Presidents and Popularity: Do Approval Ratings Encourage Executive Orders?

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Nandini Dey, covers Dr. Dino P. Christenson, Boston University, and Dr. Douglas L. Kriner’s, Cornell University new article, “Does Public Opinion Constrain Presidential Unilateralism?” 

President Donald Trump has issued 19 executive orders in 2019 alone. But this is not unique to the current president; recent US presidents have relied heavily on executive orders to push through their policy priorities. This is always a risk: going over Congress’s head to enact legislation could result in popular backlash. Dino Christenson and Douglas Kriner’s new research provides evidence that public opinion constrains presidents’ use of executive powers.

Why is public opinion important?

Public opinion can make or break a president’s time in office. First, it is a crucial tool that presidents use to convince Congress to support their policy goals. Second, poor presidential approval ratings can embolden opponents in Congress to use non-legislative tools, such as investigative oversight, to further weaken presidential power. Finally, Congress’s reaction itself influences public opinion to positions taken by the president.

The connection between public opinion and executive action by presidents is a one-way relationship: public opinion influences the issuance of executive orders, but executive actions do not have a significant impact on public opinion.

It shouldn’t be surprising then, that those who study presidents have assumed that public opinion shapes their use of executive orders. However, academic work on executive action offers contrasting predictions for how public opinion might matter, and no prior study has proven its influence empirically. The present authors take on this task. They count “significant” executive orders issued by presidents between 1953 and 2018. A significant order is one that receives coverage in the New York Times within a year from when it was issued. They also use an alternative measure of executive order significance drawn from combining multiple sources of coverage, including historical overviews, newspapers, magazines, and law reviews. In both cases, they then combine the data on executive orders with Gallup poll data on presidential approval.

Given how crucial they believe public opinion to be for decisions to exercise executive actions, the authors present a “political constraint hypothesis”. Presidents with low approval ratings shy away from major unilateral action (acting alone through executive orders, usually without consulting or discussions through Congress). But increases in approval ratings embolden presidents to issue a greater number of significant executive orders. They test this against the “evasion hypothesis”: low approval ratings encourage presidents to increasingly go it alone and issue more significant executive orders.

When are presidents more likely to issue executive orders?

Echoing prior findings, Christenson and Kriner find no evidence that presidents increasingly resort to executive action when they face a hostile Congress. Similarly, presidents do not issue more significant executive orders when they are saddled with low approval ratings. Rather, presidents feel more confident in issuing executive orders when their approval ratings are high. While carelessly chosen executive orders could risk a popular backlash, precisely because presidents are strategic when acting unilaterally, the authors find that issuing executive orders does not have any systematic impact on approval ratings. The connection between public opinion and executive action by presidents is a one-way relationship: public opinion influences the issuance of executive orders, but executive actions do not have a significant impact on public opinion.

How does President Trump fare?

Christenson and Kriner note that the Trump presidency so far has been an outlier to this model. Donald Trump’s approval ratings have been historically low. Yet in the first two years of holding office, President Trump issued close to 100 executive orders—though not all of these would be considered “significant”—conflicting with almost 60 years of precedent. Trump’s record might embolden future presidents to act against public opinion. The results of the 2020 elections might offer insights into whether this strategy was effective for the current President. In the meantime, Christenson and Kriner’s research serves as a reminder that one of the biggest constraints on executive action is not the formal system of checks and balances but the informal one of public opinion.