The Contemporary Presidency: The Presidential Authority Problem and the Political Power Trap

By Schier, Steven E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: The Presidential Authority Problem and the Political Power Trap


Schier, Steven E., Presidential Studies Quarterly


A confounding problem for presidents in recent decades has been one of maintaining support for their governing initiatives due to changeable public opinion and institutional resistance in Washington. Inconstant political support is a central problem for presidents, a problem of political authority. This article provides empirical evidence of the decline of political authority for American presidents over the last 70 years by examining several indicators comprising the related concept of political capital. Declining political capital lies at the core of the political authority problem besetting recent presidents.

Stephen Skowronek coined the term political authority in his landmark book on the presidency (1997), and it is a rich concept much deserving of elaboration. Skowronek defines it as "the expectations that surround the exercise of power at a given moment; the perception of what is appropriate for a given president to do" (1997, 16). Presidential authority rests on "warrants" drawn from the politics of the moment to justify action and secure the legitimacy of changes. These warrants must come from the public and other institutional players in the national political system--members of Congress, interest groups, bureaucrats, and judges.

Political authority operates within two contexts, that of the regime and the state. Skowronek notes that presidents often try to create lasting political alignments involving the public and elites, but that constructing such alignments is difficult and the most recent successes in reconstruction are those of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. These hallowed figures are so remembered because they had warrants to create lasting political regimes and managed to do so. The enhanced powers of the contemporary presidency have encouraged the regime-building aspirations of recent presidents. That seems to have been the case with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and perhaps with Obama.

To maintain expansive warrants for the use of presidential power, presidents need to maintain regime support. That is no small task, because the component parts of a political regime now are extensive. Robert Lieberman provides a definition:

Regimes appear at a variety of levels, from formal institutions (such as the structure of Congress and the administrative state) to the social bases of politics (such as party alignments and coalitions and patterns of interest representation); from ideas (such as prevailing beliefs about the proper role of government) to informal norms (such as patterns of congressional behavior). Nested within these broadly defined institutional arrangements are commitments to particular policies that become the touchstone for political action and conflict for leaders and would-be leaders over the course of a generation or more. (Lieberman 2000, 275)

Consider the "warrants" necessary from such regimes in order for presidents to exercise their political power in a way that maintains their political authority. A president needs support or at least permission from federal courts and Congress, steady allegiance from public opinion and fellow partisans in the electorate, backing from powerful, entrenched interest groups, and accordance with contemporary public opinion about the proper size and scope of government. This is a long list of requirements. If presidents fail to satisfy these requirements, they face the prospect of inadequate political authority to back their power assertions. In recent years, that has been the case.

Regimes are now so far flung that presidential maintenance of them is increasingly difficult. Two sorts of constraints, identified by Daniel Cook and Andrew Polsky, compound that difficulty. Endogenous constraints "result from the nature of the political agreement that binds participants" (Cook and Polsky 2005, 280). How well does the regime coalition stick together? Over time, presidents inevitably alienate parts of their coalition by the decisions they make. …

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