence and increasing effectiveness, mean that in order for a president to implement an agenda, he or she must move quickly—hit the ground running.

With an understanding of this and of the partisan context in Congress and informed by their own goals (historical, policy, and reelection), wise presidents will make good choices about whether to attempt to change the status quo, how big and costly a program to propose, and whether to attempt legislation or work within their powers of executive orders. Light’s analysis confirms that presidents are more likely to be successful when they attempt smaller, less radical policies and move early in their first terms.

Indeed, scholarship in the area of presidential success with Congress mirrors Light’s analysis in terms of the tools and resources available to presidents. Among the most important resources is the amount of party support in Congress. Presidents are much more likely to be successful during unified party government or when, in times of divided party government, members of Congress from their own parties exhibit party loyalty and cohesiveness.

Public support for presidents and for their policies can be useful. Going public, or attempting to use the bully pulpit to persuade the public and thus put pressure on members of Congress, is one possible tool (Edwards, 1983). Presidents Reagan and Clinton were especially skilled communicators. The White House can use the media and staged photo opportunities to rally support while crafting a message that attempts to paint the opposition into a no-win corner.

Although presidents (and members of the media) may believe it is an effective way to change opinion, data suggest that the influence of this going-public strategy is at the margins. Presidents generally are unable to change public opinion significantly (Edwards, 1983). Recent scholarship in this area has focused on the details of presidential–congressional bargaining over policy. This line of research is premised on the notion that the president and the majority of Congress each has an ideal preferred policy, perhaps arrayed on an ideological continuum. The proximity of these preference points starts as a function of shared ideology and partisanship. However, the ability of the president to move Congress toward his or her preferred outcome is where skill and the use of informal resources play a part.

Presidents have a variety of carrots and sticks with which they can lobby members of congress, and the range of these options is greater among their fellow partisans. For example, working with congressional party leaders, a recalcitrant member might be threatened with a committee assignment or help in the next campaign. Conversely, members can be offered a range of goodies for their support: a presidential visit to their district or campaign support, for example.

At their core, however, members of Congress are driven by reelection goals. They are not going to sponsor legislation or vote in committee or on the floor in a way that hurts their public standing and that weakens them electorally. This is one of the reasons for the importance of presidential popularity. Popular presidents, not only who have high approval ratings but also who received a high percentage of the vote in the member’s district or senator’s state, more easily persuade members of Congress.

Thus, presidents cannot be faulted for trying to rally the public to their side. Another category of resources in bargaining with Congress is the range of options associated with the veto. The use of this formal power to achieve a president’s policy ends can be seen as a show of weakness. That is, if presidents lack the political capital to push their legislative agendas through Congress, they can create legislative roadblocks through the veto. Presidents such as Gerald Ford, whose partisan support was extremely low and whose public support deteriorated after he pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon, used the veto often (he issued 66 vetoes in just over 2 years). Worse than the use of the veto, however, is to have one’s veto overridden by Congress. President Ford, for example, had 12 of his vetoes overridden.

By contrast, presidents can inform Congress of their preferences and attempt to move them in their preferred policy directions by threatening to veto legislation (Cameron, 2000). These threats can take a variety of forms and can come from many executive branch sources. For example, the threat can be relatively nonspecific, which leaves the president room to negotiate: “The president will not be supportive of legislation that contains . . .” Or the threat can be explicit: “I will veto this bill if it remains in this form.” Although the explicit threat provides clear direction to Congress on presidential preferences, if the bluff is called, and Congress does not change the legislation, the president must veto the legislation or loose his or her bargaining position for the long term. Similarly, a threat issued by a White House staffer or cabinet secretary or even an anonymous quote to the media (“Staffers report . . .”) leaves the president some degree of deniability and room to maneuver.

B. The President and the Executive Branch

One might think that the president’s relationship with the executive branch is inherently less likely to be contentious than his or her relationship with Congress. After all, the president has appointment power over a significant portion of the executive branch, and the agencies are intended to carry out his or her policy directives. On the other hand, the executive branch’s sheer size, its storehouse of substantive knowledge, and its relationship with congressional appropriators and with the groups it regulates create a source of power that is independent from the president.

The executive branch is composed of the 15 executive branch agencies and numerous boards, agencies, and government corporations, whose staff are specialized experts in their fields. While about one third of each agency is political appointments (appointed by the president and often requiring Senate confirmation), the vast majority of executive branch employees are civil servants. That means they have earned their jobs through the meritocracy of the civil service exam and are not politically beholden to the president.

In addition to this independence from the president, members of the bureaucracy have a nexus of relationships called the iron triangle, from which the president is largely excluded. The points of the triangle are the agency, the congressional committees, and the groups the agency regulates. One leg of this triangle is the regular exchanges an agency has with congressional committees who write legislation affecting how their jobs are performed. These same legislators are often the appropriators of the agencies’ funds. For example, the day-to-day operations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can be affected by new laws dictating the business of ranchers and farmers. This legislation is crafted significantly in the House and Senate agriculture committees, which may convene hearings. USDA employees would likely be called as expert witnesses to these hearings owing to their substantive knowledge. Similarly, the USDA (as would all executive branch agencies) will take an active interest in the annual congressional budgeting and appropriating process, further cementing the relationship.

Another leg of the triangle is the relationship between the agency and the business, group, or industry that it regulates. In addition to individual members of these groups, in the case of the USDA, the ranchers and farmers, the agency regularly interacts with interest groups that lobby on behalf of these client groups. These regular interactions further solidify the bureaucracy’s independence from the president.

C. The President and the Courts

As with the other two branches of government, the president’s relationship with the federal courts has both a formal and constitutional component and also a more informal or nuanced one. Among the formalized roles is the process of judicial selection. The president nominates federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, and the Senate has confirmation power. As with passing legislation, the dynamics of this exchange vary significantly depending on unified or divided party government. The mechanics of the process are also different for the lower federal courts (district courts and courts of appeals) than for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senators have greater influence over the selection of lower federal court judges. The home senator—that is, the senators whose state is within the jurisdiction of the court to which the nominee would be appointed—would certainly be consulted by the White House in their selection process. Additionally, if a home senator opposes the appointment, he or she can effectively block it since other senators are likely to take their cues from him or her. Additionally, if the president’s partisan opposition is in the congressional minority, they can use the filibuster to block nominees.

Blocking nominees, whether at the lower federal court level or to the U.S. Supreme Court, is most achievable for senators if the nominee is ideologically polarizing or has some weakness in his or her portfolio or if the president’s opposition controls the Senate. However, White House staffs have become increasingly sophisticated in their selection process, especially since the Reagan administration. This decreases the likelihood of making a poor choice, someone who is not confirmable.

President Reagan established the standard that presidents since have used for vetting potential judicial nominees. The first stage in this process is to establish the potential nominee’s intellectual and judicial credibility. Variables such as the law school attended and honors earned (such as editor of Law Review), clerkships, and other judicial appointments will all be considered. Because of the potential for opposition on partisan or ideological grounds, a nominee must first reach a threshold level of competence. In addition to this résumé fact-finding, a full investigation into the candidate’s personal life will commence. Poor judgment, unethical or criminal behavior, or moral turpitude can all be fodder for an opposition’s effective attack. In addition to partisan and ideological compatibility, presidents might have demographic preferences in their choices (e.g., to choose a woman, minority, or relatively younger justice). The intensity of these decisions is highest when the search is for a Supreme Court nominee.

Although the influence of the president on the federal judiciary and especially on the Supreme Court is most clear in terms of appointments, he or she does have other paths to affect judicial decision making, again especially at the Supreme Court. The Department of Justice, specifically the attorney general (AG) and solicitor general (SG), works closely with the Supreme Court. When the United States is a party to a case argued before the Supreme Court, either the AG or the SG (or one of their deputies) serves as counsel for the United States. The relative frequency of cases involving the United States creates a situation in which the AG and SG are repeat players before the Court. The sheer frequency of these appearances provides a measure of comfort before the bench that can be a tactical advantage in the legal proceedings.

Additionally, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) serves as a gatekeeper for all cases in which the United States is a party that loses at lower court and wishes to file a writ of certiorari, or a petition to have its case heard before the Supreme Court. Because of the volume of cases appealing for certiorari, the culling of nonmeritorious cases involving the United States by the OSG is invaluable to the Court (Caplan, 1987).

Perhaps one of the clearest avenues of executive branch influence before the Court is in filing of amicus curiae or friend-of-the-court briefs. Although any person or group may file such a brief (an essay outlining the support for a particular party in the case or line of legal reasoning), the frequency with which the OSG files such briefs creates a familiarity with arguments likely to be persuasive. Indeed, the success rate of the OSG (the times its position was on the same side in which the Court ruled) is extremely high, upwards of 75%. The Court thinks so highly of the work done by the OSG that on occasion it will request that the OSG weigh in and file an amicus brief, sometimes even going as far as to ask the OSG to comment in oral arguments. No other amicus has rights to make oral arguments (Pacelle, 2003).

V. Policy Implications

Public policy is often broken into three substantive areas: social, economic, and foreign policy. Each has its own contexts and challenges for presidential leadership. The president is but one player in the policy-making arena and the federal government but one of the many avenues for policy making. This section of the research paper draws on the previous discussions of Congress and the executive branch and the president’s relationship with the public in order to make sense of the potential for a president to achieve his policy goals.

A. Social Policy

Because of the significant heterogeneity of issues within this broad category, research on the president’s role in social policy tends to be case study based, making it more difficult to draw generalizable findings. It is difficult to isolate with certainty specific factors that lend to presidential leadership across all areas of social policy. However, much of the discussion of Congress and decision making applies here. For example, when a president wishes to make a bold change in policy through lawmaking, he or she needs partisan support within Congress and public support and must be savvy in marshalling his or her resources at all stages of the legislative process. Conversely, if a president has few congressional partisans and little political capital, he or she is wise to keep a program small, incremental, and, ideally, self-executable within the structure of the executive branch.

The president has a variety of resources at his or her disposal at the various stages of the policy-making process: agenda setting, policy formulation, policy adoption, policy implementation, and policy evaluation. To be effective, he or she needs to have a good sense of the degree of consensus in the public on the degree of the problem and the need for a solution (agenda setting). Presidents will often try to influence public opinion on this, though the effect of this is marginal. The effect of the president on the policy formulation through evaluation stages is largely a function of the previous discussions on the president’s relationship between the bureaucracy and Congress.

B. Economic Policy

Economic policy differs from social policy in that it is more likely either to be cyclical (like the annual budget), episodic (like tax policy), or precipitated by economic crisis (the 2009 Troubled Asset Relief Plan). Presidents have some degree of influence with the budget, though that would depend significantly on congressional support or opposition.

The range of ways in which the president’s staff can assist him or her on economic policy belies the piecemeal way in which economic policy is made. The Department of the Treasury houses the Internal Revenue Service, which is responsible for collecting federal taxes. As such, Treasury has good information about projections on the amount of revenue, which plays a part in the budgeting process. Several factors affect the degree to which budgeting and revenue are strictly tied. The country goes through periods of fiscal conservatism where the mood of the country leans toward budget-neutral spending programs (if spending is increased on Project A, costs are reduced on Project B) or toward deficit reduction. The latter is difficult since it requires either a reduction in programs and services or an increase in taxes, rarely politically popular. A change in tax law, of course, requires congressional action.

Since the president’s budget is the starting point for congressional negotiations, this is a potential area of influence. Not only is the budget cyclical, but also its creation requires input from across the executive branch and significant coordination within the EOP. The president’s budget is transmitted to Congress on or about February 1 of each year, in anticipation of the new fiscal year that begins October 1. The previous summer, cabinet-level agencies begin formulating their requests that will be sent to the OMB, which coordinates the requests in anticipation of transmission to senior White House staff. Although the formulation of agency budget requests is generally the responsibility of middle-level staff within each agency, once the request is sent to OMB, subcabinet and cabinet secretaries will begin to lobby the White House. Each secretary is advocating for his or her agency, to acquire the greatest resources in a usually constrained fiscal environment.

These internal White House budget negotiations necessitate good information about existing and forecasted economic trends. In addition to the revenue projections from Treasury and the impact of each agency request on the budget from OMB, the Council of Economic Advisors provides its expertise. This small group (about 25 to 30 staff and three board members) is responsible for generating macroeconomic data on the state of the economy, both currently and projected over several fiscal years.

In late December and January, the president and his or her closest advisers assimilate these data with his or her policy priorities. The budget that is submitted in February not only reflects these priorities but also reflects the White House’s sense of likely congressional support or opposition. The successfulness of the president’s budget is also affected by unified or divided party control of Congress and by electoral pressures on members of Congress. Lobby groups for the client groups affected by the budget decisions are skillful in applying pressure to members of Congress, especially those who serve on congressional committees charged with budgeting and with appropriating the funds.

Many of the criteria on which the health of the economy is judged are largely out of the president’s control. For example, during times of slow economic growth, lowering interests rates can have the effect of freeing capital, thus nudging spending. This in turn can stimulate production, which can help bolster individual workers’ paychecks or job prospects. However, the government entity that most affects interest rates is the Federal Reserve Board (the Fed). The members of the Fed’s board of governors and the chair of the Fed are all appointed by the president but must be confirmed by the Senate. Their term of service (14 years) combined with a tradition of independence from political pressure all decrease the president’s ability to control or influence this aspect of the economy.

Unemployment levels, another measure of economic health, are also out of the president’s direct control. Although he or she crafts policies to encourage job growth, clearly he or she cannot will companies to hire more workers. This is an offshoot of a growing economy; when demand for goods and services increases, companies will hire.

C. Foreign Policy

The context of foreign policy making is quite different from social or economic policy. The president must be sensitive to the foreign policy orientation of members of Congress as well as the mood of the public at large. For example, are those members of Congress in key positions to block either policy initiatives or appropriations predisposed toward internationalism or engagement with the world community, or is the trend toward isolationism? The post–September 11th world of global terrorism and instability has created another set of challenges for the president in creating global alliances and in rallying domestic support for his policies.

Many aspects of foreign policy decision making constrain presidents. For example, although the president has the ability to commit troops and in some ways to take unilateral action, his or her ability to exert influence over foreign leaders is even less than his or her ability to pressure members of Congress. Additionally, where in economic and social policy making the president can often be overwhelmed with information, he or she must question his or her foreign policy sources. Having sufficient and accurate data on which to make decisions is critical and difficult.

The presidents have several policy-making tools and staffing structures to assist them. The Department of State takes the lead in international diplomacy, which can involve treaties and international agreements. Formal constitutional actions such as treaties require Senate ratification. The Senate also must confirm all cabinet members, which includes the secretaries of defense and state, as well as ambassadors. War-making power is also shared. Although Congress is entrusted with the power to declare war, the president is commander in chief and is responsible for setting policy direction for any military conflict or deployment of troops.

In addition to those of state and defense, the president has other advisory structures to assist him. On the military front, the joint chiefs of staff work closely with the secretary of defense. These are the heads of each military branch, and the chair of the joint chiefs can be a key policy adviser. The president also receives regular, usually daily, intelligence briefings from the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council (NSC), the Director of Homeland Security, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Traditionally, the NSC, headed by the national security adviser, is charged with coordinating these sometimes disparate streams of information.

VI. Future Directions

The study of the presidency is dynamic, changing to reflect the evolution of the office and institution and to incorporate new analysis techniques. For example, the presidency of George W. Bush saw a substantial increase in the use of an informal tool in presidential congressional bargaining: the signing statement. Like the veto threat, this is a mechanism for the president to achieve policy goals. However, unlike the veto threat, the signing statement is unilateral. In the message issued when the bill is signed, the president can direct his or her bureaucracy not to implement certain sections of the bill he or she has just signed into law. Although this is controversial, only until a case is brought to and accepted for hearing by the federal courts can the constitutionality of its use be established.

VII. Conclusion

The presidency is a unique institution in the U.S. system of government. A paradox, the president is at once both powerful and dependent on other branches and on public opinion for success. He or she speaks with a singular voice, yet his or her ability to move public opinion significantly is limited. These contradictions, however, are the threads into which the most fascinating tapestry of the executive branch is woven.


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