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Knowing What We Want to Know About the Presidency

The editor, George C. Edwards III, has asked an important question of presidential scholars: “What do we want to know about the presidency and why do we want to know it?” Acknowledging the centrality of the issue for our work, however, does not resolve it. In the first place, I doubt very much that I can speak for anyone else, though I can say something of what I learn from others. I am not certain I can even adhere to Edwards’s forewarning not to advocate a particular approach or promote a topic of special interest to me. Accordingly, much of what I have written is about what I want to know and why—granted more as advice to others than a personal agenda.

In the second place, I believe there should be a general answer to the question, one that orients a research agenda because it reveals topics that we do or do not know much about or have not thought about in that way. That is no small challenge, but it is what I have endeavored to do. It will not surprise the reader to know that I had several false starts and even more postponements in setting words to paper at all. In the third place, I have doubts that I can know what I want to know about the presidency by concentrating only on that institution. I cannot escape an orientation that I have committed to print—the presidency in a separated system. The fact is that much of what I want to know is associated with the president’s place in the presidency and the place and roles of both in governing and in politics. Actually, I venture to state that I do speak for others in that respect, if not all.

Having explained that what I am about to do cannot be done, I plunge ahead. First I offer a general answer to Edwards’s question. Then I specify research topics that relate to the broader theme of desired knowledge. I should note at the outset that I make only limited reference to the voluminous literature on the topics to be discussed, with apologies to legions of scholars. This is not a bibliographical review. It is an essay in the classic sense: a literary composition, analytical and interpretative, dealing with its subject from a more or less limited or personal standpoint.

The Big Answer

I, and perhaps we, want to know how presidents pass from history into history. Persons as presidents enter an existing institution in which they seek to find their place. “Existing” in this context means that people are at work and routines are set when the president is sworn in. Government does not cease, or even pause for very long, during the transition. In four to eight years, less if tragedy strikes, that president will be gone. He, some day she, will have passed through the permanent government, as will a legion of other short-timers who tag along. And they will have participated in effecting change so that the “existing” institution for the next incumbent will have been modified.

Much of what I have just described has been dichotomized into the personal presidency and the institutional presidency. It is as though one had to choose between camps that, in my view, are on the same side. If we seek a big answer to Edwards’s question, we accept the reality of persons populating institutions. That is not to exclude the force of practices that come to be accepted as ways of governing, then changed. It is rather to encourage focusing on the broader matter of how the personal—the transient now—and institutional—the prime then—intersect to sustain continuity and generate change. Equally I accept and endorse the vitality of separated institutions’ sharing and competing for powers. Consequently, presidential studies should be fitted into what we know and want to know about Congress, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and various political, not strictly governmental, institutions. It is accepted that no one study can do it all. But research can be sited to aid the integration of findings into efforts to manage Edwards’s big question.

Richard E. Neustadt’s path-breaking study Presidential Power (1960) is the seminal work classified as a study of the personal presidency (a term that he, in fact, has never used). Presidential Power surely does concentrate on the person as president, probing how that person can wield power effectively. It is not, however, adversative to institutional study. Nor does Neustadt ignore the effects of institutional growth and change. Rather, these developments are filtered through an analytical framework that focuses on the prospects for personal influence of the president in particular, though with broader implications (the subtitle of the original book is The Politics of Leadership). Recall, too, that Neustadt’s characterization of the separation of powers as “a government of separated institutions sharing powers,” now accorded the status of a cliche, was central to his portrayal of the challenges facing a president in his exercise of power.

It is the case, in my view, that Neustadt’s unwavering focus on effective personal influence is bothersome to some scholars. Political science in service to officeholders has not been enthusiastically welcomed by the profession in recent years, and for whatever lessons and research orientation that scholars might gain from Presidential Power, its aim was as much to aid presidents as to foster research. Having the book compared with Machiavelli’s The Prince encouraged this perspective. Also nurturing this view was the notion that concentration on helping the president, any president, excluded ideology in favor of the practical exercise of power. What kind of social science was this? And how could we still be paying attention to such a work?

One reason, of course, was that it seemed real and that the distinction between “power” (personal influence) and “powers” (formal authority) appeared to be an analytical extension or clarification of the personal and the institutional. The presidency in the abstract is a bundle of expectations cultivated by our understanding of its constitutional status and powers, modified by practices of recent incumbents and further grants of authority. The presidency in the particular comes to be those anticipations as realized, altered, or distorted by those who occupy the White House. Hence, the president reviews his vantage points in exercising influence—the formal powers that provide bargaining advantages in the separated system, professional reputation as viewed by those whom the president is trying to persuade, and public standing or prestige as interpreted by this same elite.

Read as a research agenda, Presidential Power is chock-full of propositions. I have identified those relating to professional reputation in an earlier issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly (Jones 2001). But the literature associated with the more institutional approach also offers abundant hypotheses and research direction. If it is true that institutionalism determines presidential behavior, how exactly does that happen? Does the president have no options? Or does he operate within certain latitudes of freedom, more or less constrained by what is happening over time throughout the government? Do events supersede both the institution and the person as determinative of behavior?

I trust I have written enough to clarify my big answer to Edwards’s question. Thirteen presidents have occupied the White House in my lifetime, nearly one-third of all who have served. I have strong, personal impressions of twelve of the thirteen (I still have my FDR button from the 1940 campaign). On the average, presidents have changed every five and one-half years in this period (a range of from two and one-half to just over twelve years). As Stephen Skowronek has brilliantly written in The Politics Presidents Make (1993), presidents slip into the stream of history as they enter office. Anxious to make their mark, they must meet the demands of preserving legitimacy while learning the range of options and how great or small is the leeway for exercising them.

So that is the research agenda writ large. How do presidents manage? What are the constraints, institutional and otherwise? What difference can they make? I turn now to specific matters within that personal [left and right arrow] institutional intersection with the devout hope that they will interest the next generation of scholars enough to satisfy my curiosity, and yours.

A Research Orientation

First a bit of gratuitous advice: Let us concentrate most on substantive contributions, avoiding lengthy justifications of our own work that attribute hard-line positions to other scholars. Quality research will find its place for reason of the important questions it undertakes to answer, less often because it corrects the researcher’s estimate of where others went wrong. We all have experienced puzzling interpretations of intent and curious classifications of our findings only to realize that those judgments served the author’s purpose of specifying his or her contribution, more often than not a needless effort and often a diversion.

My goal in this section is to offer a contemporary orientation for contributing to the big answer. I concentrate on the post-World War II period because it is the time I know best, not because I am asserting some special or modernistic version of the presidency for that period as different from or superior to that of other times. I am neither a historian nor a political scientist asking questions of earlier historical periods. I have sought throughout to relate topics to the personal/institutional nexus.

One feature that stands out as characteristic of the postwar era, 1947-2003, is that split-party government has become commonplace (occurring 64 percent of the time), even a more dominant outcome since 1969 (more than 80 percent of the time). In this respect, the history from which presidents pass into history, 1947-2003, has come to be rather different from that of the preceding half century, 1897-1947, when there were just six years of split-party government (12 percent of the time).

What has been the effect of this change on the intersection of the personal and institutional? Would we not expect presidents to prepare themselves differently than in the past? How might we expect them to develop strategies suited to the competitive result of both parties’ having won majority status in one or more of the three elective institutions: House of Representatives, Senate, and presidency? Surely the party government model has few applications under these conditions. Yet it is frequently held out as the ideal in spite of the fact that the president’s party has had solid control of all three institutions, 1947-2003, for just four years of the Johnson administration (1965-69), discounting somewhat the Truman (1948), Kennedy (1960), Carter (1976), and Clinton (1992) presidencies due to their narrow victories over one or two candidates, among other qualifying features.

Also challenging to an incoming president is the variation in party shares of the three elective institutions. Here is the breakdown since 1947:

President D, Congress D = 18 years (32 percent)
President D, Congress R = 8 years (14 percent)
President R, Congress D = 20 years (36 percent)
President R, House D, Senate R = 6 years (11 percent)
President R, House R, Senate D = 1 1/2 years (3 percent)
President R, Congress R = 2 1/2 years (4 percent)

Conceived of in terms of transition conditions, consider that only one president has followed another of the same party by election in the postwar period-Bush following Reagan. Two others, Truman and Johnson, were elected after assuming the presidency upon incumbent’s death. Here is the pattern:

D(HST) —› R(DDE) —› D(JFK/LBJ) —›
R(RMN/GRF) —› D(JEC) —›
R(RWR) —› R(GHWB) —› D(WJC) —› R(GWB).

Substantially more continuity has been achieved in the House
of Representatives:

R(2 yrs) —› D(4 yrs) —› R(2 yrs) —› D(40
yrs) —› R(8 yrs).

The Senate, too, has had a decent level of continuity, but less
so than the House:

R(2 yrs) —› D(4 yrs) —› R(2 yrs) —›
D(26 yrs) —› R(6 yrs) —›
D(6 yrs) —› R(6 1/2 yrs) —› D(1 1/2 yrs).

These portrayals invite scholarly analysis of the challenges facing presidents as they enter office and, once there, how they accommodate to fundamental changes in partisan advantages. I believe this lack of parallelism in the patterns of control suggests the utility of a “government of parties” perspective over that of party government. We have multiple party organizations within each of the two main parties, with no one unit in command. Thus, for some decades, a Republican president could expect to compete with House and Senate Democratic majorities, even if he won by a landslide (which several did). A Democratic president, on the other hand, could expect to have his party in the majority in both houses and yet have to negotiate for support of certain factions. More recently, those patterns have changed. Clinton had to negotiate with Republican leaders in both houses, George W. Bush with Democratic leaders in the Senate.

We need to know more about how adjustments in strategy occur with these variations in party control and competition. It is reasonable to expect that the institutions adapt to changing circumstances, and we are told that these adaptations have an effect on presidents and other leaders. Thus, for example, Congress instituted any number of reforms during the period of split-party dominance (1968 to the present). Many, if not most, of these reforms were designed to enhance congressional capabilities for participating more actively in all phases of governing—from agenda setting through implementation and evaluation of programs—as well as expanding their reach from mostly domestic to national security and foreign policy issues. How then do contemporary presidents react? What has been the effect of these developments on the presidency and the executive branch more generally? We know that the persons change; they must every eight years. What are the institutional changes that greet these new persons? How do they manage?

The number of research topics is limited only by the range of one’s curiosity. I will suggest several that interest me, relying on certain sectors or concepts that bear a relationship to the intersection of the personal and the institutional.

Entering office. A substantial amount of data on presidential transitions was collected in 2000 and 2001 by scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Heritage Foundation. Much of the material was designed to aid the winner in preparing his presidency and has yet to be fully digested for scholarly purposes associated with the questions raised here. Especially relevant would be comparative analyses that are attentive to institutional changes during the period of the outgoing president and the capabilities of the new president and his staff to accommodate to those changes. For example, Clinton reportedly was not fully aware of the effects of budgeting changes that constrained his options. Bush had to adapt to a constant campaigning practice that had been perfected by his predecessor.

The first months. Another Brookings Institution project collected data on the presidential appointive process, again with the central purpose of making improvements. The data demonstrate strikingly greater complexity than in the past in the methods of clearance and Senate approval, most of which have extended the time involved for filling important posts. It seems apparent that a hybrid presidency has come to exist during the many months now required to complete the appointment process. A new administration is forced to manage with holdovers, temporary appointments, and vacancies during the crucial time of formulating priorities and preparing programs. Here is an institutional development within the new presidency that needs to be more fully documented and analyzed for its effects on policy and lawmaking. In some cases, subcabinet appointees do not take office until the time when a new administration often experiences its first turnover in the cabinet and White House staff.

Institutional surroundings. What exactly is the presidency as an institution and how has it changed? It is a matter of record that there are more departments and agencies, a larger Executive Office of the President, expanded and more articulated White House staffs, and a highly professionalized and organizationally complex Congress, to cite just a few developments. A comprehensive survey of these changes would be most welcome, especially one that identified the effects that shape the environment for incoming presidents and circumscribe their choices once there. Some of this work would satisfy Neustadt’s call for “histories of actual development at changeful moments in the lives of institutions” made in his “preachment from retirement” (in Shapiro, Kumar, and Jacobs 2000, 466). This is grand work, but the idea that the president’s choices are institutionally structured is itself hefty and merits evidence of some scale.

Personal capacities. Individual presidents are studied by historians, biographers, political scientists, even psychologists. Most of the work comparing presidents is done by our colleagues. Concentrating on the intersection of the institutional and personal invites special attention to the variable capacities of presidents to do the job. No president enters the White House with a blank political slate. If we are to assert the weight of institutional surroundings, then surely we must be curious about whether the incumbent’s experience has prepared him to comprehend the setting, even if the intention of a president is to disrupt it. Mostly, perhaps always, the personal is distinctive, though subject to central tendencies. Comparative studies of this dimension—personal capacity—should interest presidential scholars greatly. It is a subject on which we should even have something to say during a campaign, explaining the variable capacities to serve of an Eisenhower or a Stevenson, a Kennedy or a Nixon, a Nixon or a Humphrey, a Bush or a Dukakis, and a Bush or a Gore (choosing open-seat elections in the postwar period).

Congress. Presidential interactions with Congress have seldom been more intriguing or more inviting of research. Numerous topics come to mind. I have limited myself to three. First are congressional transitions as affecting the intersection between the personal and institutional at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The recent 2001 case of a tie in the Senate followed by the switch of Senator James Jeffords (R-VT) to independent status is most notable in this regard. Both the extraordinary power-sharing agreement and the subsequent majority status of the Democrats challenged existing institutional arrangements, presumably then affecting presidential lawmaking strategies (as well as the lengthy appointive process in building an administration).

Second is the competitiveness of Congress as associated with close margins. The rise in party unity has been noted, but the manifold effects of strengthened party organization and leadership have not been fully described or analyzed, especially in the context suggested here. Comparisons between the first three Eisenhower congresses and the 104th-107th congresses of Clinton and Bush would be helpful.

Third would be the differing presidential strategies for interacting with the two chambers, individually and in sequence. We now have four recent congresses with House-Senate party splits—three with a Republican president (Reagan), Democratic House, and Republican Senate and one with a Republican president (G. W. Bush), Republican House, and Democratic Senate. How exactly has this development shaped White House liaison activities, with what effects on lawmaking?

Public opinion. Scholars have taken account of the changes that have occurred in presidential communications with the public. The so-called permanent campaign has attracted considerable attention, including a forthcoming book by the editor of this journal. In the context promoted here, research that incorporates “going public” into an overall political strategy by presidents to wield power would be especially welcome. Also relevant would be treatments of the extent to which political leaders generally have increased public communication—those in Congress, governors, party chairs, cabinet officials, and so forth. Implications for democratic governance need to be identified and evaluated. Such work would necessarily acknowledge the virtual quantum increase in communication outlets.

Agenda setting and control. There is, perhaps, no more elusive topic in a separated system than that of agenda management. The president is often said to be chief agenda setter. And yet much of what is identified as a priority and in a sequence can be traced to sources other than the White House. Superb work has been done on this topic, much of which contributes to an understanding of the personal/institutional junction. Even existing work, however, needs now to take into account the broadening policy-making effects of split-party government, for example, featuring in recent years a Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and a Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle, taking agenda-setting initiatives that compel presidential response.

Equally important, yet less a subject of research, is the independent effect of events and the issues they yield. There may even be a rhythm of agenda setting to which institutions respond and by which decision makers set priorities. Increasingly these events are, themselves, a consequence of existing law. Noteworthy, in this regard, is the number of agenda issues that are dubbed “reform.” What this suggests is that the intersection of interest to presidential scholars is three-way—personal, institutional, and event related, as suggested earlier.

This subject also directs attention to the substance of presidential work. Lest we forget, government is mostly about policy issues. We seek to understand the “how” of government and politics, but the “what” sets the agenda. Those of us who still interview elected public officials can attest to the fact that policy substance often dominates responses for the obvious reason that it defines his or her workday. And so the personal and institutional frequently intersect in regard to a policy matter, with different sectors likely intersecting differently.

Alternative lawmaking. Split-party government may also have contributed to altering how law is made. Scholars have recorded the greater use of executive orders, demonstrating the extent to which the president can act alongside of Congress. Many such orders appear to be in the form of commands, thus providing the president with an alternative to the process of bargaining, compromise, even threats that often characterize the legislative process in Congress. And these orders have the effect of law. Land set aside by executive order is just as quarantined as if restricted by law. How far can a president go in this exercise of personal power before institutional constraints become effective? Are the techniques of persuasion different from those used in the legislative process? How many such orders are self-executing? These and other questions regarding countermeasures by Congress, relative effectiveness of one form of law over another, and responsiveness and responsibility deserve treatment by scholars.

Political party. In circling and passing through the political and policy world of the president, one cannot avoid encountering the perplexing relationship between the president and his political party. What we think of as party organization in Washington seldom includes the president, except by invitation or for purposes of fund-raising. The same can be said of House and Senate leaders as regards party organizations outside their chambers. Speakers of the House do not attend the Senate party caucuses; nor do Senate floor leaders grace House party caucuses. President as party leader needs to be clarified, even for one-party government but surely for split-party government. The perspective of a personal/institutional intersection is relevant, but first it may be necessary to improve our understanding of the institutional role of parties. I assert that abandoning a party government model in favor of a government of parties stance is a first start. And it may well be that work is required on the intersection between the elected institutions (House, Senate, president) and subsidiary structures like the parties as a necessary first step in disentangling their role in the nexus between the personal president and his institutional setting. Possible topics are numerous. Surveying descriptive studies of specific legislation to reveal the independent effects of party might be useful. An audit of communications between congressional party leaders and the White House could reveal the frequency and nature of contacts, perhaps showing the variation among issues and through the stages of the legislative process. At this point, some basic research on who, what, and how is required.

The bureaucracy. I am less qualified to suggest topics on the critical role of the bureaucracy (and even more marginally suited to do so on the courts, which I will omit here). There is, of course, no more permanent part of the government than the bureaucracy. Excellent work is available on its features, including relations with Congress and the White House. Much of this work is revealing, too, of the extent to which presidents and their appointees are constrained by existing bureaucratic practices and interpretations of extant policy. What is less certain, perhaps (a qualifier to protect my innocence), is the extent to which the bureaucracy’s influence is itself fed by congressional determinations and oversight. Whatever the causal linkage, presidents and their entourage soon discover the constraints on their prerogatives soon after assuming office. Those interested in, and even promoting, personal influence of presidents would profit from research that identifies and clarifies these limitations and how (and if) they can be overcome.

Legitimacy. It has been my intention for years to tackle the subject of legitimacy as it relates to presidential-congressional relations. The fact that I have never confronted it directly may speak to its complexity or merely to my own inability to manage it. Legitimacy is surely a major aim of maintaining public prestige and fostering professional reputation; its protection is associated with “the politics presidents make.” I was struck with the extent to which Nixon tried to challenge the legitimacy of Congress following the 1972 election, only to have his own authenticity successfully contested. And it seemed evident that stalemate in lawmaking in recent decades has been the product of leaders in each branch questioning the legitimacy of the other, not merely split-party government per se. Examples include the second George H. W. Bush Congress with scandals and record low public approval on Capitol Hill and the president’s serious decline in job approval, and the fourth Clinton Congress with the Lewinsky episode in the White House and impeachment politics in the House and Senate. Study of presidential sensitivity to legitimacy and efforts to foster and maintain it would contribute substantially to understanding personal influence in its institutional setting.

Intent. Identifying intent in lawmaking is another research item never directly treated. My interest developed in early studies of policy making on Capitol Hill in regard to agriculture, air pollution, and energy. It carried over to my work on presidential-congressional relations. The questions are pure and simple: What do lawmakers expect to happen as a consequence of enacting and implementing a program? Were intentions modified along the way? Did intentions structure or influence evaluations? Did intentions anticipate effects on political power? I include the topic in this essay because I judge it related to the intersection of the personal and the institutional, perhaps as activated by events. Intentions may well encompass a decision maker’s estimates of his or her status as defined by personal influence and institutional constraints. It may also reveal the degree of risk taking by presidents or other power holders. Therefore, I promote studies of intent as contributing to what we need to know about the presidency.

Conclusion

I come away from this exercise encouraged by the extent to which what we already know about the presidency reveals an exciting research agenda for the future. Virtually everything identified in this essay, including the “big answer,” is traceable to the accumulation of scholarly findings in the past half century. Occasional stock taking of the type asked for by the editor of this journal is absolutely necessary to integrate findings, relating them to the larger issues raised by the more conceptual and methodological of our colleagues.

I do not myself believe that we have moved from the personal presidency to the institutional presidency; nor are we likely to do so in the future. Accepting that supposition is, itself, narrowing, not broadening, limited as it is to the presidency. We need to know more about the intersection of the personal and the institutional in governing and how it shapes the presidency. That is a plea for studying the presidency in its constitutional setting of the separated system. My understanding is that those presently identified as oriented more toward the personal and to the institutional essentially agree. If not, never mind. Their disputes are trivial, the stuff of lively panels, as long as their contributions provide substantive findings regarding the topics I have listed above.

So let us not be sidetracked by disputes but rather focused on evaluating well-conceived and -executed empirical research for what it can tell us about how presidents and the presidency pass from history into history. I expect that exercise to be satisfying for what we know already and for what we have yet to discover.

References

Jones, Charles O. 2001. Professional reputation and the Neustadt formulation. Presidential Studies Quarterly 31:281-95.

Neustadt, Richard E. 1960. Presidential power: The politics of leadership. New York: John Wiley.

Shapiro, Robert Y., Martha Joynt Kumar, and Lawrence R. Jacobs, eds. 2000. Presidential power: Forging the presidency for the twenty-first century. New York: Columbia University Press.

Skowronek, Stephen. 1993. The politics presidents make. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Charles O. Jones is professor emeritus of political science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and nonresident senior fellow, the Brookings Institution. He is a former president of the American Political Science Association and author of The Presidency in a Separated System.

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