The Politics of Presidential Agendas

By Eshbaugh-Soha, Matthew | Political Research Quarterly, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Presidential Agendas


Eshbaugh-Soha, Matthew, Political Research Quarterly


Past research holds that if presidents are to increase their success in Congress, they must set the policy agenda in their favor. But what determines the propensity of presidents to propose or support different policies? Because presidents influence the agenda-setting stage of the policy process, presidents develop their yearly domestic policy agendas in anticipation of each policy's success or failure in Congress. After all, presidents want to emphasize their strengths to achieve their goal of policy enactment in Congress. From this assumption, I devise a typology of long-term and important presidential policies, and argue that political limitations and fiscal constraints influence the president's yearly domestic policy agenda. I show that presidents offer different types of policies as part of their yearly domestic agendas given Congressional makeup and the federal budget deficit.

The president's agenda is of immense importance to American politics. Several argue that presidents have substantial influence over the agenda-setting stage of the policy process (Baumgartner and Jones 1993; Cobb and Elder 1983; Kingdon 1995; Schattsneider 1960). Others maintain that the way presidents package their agenda explains much of their eventual success or failure in Congress (Bond and Fleisher 1990; Edwards 1989; Jones 1994; Light 1999; Neustadt 1990). The implication of these works is that presidents anticipate the contextual environment and, when it is favorable, will be successful in Congress. Edwards (1989: 146) argues that the president may be successful given a strategically packaged agenda and a favorable contextual environment, while the "the president's greatest influence over policy comes from the agenda he pursues and the way it is packaged" (Bond and Fleisher 1990: 230).

Despite scholarly consensus that agenda setting is important to American politics and presidential-Congressional relations, previous research relies on the assertion that agenda setting is important to presidential relations with Congress (Bond and Fleisher 1990; Edwards 1989), without providing empirical support for if and how presidents strategically package their domestic policy agendas. Indeed, these works do not answer one important question: what determines the president's propensity to propose or support different types of policies?

Two scholars have explored the determinants of the president's policy agenda. Light (1999) notes that information, expertise, and political capital are a premium in the presidents agenda decisions, and that presidents have the most potential to shape the legislative agenda early in their tenure. He shows how these factors influence the types of policies on the presidents agenda, without confirming his inferences through hypothesis testing (see King 1993). Peterson (1990) also studies the president's agenda. He analyzes the contextual environment and its impact on whether presidents prefer large or small, and new or old policies. Although he finds that the Congressional environment is important in the presidents agenda decisions, seemingly relevant variables such as the federal budget deficit are statistically insignificant.

The underlying premise of agenda-setting research is that the president should be able to package policy priorities so as to increase the likelihood of their adoption. Doing so may require presidents to assess the probability that a proposal will be successful depending on contextual circumstances, such as Congressional makeup. Nevertheless, Peterson (1990: 207-08) finds little impact of the contextual environment on presidential policies, bringing into question the conventional wisdom that presidents can package their agendas strategically to increase their success in Congress (Bond and Fleisher 1990; Edwards 1989). With this in mind, I rely on agenda-setting and anticipative reactions theories to argue that fiscal and political factors should affect the content of the president's yearly domestic policy agenda from 1949-2000.

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