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How the presidency changes the president

President Trump gives his first address before a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28. (Jabin Botsford /The Washington Post)

Political observers have been waiting for the mythical “Trump pivot” — a turn away from his signature extreme rhetoric and policy proposals and toward a more conventional style — since the day the businessman and reality TV star announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015. With the president's uncharacteristically restrained speech last night to a joint session of Congress, many pivot-watchers say that moment has arrived.

They may, yet again, be jumping the gun.

A new paper out in the journal Presidential Studies Quarterly takes a rigorous, quantitative approach to the question behind all the current pivot talk: Does the presidency moderate the president? That is, does becoming president cause a leader to shift toward the center in an effort to govern everyone? Or does a president gravitate toward the extremes, becoming more entrenched in party and ideology?

Barry Edwards, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, found that while there was a time when “the presidency effectively moderated presidents’ policy preferences,” that's no longer the case. Instead, in the modern era, Edwards writes, the presidency “appears to amplify the partisan leanings of the president.”

To arrive at that conclusion, Edwards focused on the 23 presidents who had served in Congress before becoming commander-in-chief. That illustrious roster includes presidents from Madison to Lincoln to Truman to Obama.

Edwards chose this set of leaders because Congress keeps detailed roll-call vote records on all its members. Political scientists use these records to derive estimates of lawmakers' partisanship. The more liberal policies a congressman supports, the more liberal his ideology. Voting conservatively leads to a more conservative ideology score.

For the 23 legislators who went on to become president, Edwards derived similar ideological scores for their presidential terms by looking at their speeches and position statements to assess which policies they supported and which they opposed. In the end, for each of the 23 legislator-presidents Edwards had two measures of their political ideology: one from before they entered the White House and one from after.

What he found was that in the historical era — up until about President Franklin Roosevelt — the presidency did indeed exert a moderating influence on presidents: After taking office, earlier presidents pivoted toward more centrist positions than they had exhibited in Congress. “The members of Congress who became president during this time period often expressed relatively extreme positions while serving in Congress,” Edwards found, “but they significantly moderated their preferences while serving as president.”

But in the modern era something changed. “Legislators who have become president in the modern era have exhibited more extreme political preferences than they did while members of Congress,” Edwards found. “The presidency now encourages presidents to act in a more partisan manner than they did while representing a single state or congressional district.”

Edwards suspects these findings reflect the evolving nature of the presidency. The modern president, other recent political science research suggests, is no longer simply an executor of laws passed by Congress. Rather, “he uses executive authority to shift public opinion in support of his policies.”

The office of the president has grown much more powerful in the past 80 years, in Edwards's telling, as the executive branch “swelled and assumed unprecedented power over foreign and domestic policies.” More powerful presidents may feel more emboldened to act, to state policy preferences, and even to effectively write policy via the “pen and phone.

The net result? A president who has more leeway to proactively shape public opinion, rather than to simply respond to it.

Partisanship plays a role in all this too. For better or for worse, the modern president is a lightning rod for criticism from the opposing party. As a result he may push back against criticism with vigorous defenses of his, and his party's, policies. Again, the net effect is a president more enmeshed in partisan concerns, whose fate is more tied to his parties' victories in Congress than ever before.

Edwards's analysis doesn't include presidents who weren't legislators before entering the White House. But for those presidents, like Trump, the same dynamics and pressures are at play. Trump inherits a powerful office and a deeply entrenched partisan divide in Congress.

“The presidency as an institution,” Edwards writes, “is no longer restraining presidents from staking extreme political positions.”

It's worth pointing out that there's a difference between “rhetoric” and “policy” here. Trump may choose to stick to his preferred policies, simply wrapping them in softer language — “nationalism with an indoor voice,” as one senior White House official described it to Businessweek's Joshua Green.

But we've seen such a softening before. During the campaign, for instance, it seemed that whenever Trump delivered a traditional teleprompter speech, pundits were eager to declare the “pivot” finally arrived. But in short order the candidate would log on to Twitter or improvise some off-the-cuff remarks, and the old Trump was back at it again.

Edwards's research suggests that Trump's no more likely to modulate himself than any other president of the past 80 years. Instead of a “new Trump,” we may simply get more of the old Trump.