Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Who Wants Presidential Supremacy? Findings from the Institutions of American Democracy Project

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Who Wants Presidential Supremacy? Findings from the Institutions of American Democracy Project

Article excerpt

The George W. Bush administration has aggressively advanced claims of presidential supremacy in American government. We use data from surveys to explore the reactions to these claims on the part of three groups of governmental elites and the general public. Responses are shaped by partisanship and ideology, which overwhelm institutional loyalties. Democrats are generally unified in opposing practices that expand presidential power beyond established political or constitutional limits. Republicans are more divided. Some entirely reject those practices. Yet about three quarters of Republicans in all samples endorse presidential supremacy, partially or fully, We consider the implications of the findings for possible longer-term outcomes with respect to these issues.

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The George W. Bush administration has been controversial in many respects, but for American democracy the most important issue concerns its conception of the powers of the presidency. Bush has acted aggressively and consistently to assert presidential primacy in American government. He has, for example, claimed presidential authority to contravene international laws or treaties signed by the United States, to ignore provisions of statutes that he believes conflict with his powers as commander in chief of the armed forces, to order preemptive military action without the consent of Congress even if an attack is not imminent, to order interception of telephone and e-mail communications without statutory authorization, and to issue signing statements that declare parts of statutes he signs inoperative.

The administration has defended these claims on the basis of a recently articulated constitutional doctrine of "the unitary Executive" that is now well known to presidential and constitutional scholars and needs only brief summary here. Originally formulated by conservative law school faculty and figures in the Reagan administration's Department of Justice, and promoted by the Federalist Society, this theory of presidential power grants sweeping constitutional and policy-making prerogatives to the chief executive, from complete and singular control over executive agencies to full command of military action to a privileged position for defining the meaning of the law--all without congressional or judicial interference and contrary to prevailing scholarly conventions about checks and balances in the separation-of-powers system. (1) Not all of the administration's claims, of course, are entirely new (James 2005). But the expansiveness, consistency, and forcefulness of Bush's positions are unprecedented and have made presidential power a focal point of controversy during his two terms of office. The issues at stake are central to the way constitutional government is practiced in the United States.

Our article examines the reactions to some of these claims, and related issues, by several kinds of governmental elites in the United States and by the public at large. We use data from three surveys (part of a larger series of surveys) that were developed for the Institutions of American Democracy Project, sponsored by the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. The surveys we analyze, which include batteries of the same questions, were conducted from August 2004 to January 2005 and drew samples, respectively, from the political appointees of the Clinton and Bush administrations and career members of the Senior Executive Service (SES); from legislative staff in members' offices in the Senate and the House of Representatives; and from the general public. (2) We are writing a book based on these surveys, with broad attention to the functioning and performance of the primary U.S. policy-making institutions--the presidency and Executive Office of the President, the executive branch departments and agencies, and the two houses of Congress. For this report, however, we focus specifically on public and elite views about a central issue for readers of this journal and for the American polity--the appropriate scope of presidential power. …

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