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Jan. 17, 2024

Ask the expert: What we can learn from isolated presidents

As the 2024 election is in full swing, voters and candidates are often asked how they view the role of U.S. president and how much authority presidents should hold. Given the increasing voter and party differences, presidents must govern in the face of more opposition, further evidenced by declining approval ratings.


Jordan Cash, assistant professor in Michigan State University’s James Madison College, recently published “The Isolated Presidency,” a book that explores presidents who came into office without being elected and who then lacked strong support. Cash’s work discusses how the Constitution shapes the presidency, and he answers questions surrounding the role of the U.S. presidency today.

Headshot of Jordan Cash.
Jordan Cash is an assistant professor of political theory and constitutional democracy in Michigan State University’s James Madison College. Courtesy photo.

Why is it important to examine presidents who faced significant opposition?

It is important to evaluate presidents who faced a lot of opposition because, in our contemporary politics, that has become the norm rather than the exception. Every president since 1969 has faced divided government at some point in time – Jimmy Carter is the exception, but he had other difficulties. Many of those presidents faced problems with their own parties, and no president in the 21st century has had an average approval rating above 50%. Thus, if presidential success is possible only through being popular, having Congress on your side, or maintaining a united party, then it’s fair to say that our recent presidents have not enjoyed those advantages.

Does the Constitution allow for the president to effectively govern?

Yes, I believe so. Today, it is common in presidency studies to say that the Constitution created a weak traditional presidency, and that it is only with the advent of the modern presidency (beginning in the 1930s and 1940s) that we finally gained an effective president. I think that view underestimates the constitutional authority of the presidency, and that there is a lot more continuity between the traditional and modern presidencies than most scholars acknowledge.

The Constitution was crafted by the framers to be an empowering document, to create an effective national government that could handle the problems facing the republic and sustain itself going forward. Having a powerful executive, institutionalized as the presidency, was a core part of that plan. It is the presidency that provides the institutional energy necessary for effective government, as well as the responsibility, stability and national perspective that is necessary for a large, extended republic like ours to work.

Has the presidency gained too much power?

Since the 1930s, Congress has delegated much of its lawmaking authority to administrative agencies for crafting regulations, and so I think that yes, the administration — headed of course, by the presidency — has gained too much power. But this is not the fault of the president; it is the fault of Congress.

Each branch of government is designed to push its power as far as it can, so it is no surprise that the president has happily allowed Congress to delegate more authority to administrative agencies because that allows the president more discretion in executing the law. Similarly, as Congress has allowed the president to engage in diplomacy (with executive agreements and militarily, without precise declarations of war), it has further increased the president’s discretion in these areas. So, if you are concerned that the president is too powerful, what you should look at is how Congress might reassert its constitutional authority against the president to reestablish those limitations.

Do you think President Joe Biden exemplifies an isolated president?

I would not say that President Biden is a fully isolated president. He certainly faces some conditions of isolation. With Republicans in control of the House, he faces a divided government, his party is factious and his approval ratings are quite low, indicating that he has lost popular support. But he was elected, which was not the case for the isolated presidents I identify in the book. He had a unified government for his first two years, which enabled him to get some major legislative items passed. Additionally, President Biden still has a Democratic Senate, easing his potential isolation. But in facing some of the conditions of isolation, I think he could learn from the experiences of the isolated presidents to see what constitutionally derived actions he could take to achieve his policy goals.

Why do voters support candidates such as Donald Trump and President Biden with lower approval ratings than their predecessors?

This question boils down to how we choose our presidential candidates — or, rather, how the political parties are organized. The system we have now with parties choosing their nominees through presidential primaries is relatively recent, only beginning in 1972 after the Democratic Party changed its rules in response to the McGovern-Fraser Commission, removing the power of party leaders to select delegates. Prior to that, nominees were selected by their respective parties in national conventions, and primaries did not dictate who those nominees were.

The new system of presidential primaries weakens the control of the institutional parties and allows for candidates who perhaps have a devoted or passionate party base to be more successful. We can see this with Trump’s nomination in 2016, and to a lesser extent with Bernie Sanders in the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries — the latter of which he almost won before the party consolidated around Biden to block him. In short, elections are won by those who show up, and primary voters on both sides of the aisle tend to be on the more extreme ends of the spectrum.

In the future, will presidents and policymakers govern with more opposition?

The short answer appears to be yes. Congress, particularly the House, changes more often than the presidency, and it has become common to see presidents elected with a unified Congress and then lose one or both houses in the next congressional election. That has been the general trend since the 1994 elections when Republicans won both houses for the first time in 40 years. It also plays into the general unpopularity of contemporary presidents, thinking they have a greater mandate or change than reality. This could be remedied by new presidents understanding the limits of their electoral mandate, focusing on those things which all — or a substantial majority — of Americans agree on and not trying to make sweeping changes that appeal only to their party.

At the same time, most presidents do not want to use up their honeymoon period after they are first elected by going for low-hanging fruit, but rather, they want to make a splash and have a big accomplishment they can run for reelection on. Yet, it is just those sorts of issues that tend to be the most divisive and foster an electoral backlash that results in divided government. So, the possibility is there for creating unity, but it may require a change in the incentives from the parties and even the presidency.

By: Jordan Cash

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