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Americans want limits on their presidents — even the ones they voted for

President Barack Obama giving his last State of the Union address to Congress this January. New research says the public is critical of presidents who act without congressional approval.
President Barack Obama giving his last State of the Union address to Congress this January. New research says the public is critical of presidents who act without congressional approval.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is ready to go it alone.

Rather than waiting for Congress if she's elected president, she's promised to unilaterally enact stricter gun control measures, tighten financial regulations, and shield more immigrants from deportation.

Clinton's promise to expand presidential powers in office has been largely seen as a political no-brainer — a rallying cry for the base that risks antagonizing only those who would vote against her anyway.

The prevailing consensus is that Americans will support the power grabs of the presidents they already support and disapprove power grabs when they already disapprove of the president.

A new strain of academic research, however, suggests this may not be the case. It shows that Americans do, in fact, care about how presidents exercise their authority — and that they want limits on it, even when they support the individual at the helm.

"Above and beyond their partisan attitudes, Americans have specific beliefs about the nature of presidential power," said Andrew Reeves, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of a new research paper, in an interview. "They're naturally hesitant on the nature of these unilateral actions."

New research: The public may actually still care about limiting presidential power

Reeves and Jon Rogowski, another political scientist at Washington University, published their work in December 2015. They found that the public has views on executive authority distinct from who is using it.

The academics tried to isolate whether the way in which a president wants to enact a policy has an impact on that policy's popularity.

In one study, participants evaluated three policies — legalizing medical marijuana, lowering corporate taxes, and deploying troops to Eastern Europe — as proposed by a hypothetical presidential candidate.

First, the researchers asked a control group about each action without explaining how it would be approved. They then tested how likely the public was to support those policies if passed either with Congress or through use of "the powers of the presidency."

The result? Promising to accomplish a goal through executive action lowered support for every policy.

Approval for legalizing medical marijuana fell by 19 percentage points and approval for lowering corporate taxes by 13 points when proposed via executive action.

Sending troops to Eastern Europe, the third hypothetical policy, had less strong of an effect. That's to be expected: As commander in chief, the president does have greater authority to act on foreign policy.

Even so, unilateral deployment of troops still lowered public approval by 6 percentage points.

Moreover, the public did not perceive presidential candidates who failed to go it alone as weak, according to the researchers.

These candidates scored just as high or higher when the researchers asked if they provide "strong leadership" and are "able to get things done." They did worse when the respondents were asked if the candidate "respects the rule of law."

"The ways presidents propose to achieve their policy goals has significant consequences for how citizens evaluate them," the academics wrote. "Public opinion may serve as a check against presidential unilateralism, even when other institutional checks fail."

The White House. (Ei Kebir Lamrani / AFP via Getty Images) Ei Kebir Lamrani/AFP via Getty Images

The White House. (Ei Kebir Lamrani/AFP via Getty Images)

Taking a closer look at the concept of "presidential overreach"

There were already mounds of academic papers on presidential authority when Reeves was studying the topic at Harvard in the mid-2000s.

But Reeves found that research oddly limited. Almost all of it was devoted to questions of legality — what executive actions are constitutionally permissible? — and to tracking how the other branches of the federal government reacted to executive overreach.

Left unanswered, Reeves said, was how the public felt about presidential power — assuming, that is, that the public cared at all.

"We had two points of departure: One is that voters are ignorant, so there's no way they're going to have distinct attitudes on questions like this," Reeves said. "And, two, that to the extent they would care, they would simply mirror their partisan predispositions."

These assumptions may have real-world consequences. Clinton's plans for executive action, for instance, appear to mirror the idea that "there's no evidence of a political risk in using executive power," as Vox's Jonathan Allen wrote in October.

"The use of executive fiat … simply doesn't excite or enrage the American public as a whole," the Washington Post said in a January 2014 post titled, "Executive order = political nothing burger."

But Reeves thinks his research shows that this isn't the case.

"I don't think it makes any sense for the candidates to talk in terms of taking unilateral action during the campaign," Reeves said. "I think they're going to pay a cost for doing so."

Even in gridlocked Washington, D.C., the public does not want American presidents to bypass Congress. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Even in gridlocked Washington, DC, the public does not want American presidents to bypass Congress. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

But what does that mean in the real world?

It's one thing for academics to find effects from wording changes on a form. It's quite another to definitively prove that voters really think about the contours of executive authority in their day-to-day lives — when neighbors and friends, voices in the media, and a zillion other factors come into play.

Reeves acknowledged that the question has given him some pause, and he noted that there is a strong correlation between approval for an individual president and approval for his or her executive orders.

"If you say 'Obama,' does that blind you to everything?" he said. "Maybe, then, you just don't care about how it's being achieved."

In Reeves and Rogowski's recent Journal of Politics paper, they examined what the public thought of President Barack Obama's controversial executive order in November 2014 to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Unsurprisingly, those who generally approved of President Obama were also about 25 percentage points more likely to approve of the executive order.

But the researchers were also able to test if abstract views on executive authority were also predictive.

And they found that those who disapproved of executive orders in the abstract were 17 percentage points less likely to approve of Obama's executive order — regardless of their support for Obama himself.

"Citizens have views toward executive power," the paper concludes, "that are largely distinct from their evaluations of presidents themselves."

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