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The Presidency Does Not Moderate the President

History suggests Trump will never reach out to people who didn’t support him.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In his victory speech last November, President Donald Trump insisted he would be a “president for all Americans.” Some saw that as a signal that he would reach beyond his base, and, now, they’re disappointed in his failure to do so.

Well, that initial optimism was based on a misreading of history.

“The common view that the presidency compels the president to act on behalf of the entire country is probably wrong,” political scientist Barry Edwards of the University of Central Florida writes in a recently published study. “For the last 80 years, the opposite appears more likely true…. The presidency now encourages presidents to act in a more partisan manner than they did while representing a single state or Congressional district.”

In the March issue of the journal Presidential Studies Quarterly, Edwards debunks the widely held belief that sitting in the Oval Office changes one’s perspective. According to this school of thought, becoming chief executive prompts one to consider “the preference of the general public, rather than merely parochial interests,” in the words of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

To test this thesis, Edwards examines the records of the 23 men, from James Madison to Barack Obama, who served both in Congress and as president. He specifically looked at their roll-call votes while in Congress, and their stated positions on such votes while they were president.

“The presidency effectively moderated U.S. presidents throughout much of American history,” he finds. “Senators and representatives who became president before Franklin Roosevelt consistently moderated their political views after taking the presidential oath of office.”

But beginning with Roosevelt, “the presidency has had the opposite effect,” he adds. “Legislators who have become president in the modern era have exhibited more extreme political preferences than they did while members of Congress.”

While his study does not attempt to discern the reasons for this shift, Edwards presents several possibilities. He notes that, during the Roosevelt administration, “the executive branch swelled and assumed unprecedented power over foreign and domestic policies.” This “institutionalization of the presidency enables presidents to vigorously assert their partisan preferences.”

Ha also notes that “the polarization of American politics potentially undermines the median voter’s moderate status.” Even a president so inclined to do so would be hard-pressed to advocate for centrist positions when so many voters strongly lean to one side or the other.

“The presidency as an institution is no longer restraining presidents from staking presidents from staking extreme political positions,” Edwards concludes. “Rather than compel the president to adopt a unique perspective on national affairs, the presidency now seems more likely to amplify, rather than moderate, the partisan leanings of the president.” As we are seeing right now.