Most accounts of the unilateral presidency emphasize the institutional barriers that severely limit the ability of Congress and the courts to check executive action. An emerging literature argues that political checks, including public opinion, may serve as an important, but informal constraint. However, the empirical evidence for such a popular check is limited. We argue that presidents have incentives to be particularly responsive to their popular standing beyond their party's base. Rather a president's approval ratings among independents and opposition partisans will most influence the likelihood of pushback from would-be opponents in Congress, which can further erode public support for the administration and its policies. Presidents' anticipatory calculations also vary with the health of the economy. A strong economy allows presidents to increasingly resort to unilateral action in periods of divided government and to be less concerned with their approval ratings. By contrast, a weak economy heightens responsiveness to public opinion and blunts the positive effect of divided government on executive action. We find strong support for our hypotheses using a new database of executive action, broadly defined, that achieved some threshold of media coverage from 1977 to 2018. Finally, we explore the extent to which President Trump has employed his unilateral power differently than his predecessors. While we find that Trump has issued more major executive actions than most of his predecessors, ceteris paribus, we find little evidence that he is less responsive to public opinion.
Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy, Volume 1, Issue 1 Special issue - The Political Economy of Executive Politics
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