Book Launch Event: The Wartime President

On November 1, the Center for Effective Public Management held an event on the new book

The Wartime President. Authors William Howell, Saul Jackman, and Jon Rogowski discussed their new book that examines presidential powers—both foreign and domestic—during periods of war and peace.

Perhaps President Obama’s greatest campaign promise was to bring home the troops from the Middle East.  And he has largely succeeded:  the President completed the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in December 2011, and plans to have those still in Afghanistan home by the end of 2014.  Having assumed office with two large military ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq underway and in the midst of a war on terror that showed no signs of abating, Mr. Obama now appears poised to usher in a new period of relative peace.

On other issues, though, the president has had a much harder time of it.  After realizing some landmark policy achievements during his first term in office—from the federal stimulus act to the Affordable Care Act—Obama’s effectiveness in shaping the domestic policy landscape has steadily waned.  Now trying to advance elements of his domestic policy agenda, most recently on gun control, Obama regularly trips over opposing forces throughout our polity. 

These two trends—one involving the phasing out of war, the other concerning the president’s decreasing policy effectiveness at home—may be more connected than we have previously realized.  In a book to be published this August, we present new evidence to suggest that Obama’s struggles to achieve his domestic agenda may be connected to his efforts to conclude American military involvement abroad.

We know that presidents have substantial discretion to pursue their foreign policy goals when the nation is at war.  It is less clear, though, how war affects the president’s domestic policy agenda.  In our book, The Wartime President, we show that war not only increases the president’s power abroad, but also at home.  Conversely, ending military involvement decreases the President’s capacity to get what he wants.  In other words, we might have witnessed an Obama administration that was much more successful on the domestic front had the wars in the Middle East raged on.

The relevance of war for presidential success, in our view, traces back to the different perspectives presidents and legislators retain while in office.  Members of the two branches, after all, represent fundamentally different constituencies—the President serving the nation as a whole, and legislators their individual districts.  Legislators, of course, do not ignore national interest, but must weigh it against the interests of their particular districts when deciding how to vote on a policy.  The president need not make such a calculation, since, as Woodrow Wilson recognized more than a century ago, he “is the only national voice in affairs . . . He is the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people.”

We argue wars have the potential to augment presidential influence at home because they disrupt legislators’ preoccupation with local concerns.  When the nation is at war, legislators tend to place more weight on the national interest relative to their district’s interests.  As a result, Congress is more willing to defer to the president on matters foreign and domestic, since he both knows and stands to represent what is good for the country as a whole.  Likewise, when peace is restored, members of Congress turn their attention back to their individual districts, leading to greater inter-branch disagreement and thus impeding presidential ambitions.

Recent history provides a good deal of support for this argument.  During the major wars of the last century, we show Congress has proven to be much more accommodating to the president’s budgetary recommendations.  Moreover, members of Congress have been more inclined to vote in line with the president’s policy positions when the nation transitions to war.  In the aftermath of September 11, when a Republican sat in the White House, we found members of Congress voting in ways that appeared distinctly more conservative, even when restricting the sample of votes to purely domestic issues.  Likewise, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks, under a Democratic president, members of Congress lurched significantly to the ideological Left.

Just as the president’s power increases at the onset of war, so too does it decrease at war’s conclusion:  Congress’s enacted appropriations diverge more substantially from the president’s proposed budget, and legislative voting patterns drift away from the president’s preferences.  We see this decline in presidential power corresponding to peacetime following World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War.  Whether the same effect will follow the withdrawal of troops from the Iraq and Afghanistan is an open question, but an affirmative answer is beginning to show.