All the President’s Organized Interests

My book project All the President’s Organized Interests, which examines how presidents engage with organized interests to pursue their goals, demonstrates my research interests in political elites’ decisionmaking and the implications of elite behavior for public opinion. Though both scholars acknowledge presidents and organized interests as formidable actors in American politics, few studies examine the interactions between these actors. I posit that presidents engage with interests to channel their institutional resources, such as their electoral and lobbying capabilities, in service of presidents’ goals. I further argue that presidents maximize the effectiveness of this engagement by focusing their efforts on interests who have large resource endowments and who share the partisan and ideological preferences of the incumbent. I assess these expectations by evaluating three interrelated questions: with which interests do presidents engage?; how do presidents encourage the interests with which they engage to cooperate with them?; and how does presidents’ engagement with interests help presidents achieve their goals?

My theory rests on the assertion that presidents, not organized interests, exert primary control over engagement, or reciprocal communication and coordination between presidents and interests concerning electoral or policy goals. Because this assertion diverges from the traditional understanding of interests’ interactions with policymakers, wherein interests’ motives and strategic choices drive engagement, I draw on 15 interviews with former White House officials and interest representatives and a survey of over 700 lobbyists to assess its veracity. Evidence from these interviews and survey responses indicate that interests focus their lobbying efforts on Congress and the bureaucracy, such that interactions with the White House are more likely to be driven by the president; that the White House actively cultivates relationships with interests and initiates engagement; and that interests are more responsive to the White House’s entreaties than vice versa. Collectively, this evidence demonstrates that, unlike in other institutional venues, presidents’ motives and strategic choices guide their engagement with interests.

After establishing the primacy of presidents in engagement and explicating my theory, I evaluate my three research questions. First, I consider with which organized interests presidents engage. I argue that presidents engage with interests from whom they expect the highest rates of return: interests with large resource endowments and who share the incumbent’s ideological and partisan preferences. To test these expectations, I utilize over 7 million White House visitor logs records from the Clinton and Obama presidencies to identify instances in which presidents provided access to interests. I supplement these records with other data sources, including Lobbying Disclosure Act filings and White House personnel salary reports. While some of this data is accessible online, I acquired much of it through FOIA requests and archival work at the Clinton Presidential Library. I leverage this data to estimate multilevel models examining the relationships between interests’ White House access and their lobbying expenditures, aggregate campaign contributions, and the partisan alignment of their industries with the incumbent. I find presidents are more likely to provide access to interests with higher levels of resources and to interests in industries aligned with the incumbent’s party. However, the magnitudes of these effects are modest when compared to similar analyses in Congress, and I find no evidence that interests with large resource endowments or who share the president’s preferences are more likely to experience engagement with high-ranking White House personnel (e.g., the president, chief of staff). Collectively, these results suggest that while presidents may contribute to inequalities in political voice present in other institutions, they do so to a lesser degree.

Second, I examine how presidents encourage cooperation from organized interests. Though interests may cooperate with presidents because of shared goals, presidents can encourage recalcitrant interests or boost the effort interests exert with selective incentives at their disposal through their unilateral powers. I argue presidents allocate these incentives to interests with whom they otherwise engage. I evaluate this expectation with multilevel models assessing whether presidents provide more federal grants, appointments to advisory commissions, and mentions in the White House’s public statements to interests they previously engaged. My results support this expectation, suggesting that presidents’ engagement with interests contributes to disparities not only in political voice, but also the distribution of political resources.

Third, I examine whether presidents’ engagement with organized interests advances their goals. In many cases, interests’ activity concerning presidents’ initiatives is hard to observe. For example, lacking information about when presidents encourage interests to lobby Congress and about interests’ lobbying of members of Congress, we cannot evaluate whether engagement induces interests to exert lobbying effort and whether that effort advances presidents’ objectives. Consequently, I use experiments to recreate this unobservable strategic environment. First, I evaluate whether engagement motivates interests to exert effort in ways consonant with presidents’ preferences using a survey experiment completed by nearly 900 lobbyists. Then, I examine whether interests’ public statements of support for presidents’ priorities—a key activities the White House encourages interests to conduct—increase public support for those priorities with a survey experiment completed by roughly 3000 Americans. My results indicate engagement increases interests’ willingness to exert effort on behalf of presidents’ priorities and that interests’ statements of support for those priorities bolster the public’s approval of them.

My book project offers theoretical contributions to several areas in American politics and highlights substantive implications of presidents’ interactions with organized interests. I not only start bridging the scholarly gap between the presidency and interests, but also demonstrate how presidents use their powers to provide representation to select constituencies, rather than the country as a whole, in a non-electoral context. Further, whereas recent research on the presidential toolkit focuses on formal powers presidents exercise unilaterally, I highlight an overlooked utensil in the toolkit: presidents’ ability to mobilize interests. In addition, whereas most studies of interests’ influence on the policy process focus on Congress, I highlight the pathways by which interests enjoy influence through the executive branch and consider how the president contributes to inequality of political voice among the universe of interests in society.

This book project emerges from my dissertation, which received the 2021 George C. Edwards III Dissertation Award from APSA’s Presidents and Executive Politics section.