The Politics of Presidential Foreign Policy: Unilateral Authority and the Role of Congress


Presidents understand that reelection, reputation, and ultimately their place in history are intimately tied to their ability to get policy initiatives through Congress. Given the vital role Congress plays in the legislative process, presidents must carefully cultivate their relationship with members of the House and Senate to achieve policy successes. Roosevelt is remembered for social security and the GI Bill (among many other things), while Johnson successfully passed both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Bush 43 managed to pass the Tax Relief Act of 2001 as well as implement a new prescription drug program for seniors. President Obama will likely be remembered for the passage and upholding by the Supreme Court of his signature healthcare legislation— the Affordable Care Act. Compared to tenures of the other branches, the president’s window for policy movement is short so they are naturally in a greater hurry to accumulate a policy record. Such legislative victories ultimately cement a place in history for presidents, but they also help fashion a reputation for political effectiveness that can strengthen a president’s influence in Congress.

At the same time, constitutional ambiguity as well as political and institutional advantages can afford presidents greater unilateral authority in the area of international affairs. The need to speak with one voice, as well as Commander in Chief responsibilities, enable presidents to affect policy in foreign affairs without congressional support. Such unilateral power is especially advantageous when members of the House and Senate oppose and actively resist a president’s domestic policy initiatives. A president can then shift attention away from domestic legislative priorities to critical security concerns occurring overseas to build political capital that can help achieve future policy successes. Although it’s too early to tell, President Obama’s actions on the Syrian crisis may serve as a case in point. Indeed, Representative Peter King made such a claim suggesting the White House leaked that President Obama signed a secret order to provide support (nonlethal) to the Syrian rebels. Interviewed on Fox News, Representative King forcefully asserted “The only thing I can think of is this is an attempt to rehabilitate the president going into an election year to show that he’s a tough guy.”1

In this chapter, we empirically assess the relationship between a president’s political support in Congress and his or her attention to foreign policy. In doing so, we test two competing arguments for presidential action that are based on an executive’s political relationship with Congress. While policy availability anticipates the increasing use of the Constitution’s Article II authority by presidents as congressional opposition strengthens, Howell and Pevehouse’s party cover model expects presidents only to engage in risky foreign policy ventures when they possess sufficient support in Congress to diffuse responsibility.2 We find, like others have, that the role of Congress is vital to understanding presidential foreign policy decisions. However, the relationship appears conditional on the risk involved in the deployment of forces abroad. For example, on the one hand we find the president’s ability to legislate significantly decreases the likelihood of humanitarian (or lower risk) interventions. On the other hand, we find that as the president’s legislative relationship with Congress becomes more productive, presidents are significantly more likely to engage in higher risk military interventions. We infer from these findings that both policy availability and party cover provide insight into a president’s decision to intervene militarily abroad.

We proceed as follows. The first section briefly reviews the institutional relationship between the president and Congress and then specifies two competing models of foreign policy decision-making, namely policy availability and party cover. Next we describe our data and research methods used to test the relationship between a president, Congress, and foreign policy activism. Finally, we discuss our statistical model results, apply our model and findings to Obama’s second term, and offer suggestions for future research.

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