Who controls foreign policy?

The United States is the world’s most powerful country, and the president is the most powerful single actor in the U.S. government. Most people consequently assume that the president makes foreign policy. The history of the past 25 years seems to bear this contention out: From Panama to the Persian Gulf, Serbia to Sudan, presidents have made decisions that shaped the contemporary world, and they have usually done so without meaningful input from other branches of government.  Even President Obama, a critic of the “imperial presidency,” has long since apparently been persuaded of an expansive view of executive prerogatives.

But does the president actually control foreign policy? Is his power stronger over some decisions (for instance, deciding to go to war) than others (whether the U.S. should sign a climate-control agreement)? And if the president’s power isn’t total, with whom does he share it: voters, his party, his administration, or Congress?

The high school civics answer is that voters control the president, and therefore shape foreign policy indirectly.  But it is difficult for Americans to formulate what they think our foreign policy should be. Indeed, voters know comparatively little about foreign policy. Most people think that the U.S. government should cut its foreign-aid budget to 10 percent of the total–which is, of course, more than ten times as large as the actual figure. One could argue that a president who pledged to cut foreign aid (but left the amount he was cutting unspecified) and a president who pledged to increase foreign aid (but only to the level the public believes it already spends) would both be following the popular will.

Moreover, it appears that voters are often following their parties when making up their minds. In an April 2011 poll by the <a href=”http://people-press.org/category/datasets/2011/”>Pew Center</a>, researchers asked voters whether they approved of the United States and its allies sending troops and weapons to the Libyan rebels. Only 28 percent of respondents approved, but Democrats were 12 percentage points more likely to support the intervention than non-Democrats (even after controlling for race, gender, income, and education).  There was no such effect for Republicans, reflecting the divided nature of opinions expressed on the subject by leaders such as John McCain and Ron Paul. Surveys taken about the Iraq war decision in 2002 and 2003 showed a similar effect but reversed, with Republicans more likely to support the Iraq war than Democrats.

If presidents can shape public opinion to suit their policies, then we live in a very different world than that in which the White House must choose its policies to suit public opinion. Of course, presidents do not have complete power to do so by any means: Congress often imposes its will on trade agreements, while the Defense Department and other major bureaucratic players often have their own notions about what policy should be. Yet politics is the art of the possible. If presidents define the boundaries of the possible, then we need to evaluate their foreign-policy performance differently than their performance at home.

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