Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Domestic Policy

Consulting Editor: Andrew Rudalevige

Professor Rudalevige is an Associate Professor at Dickinson College. His writings include:

Managing the President's Program: Presidential Leadership and Legislative Policy Formulation (Princeton University Press, 2002)

The New Imperial Presidency: Renewing Presidential Power after Watergate (University of Michigan Press, 2005)

Domestic policy is an umbrella term for a massive, unwieldy set of policy areas comprised of issues ranging from poverty, to environmental protection, to law enforcement, to labor-management relations. In recent years, the field has witnessed high-profile battles over health care insurance, prescription drug coverage, AIDS and stem cell research and development, educational accountability and testing, welfare reform, logging, drilling for oil, affirmative action, gay marriage, transportation safety, homeland security, and the USA Patriot Act. As even this quick survey makes clear, discussions in this area are often contentious, and most members of the President's cabinet -- at least thirteen of the fifteen, plus the Environmental Protection Agency -- have some claim over their formulation and implementation. Most of the cabinet agencies were created to give important political constituencies (unions, small business, teachers, farmers) an institutionalized voice in government. The agencies devoted to domestic policy reflect the rise (if rarely the fall) of important issues and constituencies. Most recently, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks spurred the reorganization of 170,000 federal employees into the Department of Homeland Security.

Not surprisingly, Presidents have sought centralized mechanisms to coordinate the development of policy in this area and to oversee its implementation.

This desire for increasing control began as early as the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt utilized the predecessor agency of the Office of Management and Budget, the Bureau of the Budget (BoB), to examine legislation being sent to Congress by the various departments and agencies. This process of "central clearance" was strengthened over time to include not just proposed legislation but proposed testimony to Congress, executive orders, enrolled bills (those awaiting presidential signature or veto) and, in the 1980s, proposed regulations.

In 1939, the Executive Office of the President (EOP) was created, comprising both BoB and a new White House Office that included a cadre of personal presidential staff. The Truman administration increased the size of both the EOP staff as well as their involvement in policy development. The White House counsel's staff under Clark Clifford and then Charles Murphy worked closely with the BoB to establish an annual presidential legislative program; Congress also expanded presidential capabilities with the creation of the Council of Economic Advisers (1946) and the National Security Council (1947).

Dwight Eisenhower, while creating a series of interdepartmental groups with policy development responsibilities, also created a series of functionally specific staff posts that doubled their portfolios -- including White House offices for public works planning, agriculture, atomic energy, and airways modernization. Kennedy undid much of Eisenhower's formal structure but kept responsibility for policy development in the White House; Lyndon Johnson, hungry for sweeping domestic policy change, expanded the White House domestic staff under the supervision of domestic aide Joseph Califano and institutionalized a series of task forces that sought new ideas from both outside and within the government.

Richard Nixon formalized these trends with the transformation of BoB into the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the creation of the Domestic Council within the White House. The OMB, as its new name implied, was designed to enhance the President's ability to manage the wider executive branch, installing a new level of political appointees above the agency's cadre of career analysts. The Domestic Council, formed by Reorganization Plan No. 2 in March 1970, was ostensibly a forum for cabinet-level members, chaired by the President. But the real power lay in the Council's staff; in this regard, it purposefully paralleled the evolution of the National Security Council. Domestic Council director John Ehrlichman became part of the Nixon White House policy triumvirate, along with chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and national security adviser Henry Kissinger. OMB and the Council overlapped in many ways, cooperating on some issues and competing on others.

After Nixon's resignation, Gerald Ford put new vice president Nelson Rockefeller in charge of the Domestic Council (until Rockefeller himself was jettisoned from the 1976 GOP ticket). Ford also created the Economic Policy Board, a parallel cabinet-level working group also staffed by White House personnel. Jimmy Carter, promising during his campaign to dismantle the Nixon/Ford staff apparatus that he argued had helped foster Watergate, got rid of the Domestic Council. But he kept its staff function, now called the Domestic Policy Staff, under aide Stuart Eizenstat. In 1979, Carter fired five cabinet secretaries, underscoring the strength of the centralized staff mechanisms in policy formulation.

The Reagan administration took these coordinating mechanisms further. Reagan installed bright ideologue David Stockman as director of the OMB, and used the need for urgent budget -- and then deficit -- reductions to firm up central control of domestic budgeting and, therefore, policy development. He also instituted a series of seven cabinet councils under the new Office of Policy Development (though in practice under his White House "troika": chief of staff James Baker, counsel Edwin Meese, and communications director Michael Deaver) as a means of keeping department heads cognizant of, and responsive to, White House priorities.

This model has stayed more or less intact, under different names. The Office of Policy Development remains in the EOP. The domestic cabinet council became a "Policy Coordinating Group" under President George H. W. Bush (see his Memorandum to Agency Heads of February 24, 1992) and the "Domestic Policy Council" (DPC) by President Clinton's Executive Order 12859 of August 16, 1993. Clinton also created a third policy council, the National Economic Council (NEC), to round out the issues that did not fit neatly into NSC or DPC jurisdiction. This tripartite structure has continued under George W. Bush. Currently, the DPC staff has twenty-plus professional members. The Office of National AIDS Policy, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives are also affiliated with the Domestic Policy Council.

The challenge for Presidents in the domestic realm, then, has been to gain control without undermining cooperation. They must formulate policy that meets their own substantive preferences and political needs -- not those of a cacophonous set of departmental constituencies -- while at the same time appropriately utilizing bureaucratic expertise. Each item in the President's program is developed in a different way, depending on the characteristics of the proposal and of the political environment. When Presidents distrust the bureaucracy, and/or when Congress is in opposition hands (since Congress is tightly linked to that bureaucracy), they are more likely to rely on their centralized resources. In any case, the domestic policy staff is critical for coordinating interagency relations and managing their presentation to the President.

Presidents receive far more deference from Congress in foreign policy than in domestic affairs; indeed, for a time, the divergence between the two prompted the notion that there were "two presidencies." There are frequently more than two sides to any given domestic issue, and some subset of legislators is inevitably linked to interests on all of them. The 2001 education debate involved states, teachers' unions, testing companies, religious organizations with their own schools -- and, of course, parents. In the debate over Medicare prescription drug coverage, major actors included groups representing senior citizens, pharmaceutical companies, insurance firms, and medical personnel. Indeed, the passage of social policies causes new groups to form with the aim of protecting the new benefits those policies grant. The result is a constricted playing field and, in the absence of a political earthquake like the Great Depression or Watergate, incremental policy change. Presidents propose, but Congress is not always inclined to dispose.

It is worth noting that as chief executive, the President can affect domestic policy without going through Congress. Reorganizations or appointments are two ways of gaining power over an agency previously insulated from presidential influence. Further, even as a bill is signed into law, presidential "signing statements" may direct executive agencies in their interpretation of the law as they make decisions about implementation. Signing statements are just part of a broad array of mechanisms, including executive orders, presidential memoranda, and proclamations, that seek to shape how a law is made effective. When legislation is vague or silent on a particular matter -- a frequent occurrence -- such means may move policy in directions lawmakers did not contemplate. President Clinton set aside by proclamation some two million acres of land in Utah as a national monument (using 1906 statutory authority); President Bush used an executive order in late 2001 to create a system of military tribunals outside the normal court system for noncitizens suspected of terrorist activity.

Another vehicle for shifting the grounds of policy implementation is the rule-making process. The Code of Federal Regulation hardly makes for gripping bedside reading, and thus adding regulatory review to the central clearance process housed in the Office of Management and Budget gave Presidents a powerful and low-visibility tool over domestic policy. As noted above, in the 1980s, OMB (specifically, its Office of IRA) also became responsible for reviewing draft regulations, with an eye towards discouraging those that imposed a net cost on society. Indeed, in 1985, an executive order required agencies to submit lists of "anticipated regulatory actions" for OMB review. Despite grumbling by legislators and interest groups, Reagan's successors have maintained similar or even stronger processes. In 1996, Congress fought back by giving itself statutory power to delay major rules changes for sixty days, and to veto them by joint resolution during that period. Rules on ergonomics issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were vetoed using this mechanism in 2001.

In short, domestic policy is an arena where the study -- and the reality -- of the institutional, administrative, and legislative presidencies intersect. It comprises policy development, enactment, and implementation across multiple contentious substantive areas. The President must contend with an array of other actors, from legislators to interest groups to the bureaucratic establishment he nominally heads, in order to make an effective mark on domestic affairs. As a result, Presidents have developed stable organizational means of coordinating their administrative and informational resources within the Executive Office of the President. Still, here as elsewhere, how -- and how well -- Presidents utilize those structures varies dramatically.

General Works

Jones, Charles O. The Presidency in a Separated System. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1994.

Kessel, John H. Presidents, the Presidency, and the Political Environment. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2001.

Lammers, William W. and Michael A. Genovese. The Presidency and Domestic Policy: Comparing Leadership Styles, FDR to Clinton. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2000.

Light, Paul C. The President's Agenda: Domestic Policy from Kennedy to Clinton, 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Neustadt, Richard E. Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. New York: Free Press, 1990.

Pfiffner, James P. The Modern Presidency, 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.

Executive Branch Coordination for Policy Development

Arnold, Peri E. Making the Managerial Presidency, 2nd rev. ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Burke, John P. The Institutional Presidency, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Cohen, Jeffrey E. The Politics of the U.S. Cabinet. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988.

Cronin, Thomas E. and Sanford Greenberg, eds. The Presidential Advisory System. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

Hult, Karen M. and Charles E. Walcott. Empowering the White House: Governance under Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Kernell, Samuel and Samuel L. Popkin, eds. Chief of Staff: Twenty-Five Years of Managing the Presidency. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Kessel, John H. The Domestic Presidency. N. Scituate, MA: Duxbury Press, 1975.

Patterson, Bradley. The White House Staff. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000.

Pfiffner, James P., ed. The Managerial Presidency, 2nd ed. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1999.

Ponder, Daniel E. Good Advice: Information and Policy Making in the White House. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2000.

Porter, Roger B. Presidential Decision Making: The Economic Policy Board. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Rudalevige, Andrew. Managing the President's Program: Presidential Leadership and Legislative Policy Formulation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Tomkin, Shelley L. Inside OMB. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

Warshaw, Shirley Anne. The Domestic Presidency: Policy Making in the White House. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997.

Wayne, Stephen J. The Legislative Presidency. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Presidential Relations with Congress

Bond, Jon R. and Richard Fleisher, eds. Polarized Politics: Congress and the President in a Partisan Era. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2000.

Bond, Jon R., Richard Fleisher, and B. Dan Wood. "The Marginal and Time-Varying Effect of Public Approval on Presidential Success in Congress," Journal of Politics 65 (February 2003), 92-110.

Cameron, Charles M. Veto Bargaining: Presidents and the Politics of Negative Power. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Collier, Kenneth E. Between the Branches: The White House Office of Legislative Affairs. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Edwards, George C., III. At the Margins: Presidential Leadership of Congress. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Peterson, Mark A. Legislating Together: The White House and Capitol Hill from Eisenhower to Reagan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Shull, Steven A., ed. The Two Presidencies: A Quarter-Century Assessment. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1991.

Case Studies of Domestic Policymaking

Birnbaum, Jeffrey H. and Alan S. Murray. Showdown at Gucci Gulch: Lawmakers, Lobbyists, and the Unlikely Triumph of Tax Reform. New York: Random House, 1987.

Cohen, Richard E. Washington at Work: Back Rooms and Clean Air, 2nd ed. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Greenstein, Fred I. The George W. Bush Presidency. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Johnson, Haynes and David S. Broder. The System. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997.

Kearns, Doris. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

Skocpol, Theda. Boomerang: Clinton's Health Security Effort and the Turn Against Government in U.S. Politics. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

Smith, Hedrick. The Power Game. New York: Ballantine, 1988.

Waldman, Steven. The Bill. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Non-Legislative Approaches to Domestic Policy

Cooper, Philip J. By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Direct Action. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Howell, William G. Power without Persuasion: The Politics of Presidential Direct Action. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Kerwin, Cornelius M. Rulemaking: How Government Agencies Write Law and Make Policy, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1999.

Lewis, David E. Presidents and the Politics of Agency Design. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Mayer, Kenneth R. With a Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.