Thinking About the Presidency: The Primacy of Power


All American presidents, past and present, have cared deeply about power--acquiring, protecting, and expanding it. While individual presidents obviously have other concerns, such as shaping policy or building a legacy, the primacy of power considerations--exacerbated by expectations of the presidency and the inadequacy of explicit powers in the Constitution--sets presidents apart from other political actors. Thinking about the Presidency explores presidents' preoccupation with power. Distinguished presidential ...

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All American presidents, past and present, have cared deeply about power--acquiring, protecting, and expanding it. While individual presidents obviously have other concerns, such as shaping policy or building a legacy, the primacy of power considerations--exacerbated by expectations of the presidency and the inadequacy of explicit powers in the Constitution--sets presidents apart from other political actors. Thinking about the Presidency explores presidents' preoccupation with power. Distinguished presidential scholar William Howell looks at the key aspects of executive power--political and constitutional origins, philosophical underpinnings, manifestations in contemporary political life, implications for political reform, and looming influences over the standards to which we hold those individuals elected to America's highest office.

Howell shows that an appetite for power may not inform the original motivations of those who seek to become president. Rather, this need is built into the office of the presidency itself--and quickly takes hold of whoever bears the title of Chief Executive. In order to understand the modern presidency, and the degrees to which a president succeeds or fails, the acquisition, protection, and expansion of power in a president's political life must be recognized--in policy tools and legislative strategies, the posture taken before the American public, and the disregard shown to those who would counsel modesty and deference within the White House.

Thinking about the Presidency assesses how the search for and defense of presidential powers informs nearly every decision made by the leader of the nation. In a new preface, Howell reflects on presidential power during the presidency of Barack Obama.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Thinking about the Presidency is a relatively brief book which would do well in any survey-level course on executive leadership or the structure of American government.
. . . By looking at the presidency through the lens of expanding presidential power, Howell and Brent left this reader asking for more: such as why government works this way or why Congress reacts as it does. That it leaves open those questions indicates that this book is a valuable addition to any graduate-level course."--Seth Offenbach, Journal of American Studies

From the Publisher

"Thinking about the Presidency is a relatively brief book which would do well in any survey-level course on executive leadership or the structure of American government. . . . By looking at the presidency through the lens of expanding presidential power, Howell and Brent left this reader asking for more: such as why government works this way or why Congress reacts as it does. That it leaves open those questions indicates that this book is a valuable addition to any graduate-level course."--Seth Offenbach, Journal of American Studies
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691165684
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/22/2015
  • Edition description: With a New preface by the author
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,496,054

Meet the Author

William G. Howell is the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago, where he holds appointments in the Harris School of Public Policy, the Department of Political Science, and the College. His books include While Dangers Gather and Power without Persuasion (both Princeton), as well as The Wartime President. David Milton Brent is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Yale University.

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Read an Excerpt

Thinking about the Presidency

The Primacy of Power

By William G. Howell, David Milton Brent


Copyright © 2013 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6621-2


On Being President

What do we expect of our president? The answer is at once obvious and unbelievable; everything.

We want our president to stimulate our national economy while protecting our local ones—and we roundly condemn him when either shows signs of weakness, We call on the president to simultaneously liberate the creative imaginations of private industry and regulate corruption within, We call on the president, as the main steward of the nation's welfare, to resuscitate our housing and car industries while reducing the national debt, We bank on the president, as commander in chief, to wage our wars abroad while remaining attentive to all emergent foreign policy challenges beyond today's battlefields, We look to the president, as the nation's figurehead, to be among the first on the scene at disasters, to offer solace to the grieving, to assign meaning to lives lost and ruined, All this we expect presidents can do, All this we insist they must do,

From the very beginning, the nation's presidents have fielded a long litany of policy challenges, In his brief "First Annual Message to Congress" (now more popularly called the State of the Union address), George Washington talked about security, foreign affairs, immigration, innovation, infrastructure, education, and the standardization of weights, measures, and currency, With the possible exception of the last item, all the issues that Washington prioritized have remained on the president's agenda,

In the modern era, however, the items on this list of issue areas have proliferated; hence, it is the modern American presidency to which the arguments of this book speak most directly, Today, presidents must offer policy solutions on trade, health care, the environment, research and development, government transparency and efficiency, energy, and taxation, They must clean our air and water, protect our borders, build our infrastructure, promote the health of our elderly, improve the literacy rates of our children, guard against everything from the effects of Midwestern droughts to the spread of nuclear weapons—all this and more. Fundamentally, presidents are charged with striking a balance between the nation's competing, often contradictory priorities: intervening abroad versus spending at home; cutting taxes versus protecting social programs; keeping Americans secure versus keeping Americans free.

There is hardly any domain of public life, and only a few of private life, where the president can comfortably defer to the judgments of others, where he (before long, she) can respond to some plea for assistance with something akin to "I hear you, but I can't help you," where he can insist that action on the matter is above his pay grade. It is difficult even to conceive of an aspect of public life wherein the president is given a pass—where he can either hesitate before acting or forego action altogether without incurring the media and public's wrath. Harry Truman's desk placard that read "the buck stops here" was not a point of vanity. It was a gross understatement. All bucks circulating in politics stop with the president. And they do so whether the president likes it or not.

Just ask Mike Kelleher, President Obama's director of presidential correspondence, about how much Americans expect from the president. One hundred thousand e-mails, ten thousand paper letters, three thousand phone calls, and one thousand faxes arrive at his office every day. And nearly all of these communiqués include pleas for presidential leadership of one form or another. The president receives petitions from the elderly to deliver their retirement benefits, appeals from business owners to stem their operating costs, and requests from activists of all stripes to attend to the environment, nuclear proliferation, and foreign affairs. Though more mundane, other requests reveal the extent to which American citizens feel perfectly entitled to burden the president with personal tasks and obligations. They offer recommendations on which books he ought to read; their children pepper him with questions and advice of their own; distressed Americans seek solutions to their emotional, psychological, and medical issues; and the moral police deliver benedictions to ban certain video games.

The list of obligations put before the president continually evolves, and nearly always in expansionary ways. Presidents now offer leadership in policy domains for which the federal government lacks any constitutional responsibility. Consider, by way of example, recent presidential efforts to reform public education. The 2002 NO Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is widely touted as George W. Bush's signature domestic policy achievement. And with good reason. NCLB is credited (or blamed, depending on one's view of the matter) with introducing and fortifying accountability provisions in all public schools, which universally include rigorous standardized testing provisions. Not to be outdone, Barack Obama devoted considerable efforts through his "Race to the Top" initiative to reform school governance. Through competitive grants, the president cooked up yet another mechanism by which the federal government might further intrude into state and local education policy—in this instance, by advancing merit pay for teachers, charter schools, the development of data systems capable of tracking student performance over time, and the establishment of clear standards for progress. Moreover, in the last year Obama has unilaterally offered waivers for the most onerous provisions of NCLB to those states who adopt the president's preferred education policies. That public education formally falls within the province of state (and by extension local) governments did not dissuade either Bush or Obama from taking up the mantle of education reform, searching for (and often inventing) new ways to make their mark.

Yet no matter how much the president says about any particular policy issue, it is never enough to satiate the public's thirst for presidential leadership. Recall, by way of example, President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address. Even before the big day, the requests poured in from all corners of political life. As the New York Times chronicled, "Interest groups have buried the White House with a barrage of unsolicited advice about what they want him to say." The wish list included stricter gun control laws, curbs on the bullying of gay American children, protections for existing welfare programs, and cuts to those very same programs.

Eventually, of course, the president had to decide for himself what to say. And though his speech ran the better part of an hour, the chattering classes still saw fit to castigate the president for neglecting their pet causes. Many criticized Obama for not focusing enough attention on the deficit. Though Obama did propose measures to tackle the problem, he supposedly neither offered an adequate number of solutions nor displayed sufficient leadership to ensure their passage. Other observers, meanwhile, criticized the president's lack of specificity, while still others charged that the president devoted too much time to the deficit, and not nearly enough to the related issue of jobs. Some pundits even lamented the president's oversight of certain aspects of education, a topic that he indisputably discussed at length.

With all the demands competing for his attention, it is no surprise that the president cannot hope to get by with a light, easy work schedule. Every minute of a president's day is scheduled, usually months and sometimes even years in advance. On July 1, 1955, to select an entirely arbitrary day, President Eisenhower went home to his farm in Gettysburg, PA. His time at home included two and a half hours set aside for entertaining colleagues from the White House and the cabinet and their spouses. Earlier that morning, the president's day began in Washington with breakfast with a senator, followed by ten other appointments that included discussions on world disarmament and minimum wages, a cabinet meeting, and a meet-and-greet with forty-three boy scouts. Reflecting on this mad-dash daily schedule, Eisenhower wrote to a confidant, "These days go by at their accustomed pace, leaving little time for the more pleasurable pursuits of life ... by the time I get to the office I am in the midst of politics, economics, education, foreign trade, and cotton and tobacco surpluses."

Fast-forward fifty years, and we discover a president's official schedule that is even more serried. On July 1, 2005, to pick yet another date at random, President George W. Bush held his customary intelligence briefing, received an award from the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, oversaw a bilateral meeting with the prime minister of Kuwait, spoke at length with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and two senators, publicly announced O'Connor's resignation, visited with and subsequently presented Purple Hearts to some soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, and finally retreated to Camp David.

Presidents must attend not merely to the multitude of issues waiting on their desks, but those popping up around the country and world. Hence, in 2010 alone, President Obama took 65 domestic trips out of Washington. His predecessors also showed the same zeal for domestic travel, holding an average of 649 public events outside the DC area per presidential term between 1989 and 2005. Internationally, Obama took 16 trips to 25 countries in his first two years as president, while previous presidents between 1989 and 2005 made dozens of trips abroad each term. Both Clinton and George W. Bush tallied an impressive 75 international trips in their respective presidencies.

When presidents travel domestically, they do not just attend town hall meetings or give policy speeches; when overseas, they do not merely attend diplomatic meetings. Presidents also make commencement speeches, attend ceremonies to commemorate the birthdays of prominent historical figures, and appear at disaster sites. They visit American troops, offer remarks at nongovernmental conferences, and commemorate historical events like the D-Day invasion.

How much of the president's travel is attributable to expectations? Just contrast the political fallout from George W. Bush's Hurricane Katrina flyover in 2005 (a political catastrophe that we discuss at length in chapter 6) with the warm reception of his Thanksgiving visit to American troops in Afghanistan in 2003. Perennially, the president is expected to be at the right place at the right time, no matter the distance required for travel or the competing obligations vying for his attention.

So great are the public's expectations of the president, in fact, that most Americans see their entire government in the presidency. They invest in the president their highest aspirations not just for the federal government, but for the general polity, for their communities and families, and for their own private lives. Constantly, Americans berate their presidents to say more, to do more, to be more. While occasionally paying homage to limited government and constitutionalism (topics that we discuss in greater length in chapter 5), Americans, in general—and especially when it matters most—beseech their presidents to take charge and lead.

The extraordinary demands placed on presidents have not eluded scholars. Richard Neustadt identifies no less than five sources of demands for presidential aid and service: executive officialdom, Congress, his partisans, citizens at large, and from abroad. To succeed, presidents must find ways of placating all of these interested parties, no matter how unreasonable their individual demands, or how inconsistent their collective claims.

By Clinton Rossiter's account, presidents are men of many "hats," a familiar but strained metaphor given that presidents cannot ever return any of their responsibilities to the rack. By constitutional mandate, Rossiter recognizes, presidents serve as chief of state, chief executive, commander in chief, chief diplomat, and chief legislator. But their responsibilities do not end there. Presidents also serve as chief of party, voice of the people, protector of the peace, manager of prosperity, and world leader. The burden of these ten functions, Rossiter insists, is nothing short of "staggering," even "monstrous."

Neustadt and Rossiter offered these reflections in the mid-twentieth century, decades before Arthur Schlesinger decried the emergence of an "imperial presidency"; before George W. Bush initiated and then Barack Obama continued a largely clandestine war on terror; and before Charlie Savage sounded the alarm bells over the president's presumptive "takeover" of the national security apparatus. If the scope of presidential functions was monstrous before, in the last half-century it has grown exponentially more fearsome.

Because of the tremendous growth in responsibilities and expectations put before them, contemporary presidents must demonstrate fluency in policy domains that utterly eluded the attention of presidents who held office just a generation or two ago. Today, if any branch of government is involved in a policy domain, then so is the president.

An Imperative to Act

In every policy domain, presidents must not only demonstrate involvement, they must act—and they must do so for all to see, visibly, forthrightly, and expediently. Deliberation must not substitute for action. Presidents are free to think and talk, but they absolutely must do.

To reap the praise of today's public and tomorrow's historians, the two audiences who matter most to presidents, executive actions must have three qualities. First, they must be open for all to see. The public naturally distrusts the president who works behind the scenes, who recoils from public view in order to cavort with advisors and plot a way forward. The public demands a commander in chief, not a manager in chief. And those presidents who are perceived, fairly or not, to assume the latter mantle—think Jimmy Carter or Dwight Eisenhower—cannot expect to keep company with the greats.

The president's actions also must be decisive and, whenever possible, swift. The less light that shines between an observed challenge and the president's response, the better. Equivocation, particularly in the face of crisis, will never do. Even when justified, delay reliably invites criticisms (recall the browbeating Barack Obama received in the summer and early fall of 2009, when he and his advisors contemplated the merits of expanding the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan). And nothing more reliably induces snickering from the opposing camp than appearing caught off guard (recall the mockery to which George W. Bush was subject when, on September 11, 2001, he did not spring to his feet and start issuing orders after an aide whispered in his ear that the nation was under attack). While they need not meet challenges instantaneously, presidents must convey to the public from the get-go that they have a plan ready to be set into motion.

Finally, presidential actions must be demonstrative. Facing extraordinary problems, presidents must gather their resolve and press onward. The words "but for" must not enter their vocabulary, as the excuses that follow, no matter how authentic, almost never resonate. Presidents must eschew a defensive posture. They must never concede the peoples' fate to anything except their own making. Even amidst military catastrophe and economic ruin, presidents must insist that the nation's brightest days lie ahead, that the industry and imagination of the American people shall not be squandered, that the shining city upon a hill, as Ronald Reagan put it, awaits us still. Hence, in their finest moments, presidents stand tall and issue calls to arms (as George W. Bush did, through a megaphone no less, atop the rubble of twin towers), defy international convention in the service of some larger good (as Barack Obama did when ordering a surgical strike to take out Osama bin Laden without informing the Pakistani government), and insist the federal government can act, must act, in the face of utter calamity (as Franklin Roosevelt did twice, first in the aftermath of the Great Depression and then in response to the imperialistic designs of totalitarian regimes in Europe). Such presidents in such moments appear—how else to put this?—distinctly presidential.


Excerpted from Thinking about the Presidency by William G. Howell, David Milton Brent. Copyright © 2013 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition ix

Preface xxix

Acknowledgments xxxv

Chapter 1. On Being President 1

Chapter 2. Bearing Witness 20

Chapter 3. Constitutional Foundations 55

Chapter 4. Contrasting Conceptions of Executive Leadership 71

Chapter 5. Misguided Entreaties 92

Chapter 6. What Failure Looks Like 106

Chapter 7. Limits 128

Appendix: Article II of the U.S. Constitution 145

Notes 149

Suggested Readings 169

Index 173

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