Presidency Research Paper

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1. Meaning

The term ‘presidency’ is applied to several distinct perspectives on the office of the President of the United States. Most commonly, and in its narrowest sense, it is employed as a label to refer to the incumbency of one particular President, as in the presidency of Abraham Lincoln or the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. More broadly, the term applies to the historical development and legacy of a succession of presidencies since the office was established in 1789. In a more precise constitutional sense, the presidency is that branch of government established by Article II of the Constitution of the United States encompassing a set of constitutional and statutory powers and duties of the President together with additional ‘implied’ or ‘inherent’ powers and responsibilities not specifically enumerated in the Constitution or statute law. Finally, the term ‘presidency’ is used to denote the institutional structure of the office of President embracing the Executive Office of the President—a collection of staff units, originating from proposals contained in the Brownlow Report of 1937, that provide the President with the capacity to manage the work of the executive branch of government and to liaise with the principal constituents of the President, namely the Congress, the media, and interest groups.

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These different usages of the term present no significant analytical difficulties. In the literature on the US presidency, the context is usually sufficient to clarify the sense in which the term is being employed and in none of its various forms is it conceptually or theoretically problematic. This is partly because the academic study of the presidency has not been encumbered by rigid theoretical or conceptual frameworks—a matter of concern to some presidency scholars who wish it were so, and a relief to others who see value in the broad, disparate, and eclectic approach that has characterized the study of the presidency to date.

2. Intellectual Context

The academic study of the US presidency has essentially been the preserve of historians and political scientists. Historians have generally confined their attention to individual presidents and presidencies whereas political scientists have traditionally concentrated on the constitutional and political power of the presidency and its institutional structure and development over time. Few historians, with some notable exceptions (see, e.g., Schlesinger 1973, McDonald 1994) have focused on the broader institutional development of the American presidency and only a handful of political scientists (see, e.g., Milkis 1993, Skowronek 1993) have borrowed from the discipline of history to further what political science has had to say about the presidency. Given the vast amount of scholarship on US presidents and the presidency produced by historians and political scientists, there has been little significant cross-fertilization between the two disciplines and it would not be unfair to say that the study of the US presidency, as distinguished from the study of US presidents, has been dominated by political scientists.

Until the publication in 1960 of Richard Neustadt’s seminal work, Presidential Power, scholarship on the US presidency had primarily focused on the constitutional and statutory powers of the President, the various roles and functions of the President, and its relationship to the other branches of government as exemplified in the classic texts of Edward S. Corwin (1957), Clinton Rossiter (1956), and Wilfred Binkley (1962). There has also been a strong normative tradition in the literature the presidency, but this has produced various and divergent diagnoses of the weaknesses of the presidency and no uniform prescription for change, although the British system of cabinet government or variants of it has tended to be among the more popular reform proposals.

Neustadt’s Presidential Power brought the study of the presidency into contact with the behavioral revolution in postwar political science. Neustadt defined power in terms of the president’s persuasive or bargaining ability derived from his ‘professional reputation’ and ‘public prestige.’ Asserting that ‘powers are no guarantee of power,’ he proceeded to show that the leadership ability of presidents was not inherent in the office but was highly personal and dependent on the President’s own capabilities as a seeker and wielder of effective influence upon others involved in governing the country. Neustadt’s immediate impact was to shift the concerns of presidency scholars away from the formal, legal, and institutional boundaries of presidential power toward a more behavioral and theoretical effort to locate the reality of power and leadership in the White House.

While Neustadt’s work was a major break with the tradition of presidency scholarship it did not represent a departure from the basic values of the leading presidency scholars who were firm in their belief that the presidency was and ought to be the center of action in American politics and who advocated a strong and dominant presidency as the only institution capable of responding to the social and political problems facing the country. They represented a generation reared during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and who made FDR, or what was often referred to as ‘the New Deal presidency,’ the normative model for their scholarship.

3. The Changing Focus Of Presidency Scholarship

Notwithstanding Neustadt’s impact, the political science of the American presidency lagged behind the behavioral revolution for much of the 1960s and 1970s and not until the 1980s did the community of presidency scholars begin to exercise the kind of introspection and self-criticism on which behavioralism in America had thrived. That introspection produced a clear but belated appeal for the study of the presidency to connect with the basic tenets of the behavioral revolution—a more rigorous scientific methodology, the need for quantitative measures, and a greater concern for the conceptual and theoretical underpinnings of presidency scholarship (see, e.g., Edwards and Wayne 1983). That appeal did result in a redirection of the focus of presidency scholars and, since the mid-1980s, the political science of the US presidency has taken a quantum leap theoretically, methodologically, and conceptually.

The fundamental values of presidency scholars also changed around the same time. The combined effect of the Vietnam War and Watergate led to a significant reassessment of the New Deal model of presidential power and even those who continued to advocate strong presidential leadership became more sensitive to notions of accountability and restraint. By the end of the century, presidency scholarship had launched an assault on what Mark Peterson called the ‘presidency-centered perspective’ on American government (see Peterson 1990, also Jones 1994), a timely shift in a new era of divided government.

4. Current Theory And Research

The epistemological transformation of presidency scholarship from the mid-1980s could not properly be called a revolution because it did not succeed in displacing older, established approaches entirely. The ‘public law’ tradition, e.g., has flourished during the last two decades partly because of the practical relevance of issues such as the war power, the legislative veto, impoundments, presidential nominations, and impeachment. Scholars following in the footsteps of Corwin (see, e.g., Fisher 1995) have made significant contributions to the study of the presidency that have not been dependent on theoretical sophistication or quantitative methodology. Similarly, the ‘institutional’ school has also been reinvigorated by political developments in recent times. Watergate and the Iran-contra affair, for example, acted as a catalyst for substantial research on the role of the presidential staff and the structure and organization of the Executive Office of the President (see Burke 1992, Hart 1995, Walcott and Hult 1995) and, although much of this work is theoretically and conceptually grounded, it also builds on the descriptive and empirical approach that underlies the ‘institutional’ tradition in presidency scholarship.

The breadth of current research on the US presidency would be difficult to categorize. In addition to those areas mentioned above, it encompasses the study of presidential psychology and character, leadership style, decision-making processes, popularity, professional reputation, bargaining and persuasion, media management, rhetoric, the impact of public opinion on presidents, the impact of presidents on public policy, and much more.

Current research also embraces a variety of approaches and techniques which, when combined with the range of subject-matter, makes presidency scholarship a broad, diverse, and pluralistic area of study open to the criticism that it lacks coherence in focus and methodology. But it would also be true to say that much current research on the presidency builds upon and extends the seminal research of the past and, while there may not be a single, coherent approach to the political science of the American presidency, there is continuity of research concerns co-existing with a willingness to utilize new methodological and theoretical developments.

Rational choice theorists, however, have staked a claim for the comprehensiveness of their approach and suggested that it may offer presidency scholarship the analytical and theoretical coherence it presently lacks. Applications of rational choice theory to the study of the presidency are still few in number but recent work by rational choice theorists, particularly in the field of presidential–congressional relations, has made a significant impact (see especially Krehbiel 1998, Cameron 2000) and laid the foundations for an extension of that approach to other hitherto less theoretically receptive aspects of the presidency

5. Methodological And Theoretical Problems

Although the cutting–edge of presidency research is in the hands of the rational choice theorists and their close companions, the new institutionalists, their approach has been contested by other presidency scholars who are less convinced of its general utility across the spectrum of presidency scholarship and who question the desirability of imposing a conceptual and methodological uniformity on future research. The debate is exacerbated by the tendency of the new institutionalists to distinguish between the ‘institutional’ and the ‘personal’ presidency, rejecting the latter in the interests of parsimony and theoretical clarity. While it is true that behavioral studies of the ‘personal’ aspects of the presidency, as exemplified by James David Barber’s pioneering work on presidential personality (Barber 1972), revealed how difficult it is to theorize on the basis of a large number of complex variables, that has yet to be accepted as a sufficient argument for ignoring the complexity of the US presidency.

A more longstanding methodological problem for presidency scholars is the lack of access to their subject of study. Presidents of the USA generally do not give interviews to political scientists, nor do they respond to questionnaires, nor, for the most part, can they be observed at work, neither do their memoirs or papers usually provide the kind of data that presidency scholars require. This is a principal reason why the study of the presidency has lagged behind other branches of the US government in terms of scientific rigor and why the gaps in the state of knowledge about the presidency are still quite substantial.

6. Future Directions

During the last 20 years, research on the presidency has been driven in large measure by the behavior of presidents themselves and the imperatives of the political science profession. In all probability, these two forces are likely to determine the direction of presidency research in the foreseeable future.

Presidency scholars have often been caught unprepared by the behavior of recent presidents and the events surrounding their presidencies. The Vietnam War was a catalyst for substantial research on the war power. The growth and expansion of the presidential staff system was barely studied before Watergate. The weakness of Jimmy Carter as President provided the impetus for Polsby’s (1983) landmark study of the reformed presidential nomination process and its impact on the nature of the presidency. Ronald Reagan’s public popularity prompted numerous studies of ‘going public’ strategies of presidential leadership (see especially Kernell 1986). As long as occupants of the White House continue to surprise scholars of the presidency they are likely to influence the range and nature of future research.

Similarly, the professional emphasis on theoretical sophistication and scientific rigor is likely to determine the priorities of future research on the presidency as it has done in the past. The danger is that such imperatives may overwhelm and marginalize those aspects of presidency scholarship where theory and quantitative methods are less applicable and less suitable to the object of study.


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  2. Binkley W E 1962 President and Congress. Vintage Books, New York
  3. Burke J P 1992 The Institutional Presidency. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  4. Cameron C M 2000 Veto Bargaining: Presidents and the Politics of Negative Power. Cambridge University Press, New York
  5. Corwin E S 1957 The President: Office and Powers 1787–1957, 4th rev. edn. New York University Press, New York
  6. Edwards G C, Wayne S J (eds.) 1983 Studying the Presidency. University of Tennesse Press, Knoxville, TN
  7. Fisher L 1995 Presidential War Power. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
  8. Hart J 1995 The Presidential Branch: From Washington to Clinton. Chatham House, Chatham, NJ
  9. Jones C O 1994 The Presidency in a Separated System. Brookings Institution, Washington, DC
  10. Kernell S 1986 Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership. CQ Press, Washington, DC
  11. Krehbiel K 1998 Pivotal Politics: A Theory of US Lawmaking. Chicago University Press, Chicago
  12. McDonald F 1994 The American Presidency: An Intellectual History. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
  13. Milkis S M 1993 The President and the Parties: The Transformation of the American Party System Since the New Deal. Oxford University Press, New York
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  15. Peterson M A 1990 Legislating Together: The White House and Capitol Hill from Eisenhower to Reagan. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
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