The Particularistic President
Political scientist Andrew Reeves reveals when and why presidents play favorites
If you’ve turned on a television in the last few months, you’re well aware that the political pomp and circumstance that precedes a presidential election – the campaigning, the debating, the infighting and gossip – is already underway. More than a year before citizens take to the polls to vote in a new president, Donald Trump’s latest one-liners and Hillary Clinton’s emails regularly fill headlines.
Though the national spectacle can at times be overwhelming, there are clear reasons why media outlets and citizens invest so heavily into this long process of electing a president. As Andrew Reeves reveals in his first book, The Particularistic President: Executive Branch Politics and Political Inequality, American citizens hold their president accountable for a huge range of issues. Reeves, an assistant professor of political science in Arts & Sciences, discovered that for many voters, even things like local highway spending or the presence of job-training programs can be attributed to – or blamed on – the president.
At first, Reeves found the extent to which voters hold presidents accountable for local spending surprising. “When I was in graduate school I was taught that you could understand presidential elections as a function of big national issues, like the national economy or whether we’re at war,” he says. These big-picture issues do matter, according to Reeves, but he and coauthor Doug Kriner also found “consistent and strong” evidence that voters hold the president accountable for local affairs.
With this knowledge in hand, Reeves and Kriner turned their attention to a related question. As Reeves puts it, “If voters are holding presidents accountable, can we step back and look to see whether presidents are responding to that incentive?” In other words, when making spending decisions, do presidents take local pressures and opportunities into account?
This line of questioning is significant in part because it flies in the face of a commonly held view of the presidency. The Particularistic President opens with a quote from Woodrow Wilson, who asserted that the president “is the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people” and “speaks for no special interest.” More than a century later, this general belief can be found across the political spectrum, from pundits to individual voters to presidents themselves. While it’s understood that members of Congress fight for – and respond to – local demands and pressures, the president should stand above the fray. He or she represents every citizen and fights for the good of the country as a whole, or so the common story goes.
To find out if this view is actually accurate, rather than simply a vision of the ideal, Reeves sifted through a mountain of federal spending data from the 1980s through 2008. He and Kriner compiled and analyzed the flow of money in areas like transportation funding, military base closings, and, most dramatically, natural-disaster declarations.
At first, the idea of politics dictating funding for natural-disaster relief seems almost as absurd as a tornado selectively taking down the homes of Democrats or floodwaters overwhelming only the homes of Republicans. Extreme weather and geological events are non-partisan; disaster relief should be, too. But in reality, even federal aid following a disaster carries political weight.
“It’s the same theme that we see again and again – there’s an electoral effect here,” Reeves says. “Places that are located in swing states are more likely to get these disaster declarations.” And, unlike with other types of federal spending, this effect can be traced directly to the president. It’s typically hard to say whose fingerprints are all over any one dollar of federal spending, but disaster declarations offer a rare case in which presidents have a lot of authority to make a decision about distributive politics. By statute, presidents can say yes or no when governors request aid for a natural disaster.
To be fair, large disaster events do not follow this pattern. “Hurricane Katrina gets a disaster declaration. It doesn’t matter whether it happens in Louisiana or Massachusetts,” Reeves says. “It’s these smaller things that could go either way, where there’s a county in Kentucky and a county in Florida and they both have about the same amount of damage. Say there are some trees blown over, some houses damaged. The one in Florida gets the declaration. The one in Kentucky doesn’t.”
This hypothetical event in Florida takes Reeves back to the scenario that first sparked his interest in questions about accountability, electoral politics, and presidential decision-making. As a government and politics major at the University of Maryland, he looked on in fascination as votes from the state of Florida determined the 2000 election in favor of George W. Bush.
“We were fixated on Florida for weeks and even months, and then it all stopped when President Bush was inaugurated,” he remembers. “What were the implications of this? Governor Bush was now President Bush, and he knew that Florida was the state that got him there. I was interested from that point on in the ramifications of our electoral institutions for our policies.”
Shortly after, in graduate school at Harvard, he realized that natural disasters offered an illuminating view into whether politics have an effect on presidential spending. He wrote some papers about the subject, and over the years continued to notice the political opportunities that natural disasters afford.
“On one hand you think, this isn’t an area where presidents should play favorites. On the other hand, when you think about it as an electoral opportunity, these citizens have had the worst experience of their lives, and the president is coming in and literally comforting them – there are these pictures of presidents with their arms around people. We found evidence that there is in fact an electoral return on these things. When presidents make the declarations, they get more votes in that county in the next election,” Reeves explains.
In the case of federal aid for disasters, the influence of the president is real. However, these feelings of goodwill or blame extend to a much wider range of “divide the dollar” federal spending. Reeves believes that these attitudes, paired with the common assumption that the president makes decisions for the good of all citizens, can be dangerous as the country continues to evaluate divisions of power.
“One of the most striking things to me was the extent to which people have granted power to the president based on this logic,” Reeves explains. “Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote a law review article in which she said it was good to delegate power away from Congress to the president. Her reasoning was that when we do that, we take power away from members of Congress, who want to do the best for their constituency, and instead it goes to the president, who wants to do the best for the entire nation.”
Part of this attitude is a mythology, Reeves believes, but it’s a mythology that’s enshrined in the institution of the presidency. “We’re in a system where Congress and the courts increasingly acquiesce to what the president wants,” Reeves says. “It concentrates a lot of power in a single individual.”
The type of pandering described in The Particularistic President may seem unsurprising during the current primary season, as presidential candidates attempt to woo even the most extreme ends of their own parties. As Reeves’ research reveals, such influences do not simply disappear once a person becomes president. This phenomenon is true across decades and across presidents, including those who seem much less extreme or partisan in their views than some of the candidates in the news today.
Reeves grants that in many cases, Justice Kagan’s view of a universalistic (rather than particularistic) president may be accurate. Overall, US citizens can continue to hope and believe that the president is usually working with the aim of improving the country as a whole. “But this book shows that in many cases it’s not true,” Reeves concludes. “And the observable implications of that are millions, and sometimes billions of dollars.”
This story first appeared in the fall 2015 issue of The Ampersand: Alumni Edition. For more news, stories, and events from Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, please visit artsci.wustl.edu or write to firstname.lastname@example.org to subscribe.