Mobilizing the Public Against the President: Congress and the Political Costs of Unilateral Action

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Mobilizing the Public Against the President: Congress and the Political Costs of Unilateral Action”:

The Trump presidency began with a flurry of unilateral activity, ranging from Muslim bans, to border walls, to an assault on the Environmental Protection Agency.  For many, this burst has reignited fears of an imperial presidency.

Congress and the courts are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to reverse executive actions.  Any legislation overturning a presidential mandate can be vetoed by the president himself.  Courts need not worry about the veto; however, they must rely on the executive branch to enforce its rulings.  As a result, past scholarship has noted that the institutional constraints on the unilateral president are weak.

Perhaps the most important remaining check on presidential abuse is public opinion.  When contemplating executive action, presidents must weigh their near certain success against the political costs it might entail should it arouse popular anger.  We argue that other political actors – most importantly members of Congress – play a critically important role in shaping this popular response.

To explore Congress’ capacity to erode public support for unilateral action, we conducted a series of experiments embedded in nationally representative opinion surveys.  Across a range of issues in foreign and domestic affairs, we found that congressional criticism on both constitutional and policy grounds significantly decreases support for unilateral action.

One of our experiments explores public support for one of President Obama’s most important and polarizing executive actions: the Clean Power Plan.  All subjects were told that Obama had ordered the EPA to begin regulating carbon dioxide emissions to protect public health and combat climate change.  Subjects assigned to the baseline group received no further information.  Subjects assigned to the first treatment group were told that many congressional Democrats objected that the action threatened to increase energy prices and cost jobs, and that such a major change in energy policy required new legislation from Congress.  Subjects assigned to the second treatment group were told that many congressional Republicans objected to the action on the same policy and constitutional grounds.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Effect of Congressional Opposition on Support for Obama’s EPA Actions to Regulate CO2 Emissions


As shown in Figure 1, congressional criticism significantly eroded support for Obama’s action from its high baseline level.  Moreover, criticism from Democrats and Republicans were equally successful in turning public opinion against the executive action.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Effect of Congressional Opposition on Support for Executive Action in Foreign and Domestic Sphere

Additional experiments show that Congress’ power to erode support for unilateral action extends even to major questions of foreign policy and less polarizing domestic policy initiatives.  Figure 2 presents the results from an additional pair of experiments examining public support for Obama’s unilateral authorization of airstrikes against ISIS and for his executive action to cap student loan payments for many borrowers.  In both cases, congressional opposition significantly reduced support for executive action.

Our findings suggest that Congress may exercise a greater constraint on the unilateral president than previously thought.  Even when it cannot overturn an executive action legislatively, it can mobilize public opinion against the president.

About the Authors:  Dino P. Christenson is an associate professor of political science and the Director of Advanced Programs (Honors and BA/MA) at Boston University and Douglas L. Kriner is is a professor of political science and the Director of Graduate Studies at Boston University. Their article “Mobilizing the Public Against the President: Congress and the Political Costs of Unilateral Action” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science and is currently available for Early View.




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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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