Research on presidential distributive politics focuses almost exclusively on federal domestic spending. Yet, presidential influence on public policy extends well-beyond grant allocation. Since the early 20th Century, for example, the president has had substantial discretion to adjust tariff schedules and non-tariff barriers “with the stroke of a pen.” These trade adjustments via presidential directive allow us to test the logic of presidential particularism in an area of policy understudied among presidency scholars. We examine unilateral adjustments to US trade policies between 1917 and 2006, with a detailed analysis of those made between 1986 and 2006, and find that presidents—in accordance with electoral incentives—strategically allocate trade protections to industries in politically valuable states. In general, states in which the president lacks a comfortable electoral majority are systematically more likely to receive protectionist unilateral orders. Overall, our results show that the president’s distributive imperative extends into the realm of foreign affairs, an arena in which the president has substantial authority to influence public policy.
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