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Constitutional Qualms or Politics as Usual. The Factors Shaping Public Support for Unilateral Action

July 2016

Renee O’Connell


This study addresses the role public opinion plays on unilateral action, or the ability of the president to act independently of the courts or Congress. Congress and the courts place few formal regulations on the President, and the American public may be the strongest factor keeping the President from making policy. The authors used a series of survey experiments to evaluate public opinion on unilateral action based on constitutional, partisan, and policy concerns. The results suggest that Americans evaluate unilateral action based on partisan and policy preferences with few concerning themselves with the threat to our system of checks and balances.

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Policy Implications

Authors found little evidence of a public inherently skeptical of unilateral action. Partisan forces and policy preferences, not constitutional concerns, plays the largest role in shaping opinion on unilateral action. This makes sense in context of the intense polarization seen in America today. Understanding the role of public opinion and the reaction of the executive branch is incredibly important especially in the face of the gridlock faced by Congress.

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