Presidents have been making domestic policy since George Washington appointed the nation's first postmaster general. But as the institutional presidency has grown with the passage of time and crisis, presidents have become increasingly active as agenda setters, decision makers, coalition builders, and implementers of a much larger portfolio of federal domestic policies. By the 1950s, the textbook image of a presidency-centered government was in full blossom, and expectations for presidential leadership of domestic policy were at what appears to have been a twenty-year post-World War II peak (see Cronin 1975).
The prevailing wisdom today is that this presidency-centered vision of policy making was an inappropriate reading of both constitutional intent and legislative reality. Few scholars have made the revisionist case more effectively on constitutional grounds than Jones (1994): "Focusing exclusively on the presidency can lead to a seriously distorted picture of how the national government does its work," he warns in his award-winning assessment. "The plain fact is that the United States does not have a presidential system. It has a separated system" (p. 2). As Jones argues, a president's impact on the domestic agenda is limited by resources, advantages, and strategic position. Some presidents enter offices with greater opportunity, some with less, but all are bound by constitutional checks and balances. To expect the president's agenda to remain dominant year after year is to ignore the normal ebb and flow of power built into the very fiber of the federal system.
At the same time, few have made a more rigorous critique of the presidency-centered approach on the basis of legislative realities than Edwards and Wood (1996). Surveying a vast inventory of presidential activity, the two argue that presidents do more following than leading when they set the policy agenda. Paying attention to the media and events is hardly surprising, according to Edwards and Wood, "because presidents have limited institutional resources and do not desire to be influential on all issues. As risk averse actors, however, they are ever watchful and respond when other institutions deem and issue worthy of greater consideration" (p. 26).
None of the revisionists suggest that the presidency is irrelevant to domestic policy, of course. Bond and Fleisher (1990) argue that "a president's greatest influence over policy comes from the agenda he pursues and the way it is packaged" (p. 230). Jones (1994) notes that presidents retain "significant influence in setting priorities, certifying certain issues, proposing policy solutions, and reacting to policy initiatives of others (such as those increasingly offered by more policy-active members of Congress)"(p. 181), and the ubiquitous Edwards and a second coauthor Barrett (1998), conclude their analysis of 268 presidential proposals by acknowledging that "the president is very successful in obtaining agenda space for his potentially significant legislative proposals.... Once on the agenda, 40 percent of presidential initiatives become law, nearly twice the rate of congressional initiatives" (p. 19).
Rather, the revisionists merely suggest that a president's influence is more conditional than some researchers, including myself, may have suggested in past studies of the modern record. As I acknowledge in the preface to the third edition of The President's Agenda (Light 1999a), the "twenty years covered in the first edition of this book seemed like a very long time to me in 1980." But in doubling the number of years covered in the analysis,
this third edition provides a very different portrait of the agenda-setting
process.... It is entirely possible, as I argue in the new chapter that
caps this edition, that there is less room today for policy innovation as
new party politics, budget pressures, and demographic destiny work their
will in constraining presidential imagination. …