Vital Statistics on the Presidency
Publication Year: 2009
Looking beyond the individual office holders to the office itself, this third edition of Vital Statistics on the Presidency covers George Washington's tenure through the 2008 primary season. The book's expansive view of the presidency allows readers to recognize major themes across administrations, and reach overall conclusions about the nature of the institution and its future. The illuminating data is put into context by thoughtful essays explaining key statistical patterns, making this third edition an intriguing and comprehensive reference to important patterns throughout the history of the presidency.
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Chapter 1: Presidents of the United States
- Chapter 2: Presidential Selection
- Chapter 3: Presidential Elections
- Chapter 4: Public Appearances
- Chapter 5: Public Opinions
- Chapter 6: Presidential Organization and the Executive Branch
- Chapter 7: Presidents in War and Diplomacy
- Chapter 8: Presidential Policymaking
- Chapter 9: Congressional Relations
- Chapter 10: The Presidency and the Judiciary
Copyright by Sage Publications, Inc.
Vital Statistics on the Presidency updates and expands material on the executive office from the time of George Washington through George W. Bush's second term. It has been twenty years since the first edition of this book was written; Ronald Reagan was then stepping down after two terms as president. This current edition ends with George W. Bush preparing to leave office. During the past two decades, the world and the challenges the president faces have changed dramatically: The Cold War ended, the Soviet Union collapsed. Summit meetings and nuclear arms control agreements have been replaced by American unilateralism, China's emergence as an economic superpower, and seemingly random terrorist attacks that are carefully planned, purposeful, and strategic. Deficit has been replaced by surplus, only to be replaced by deficit. We have moved from an era of limited military encounters to one of a protracted war with consequences well beyond the theatre of conflict. Yet amidst these historic changes, there are constants: a president's popularity grows when the economy improves, rises sharply when a president puts the nation at war, and falls dramatically if the war effort drags on or the economy turns soft. Over the same period, the size of the Executive Office of the President increased modestly, from 1,645 employees in 1988 to 1,719 employees in 2007. In 1988 President Reagan issued forty-five executive orders, covering such topics as military bases, agricultural subsidies, and abortion. In 2007 President Bush issued forty-five executive orders addressing these same topics. President Bush, like Reagan, made hundreds of ceremonial appearances in Washington, D.C., and across the country throughout his two terms in office. Both presidents made major addresses to the nation that boosted their approval ratings and rallied the country to their policies. These patterns of historic change and constancy in the institution of the presidency are examined throughout Vital Statistics on the Presidency.
The research for this book could not have been completed without the help of Shanon Nelson, Andrew Spiegelman, Ngoc Phan, and Jie Wu, who [Page xviii]assisted on data collection efforts. Randall M. Smith graciously provided the data on treaties and executive agreements, which is the single most exhaustive and accurate data set now available on international agreements. My special thanks go to Richard Niemi and Harold Stanley for kindly sharing data that they have collected and to John Woolley and Gerhard Peters for their indispensable Web site, The American Presidency Project, at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu.
I am also grateful to the fine professional team at CQ Press for facilitating a smooth and uncomplicated revision process. My thanks to Anna Baker, Andrea Pedolsky, and Anastazia Skolnitsky for their guidance and expertise on the many details of the book and for prodding me, the harried dean, to “get the book done.” Kerry Kern again served as the copy and production editor, as she has on the book's previous editions, lending her considerable talents and creativity to the project.
Finally, I would like to thank my husband, Jerry Rusk, and my son, Matthew Ragsdale Rusk, my two best friends, for their unflagging encouragement and support and for making my life whole.
This book presents a comprehensive statistical description of the American presidency. It offers a perspective on the presidency that deemphasizes the uniqueness of individual presidents and focuses instead on the presidency as an institution. This perspective suggests that institutions are “political actors in their own right” (March and Olsen, 1984, 738). Institutions are not simply the sum total of the behavior of individual participants. Rather, they have lives of their own that illuminate individual actions. Institutions are collections of regularly occurring patterns of behavior that help explain and predict the conduct of individual actors. Theoretically, the study of the presidency as an institution highlights continuities and patterns that can be observed from one president to the next. These patterns characterize the presidency as an elected office and offer an explanation of the organization of the Executive Office of the President, its relations with the public, its policy decisions, and its dealings with other institutions, such as Congress and the courts. The chapters of this book provide readers not only with comprehensive quantitative data on various aspects of the presidency, but also with information about change and continuity within the institutional presidency.Changing Directions in Presidency Research
For more than two decades, presidency scholars have implored each other to engage in more rigorous, systematic forms of research. They have charged that the field is largely devoid of theory and have challenged each other to offer theoretical approaches to the topic that would direct such efforts. Researchers have denounced their own field as lagging behind other fields in political science (for example, the field of congressional studies) in adequately addressing questions through scientific explanation. Critics have charged that presidency research has been remiss in its development [Page 2]of theory, gathering of quantitative data, and presentation of statistical analyses across numerous presidents.
When these charges were first leveled in the 1970s and into the early 1980s, they were seemingly true. Many presidency scholars concentrated on questions about the personalities, power, and leadership of individual presidents. These concepts afforded incumbent-specific approaches to the study of the office that saw each president as different, bringing unique talents, foibles, and goals to the office and leaving with distinctive accomplishments and failures. From this perspective, the presidency was a composite of such heroic leaders as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and their more feeble counterparts, such as James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce. No two presidents were alike. In effect, presidents were the presidency. To the extent that discussions of the office were offered, they were couched in the language of individual incumbents' power and leadership—the imperial presidency (too much power and malevolent leadership), the imperiled presidency (too little power and docile leadership), the impossible presidency (considerable power but docile leadership), and the impressive presidency (considerable power and benevolent leadership).
This political-actor perspective preempted systematic data analysis across presidents and hindered relevant generalizations, because presidents were scrutinized one at a time. The central theoretical question asked in much of this literature was how presidents differed in their decisions. Studies addressed the personality characteristics that most influenced decision making, the management styles presidents adopted to make their decisions, and the strategies they employed to convince others of the decisions' merits. Yet, such a perspective “promotes enormous complications in theory and research, opening a Pandora's box of individual motivation and behavior and orienting the field around causal mysteries that we are unlikely to solve” (Edwards, Kessel, and Rockman, 1993, 8). The question about how presidents differ in their decisions, if not the wrong question to ask, is surely too narrow a question that looks at the presidency through a fun house mirror—accentuating the sizes and shapes of the presidents, but leaving the actual office they hold a blur.
It is not surprising, then, that the answers scholars gave stressed variations among presidents. The analyses were often simply descriptions of events; qualitative case studies; or comparisons of case studies of single presidents based on anecdotes, personality sketches, and insiders' reminiscences. Many books included sequential chapters on presidents since Franklin Roosevelt, laying out how each officeholder shaped various aspects of the office.
Today, the charge of inadequate systematic research can no longer be leveled. Some scholars continue to address president-specific questions, but many now do so with the larger context of the presidency as an institution [Page 3]in mind (e.g., Hult and Walcott, 2004; Stuckey, 2004). Others have begun to ask questions that are inherently about the office, not solely about its occupants, using a wide array of theoretical approaches, research techniques, and data sets (e.g., Cameron, 2000; Mayer, 2002; Howell, 2003).Asking New Questions
Presidency scholars have begun to ask questions that de-emphasize the uniqueness of individual presidents and focus instead on the presidency as an institution. Scholars are now asking how the institution of the presidency can affect political outcomes, including presidents' behavior. The answer researchers have given is that institutional regularities prompt all presidents, regardless of personality, leadership style, or ambition, to behave similarly in fundamental ways (Moe, 1985, 1994; Ragsdale, 1993; Rudalevige, 2002; Kumar, 2007; Wood, 2007). In addition, scholars are asking how the environment within which the presidency operates affects presidents' actions and public approval of their performances in office (Ostrom and Job, 1986; Brace and Hinckley, 1992; Mueller, 1994; Edwards, 2003). The conclusion they have reached is that political, social, and economic environmental constraints limit a president's latitude to make a difference as an individual. These lines of research consider presidential actions—whether they are legislative initiatives, vetoes, public appearances, civil rights commitments, or the use of military force—as the unit of analysis, rather than the president who is affecting the action. These questions are directing researchers' attention to the patterns that characterize the office rather than the idiosyncrasies of its occupants.
Consider as examples three regular patterns that scholars have found to characterize the institutional presidency. Perhaps the most widely known pattern is that the longer a president has been in office, the lower is his public approval. Although explanations of this pattern have differed sharply (cf. Mueller, 1970; Kernell, 1978), no one disputes the general trend in presidential popularity. This finding points to institutional continuities facing all presidents, regardless of their political party, election success, and policy accomplishments or lack thereof. A second pattern is that the smaller the number of initiatives a president undertakes in Congress, the higher is the president's legislative success (Ostrom and Simon, 1985; Edwards, 1990; Bond and Fleisher, 1992). This occurs regardless of the size of the president's party in Congress or the specific legislative initiatives considered. A third pattern is that presidential power in the use of military force expands; it never contracts (Howell, 2007; Savage, 2007; Rudalevige, 2006; see also Chapter 7). One president's actions in military affairs set a precedent for future presidents to expand presidential military efforts. This occurs regardless of which president is acting, which [Page 4]region of the world is involved, the size of the military effort, or its success or failure. There are certainly differences among presidents within these broad patterns. For instance, not all presidents begin their terms with approval ratings at or near the same level. Nonetheless, the universality of the downward trend in presidents' approval ratings is of great significance in understanding the institution of the presidency.Looking for Answers
Scholars have obtained answers to their questions about the institutional presidency and its environment by gathering longitudinal data that illuminate the continuities in the way presidents behave. Moreover, because the unit of analysis is often a particular presidential action there is an underlying assumption that any one of these actions taken by one president can be compared to the same action taken by another president.
Thus, worthwhile data on the institutional presidency are emerging across time, spanning numerous individual presidencies. The data make comparisons across presidents more precise and generalizations about the institution more clear-cut. Researchers have become familiar with the wealth of publicly available data in the Public Papers of the Presidents, the Code of Federal Regulations, the Budget of the United States, the American Presidency Project (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu), and other comprehensive sources that reveal the size and actions of the presidency. In addition, some scholars have gathered systematic data through extensive searches of material at presidential libraries. Although there is limited comparability in the data culled from one presidential library to the next, these data can nonetheless add to the picture of the presidency as an institution. Research using these sources dispels the infamous “N = 1” problem—one president in office at a time—and the complementary complaint that White House decision making is done privately. In addition, the systematic data on the presidency culled from these sources are increasingly being analyzed with more sophisticated and vigorous methodologies.
However, this progress in research can trigger tension among presidency scholars. Some continue to concentrate on finding out how individual presidents contribute to the presidency—What is George W. Bush really like? Others see George W. Bush as someone who will come and go; they consider that many of the factors that influence his success in Congress, his approval among the American public, and his policy achievements are not unique to him but general to the presidency. As George Edwards, John Kessel, and Bert Rockman have noted, “presidency research lacks a powerful consensus on appropriate methodology and theoretical approaches” (1991, 11). Yet, in many ways this lack of consensus has ensured progress toward more systematic and rigorous research.A Less Elusive Executive
The two central goals of this book are to clarify the concept of institution as it applies to the presidency and to identify key statistical patterns characterizing the presidency as an institution. Presidency scholars, like researchers in political science generally, run the risk of overusing the term institution without truly understanding what it means. The term has become a handy buzz word that may well be added to the pool of other such terms that the discipline has seen come, and sometimes go, such as power, system, inputs, outputs, role, culture, and rationality. Often these terms are invoked to lend a theoretical framework to research that otherwise might be charged with stark empiricism. Adopted as a matter of convenience rather than as an element of theoretical rigor, writers employ their own commonsense definitions of the word, making it cover more and more situations and in so doing making it less and less helpful in distinguishing political phenomena.The Study of Institutions
Across the large number of people writing about political institutions, there is little agreement on how the term should be conceptualized. Three different perspectives exist. One view sees institutions as “humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction” or “the rules of the game” (North, 1990, 3). According to this view, institutions include all rules, from informal norms and conventions, such as the seniority system in Congress, to formal constraints, such as constitutions. Such rules are in place as rational responses to collective action problems; the rules become agreements used to structure cooperation and reduce the costs of making decisions and carrying out other transactions. In contemporary social science, this perspective emerges from economics and has become the basis for what is called the “new institutionalism” in political science, especially current in the study of Congress.
Yet, the new institutionalism is not all that new. Ironically, its precursors are evident in early political science writings on the American presidency. Edward Corwin (1957), Pendleton Herring (1940), Louis Koenig (1944), and Clinton Rossiter (1960) foreshadow the current work with a focus on the constitutional foundations, powers, and precedents of the presidency—the rules by which the office developed. Although these scholars do not adopt notions of rationality, they nonetheless offer a traditional approach to institutionalism in political science.
Furthermore, this view of institutions rests on a slim conceptual reed. Kenneth Shepsle and Barry Weingast (1987), in a widely cited work that has been taken as an archetypical example of the new institutionalism, never define the term institution, but merely assume that their audience [Page 6]knows what it means. In response, Keith Krehbiel provides some help in identifying “‘institutional foundations’ (i.e., formal rules and precedents)” (1987, 929). Yet this parenthetical phrase is all that is offered.
References in economics are more definitive, but no more satisfying. Douglass North categorically distinguishes institutions (the rules) from organizations, which are the game and players (1990, 4–5). Thus, an organization cannot be an institution. This divorce of organization from institution prohibits the quite common explanation of an institution as a well-established social organization. From the economics viewpoint, entities such as schools, churches, universities, hospitals, legislatures, and executive offices cannot be considered institutions, although the rules by which they operate can.
A second view of institutions maintains that an institution is a stable organization that has established patterns of behavior over time that fulfill certain functions in society. Sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s identified institutions according to their lack of expendability, the creation of norms and routines, and maintenance of boundaries (Selznick, 1957; Eisenstadt, 1964). Institutions do not exist to resolve collective action problems; rather, they adapt self-images that are extensions of cultural and social expectations. Political scientists applied this concept to political organizations such as legislatures, cabinets, and political parties (Huntington, 1965; Polsby, 1968). Research using this perspective considered aspects of institutions such as autonomy (the independence of an organization from other social groupings), complexity (differentiation and multiplication of organizational subunits), coherence (consensus about the internal procedures of an organization), and adaptability (age of the organization and changes it has withstood).
A third view of institutions, which also emerged in sociology, is at once more narrow than the economics view and more broad than the old sociological view (Powell and DiMaggio, 1991). Today, sociologists, too, write of a new institutionalism, but their version directly counters that of economics and political science. The new institutionalism in sociology expressly rejects notions of rational choice as the basis for the formation and maintenance of institutions. According to this view, institutions are not formal and informal rules designed for the expedient reduction of decision costs. Instead, they are social relationships and actions that come to be taken for granted to the extent that they achieve rulelike status in social thought and action. These include such conventions as the handshake, marriage, attending college, the “No Smoking” sign, and the Nobel Prize (Meyer and Rowan, 1991). Indeed, “taken for grantedness” is a common, if curious, noun used by many in the field. Thus, institutions have cultural and symbolic, not rational, foundations.
The new institutionalism in sociology also broadens the traditional sociological attention to organizations by examining “organizational fields.” [Page 7]These are homogenous practices and arrangements found across a wide variety of similarly situated organizations. Such fields include the university, the corporation, the art museum, and the industry. They demonstrate similar characteristics and share a consensus about goals and boundaries of the field across a wide variety of specific organizations. For instance, the form and functions of universities are more alike than different in their approach to departmental units, tenure, the granting of degrees, and so on and thus are said to constitute a field (DiMaggio, 1991).The Presidency as an Institution
The literature on the presidency shows no clear direction or choice among these three approaches to institutions. Presidency scholars mix and match views without necessarily recognizing their differences or even acknowledging their existence. Terry Moe adopts the traditional sociological view in a brief footnote and writes of institutions as regularized behavior patterns (1985, 236n). In later works (1993), he drops the sociological view in favor of rational choice institutionalism but does not explain why. Others retain the traditional sociological perspective (Burke, 1992; Pika, 1988; Hart, 1987; Wayne, 1978). Yet, elements of the new sociological perspective also creep into some of these writings. Although authors are seemingly unaware of the new institutionalism in sociology, they often consider the presidency as having characteristics of a bureaucracy, and thus of being part of a larger organizational field. Some of the confusion stems from the ambiguity of the three views. But the difficulty also rests with presidency scholars themselves who have not clearly articulated or agreed upon the dimensions of the presidency as an institution.
To help resolve these issues, this book considers the presidency as an institution from the traditional sociological view but also enlarges that view. The traditional sociological view defies the tendency of the new sociological perspective to be overly broad and label almost anything as an institution. Designating the handshake, the “No Smoking” sign, and the Nobel Prize as institutions confuses what may be more aptly considered symbols for institutions. The traditional sociological approach does not mistake the characteristics of an institution for the institution itself, a problem with the economics view. For instance, the use of the informal rule of seniority in Congress is indicative of Congress as an institution rather than seniority as an institution. The traditional sociological view permits the identification of two dimensions of an institution: organizational and behavioral. It recognizes the intuitive understanding already in place in much of the presidency literature that an organization imbued “with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand” is an institution (Selznick, 1957, 17). It also suggests that regular behavior patterns accompany, but are distinct from, the organizational dynamics.
Yet, the traditional sociological view falters in not fully recognizing a third dimension of institutions—structure. The organizational and behavioral dimensions of an institution do not simply come about on their own. Structural elements are the intrinsic, defining characteristics of the institution that provide the parameters within which the organization and institutional behavior occur. These structures are not so broad as to identify an organizational field; instead, they describe the most typical features of a single institution. For instance, there are certain elements that distinguish the American presidency from the German or French presidencies. The structures guiding the American office include quadrennial indirect elections, separation of powers, and the combination of head of state with policy actor. These structures establish the parameters within which the institutional organization and behavior occur. Thus, this book identifies three dimensions of the presidency as an institution: organizational, behavioral, and structural.
The organizational dimension reveals how an institution is fused with value as an end in itself. Applied to the presidency, it involves the routines, procedures, and units that comprise the Executive Office of the President. Although presidents often make marginal changes within the organization, the office is not reinvented each time a president arrives at the White House (see Chapter 6). Because of the tangible qualities of the organization, this dimension is especially important in juxtaposing the presidency as an institution against presidents as individuals.
The behavioral dimension involves the extent to which presidents faced with similar environmental circumstances respond in similar ways. Perhaps one of the most well-defined behavioral aspects of the contemporary presidency is the use of public persuasion. Scholars often concentrate on the uniqueness of individual presidents' public leadership—their speaking styles, how stiff or relaxed they are in public, the degree to which they are willing to meet the people. Yet, institutional behavior—in the form of major national addresses, news conferences, and ceremonial appearances—guides many of these individual actions. In addition, imagery attached to the office—that is, the image of the president as the one person in charge of the government and as the representative of the people—creates consistency in the way presidents present themselves to the public (see Chapter 4).
The structural dimension defines how the U.S. Constitution, historical precedents, and temporal orderings shape the presidency. Most fundamentally, the presidency is structured as an electoral and representative office, independent from the legislature. As an electoral office, the presidency runs on a four-year clock set by the most recent and the next presidential election. Time systematically defines how the office operates. Political resources and opportunities decrease as time moves further away from the election victory and the “honeymoon” ends (Light, 1991). [Page 9]As a representative office, the presidency rests on a symbolic connection between the people and the president; the president is a symbol of the nation and is thereby identified with its achievements and misfortunes. As an independent office, the presidency reflects separation of powers. This independence has allowed the presidency to garner more power than the Framers originally envisioned, though the executive's gain has not necessarily been at the expense of Congress, which itself benefits from the separation of powers. These three dimensions—organizational, behavioral, and structural—define the manner in which the presidential institution has a life of its own.Statistical Patterns of the Presidency
The statistical patterns revealed in this book show that the institution of the presidency shapes presidents as much as presidents, during their short tenures, shape the institution. Both the resources and constraints inherent in the institution make the actions of individual presidents far more similar than different to the actions of their immediate predecessors and successors. In addition, the institutional presidency may even act independently of presidents in making policy decisions or shaping presidents' public activities. While it is true that some presidents have fashioned significant innovations, such one-time reforms or pathbreaking decisions often become commonplace practices or precedents for future presidents and thus a part of the institution. This book attempts to place these president-specific changes within the context of an evolving presidency. It is also true that exogenous events in the national and international environment are important. These events may shape both presidents' actions and the institution itself. The data presented here provide the necessary foundation for fashioning explanations about the connections among the presidency, presidents, and the political environment. Readers will find three sets of statistical patterns in the book: institutional patterns, environmental patterns, and incumbent-specific patterns. Of course, data are not self-interpreting. Scholars may find other statistical patterns than those highlighted here. In either case, the data may allow them to pursue answers to questions they have not thought about in the past.Institutional Continuity
The transition between administrations provides one of the strongest tests of the validity of institutional patterns. How can the presidency truly exist as an ongoing institution when, on January 20 following the election of a new president, virtually every important White House office changes occupants? The turnover is dramatic and takes place whether or not the [Page 10]successive executives belong to different political parties. Even when a president begins a second term, changes abound. A new chief establishes a new direction.
Still, the outlook of the new administration reflects past campaigns, administrations, and policies, all of which provide continuity. In addition, as broad new themes shape specific relationships among (new) individuals in (old) organizations, many arrangements and procedures persist from previous administrations. When one incumbent replaces another, the newcomer may well perpetuate established practices out of a need to respond quickly in a context of limited information and expertise.
The executive apparatus shows even more systematic continuity. Although members of the White House staff change with some frequency, the broader institution of the presidency is hardly recreated each time a new administration enters office. Many, if not all, top staffers change during a transition, but the career personnel stay. As an example, on January 6, 1977, the International Trade Commission recommended to President Gerald Ford that tariffs be placed on shoes imported from abroad. Ford decided not to act on the matter but instead left it to his successor. The day after Jimmy Carter took office, he received a memo from the National Security Council on shoe import quotas. On February 4, the Office of the United States Trade Representative—a unit within the Executive Office of the President charged with advising presidents on trade—provided Carter with a background memo. In both instances, action was being taken on material inherited from the Ford administration (see DiClerico, 1985, 248–249). This item on the national policy agenda continued to be addressed, regardless of who was president.
Yet, incumbent change surely remains prominent even amidst this continuity. Ultimately, the most appropriate way of viewing the change wrought by a new incumbent and administration is to see it as a structural cycle of the institution, not a feature of the presidential entourage. Quadrennial change is merely one of the regularly occurring patterns that constitute the presidency and help explain the behavior of old and new alike at the White House. While every president enters office determined to make a difference, students of the presidency are deceived if they think that this is a function of an individual president. Instead, it is much more reflective of the electoral and representative nature of the office. Election cycle change is actually a very regular and well-known aspect of the presidency—it inheres in the office, not in its incumbents.Environmental Influences
The overall environment plays a role in establishing some of the most compelling patterns in the presidency. These patterns derive from the way national politics depends on exogenous events and conditions, [Page 11]such as wars, economic booms and busts, rising crime rates, hefty trade imbalances, and the collapse of long-standing governments abroad. Such circumstances are not wholly or even principally under presidents' control, although they are sometimes mistakenly assumed to be so. Herbert Hoover made this point when he said, “Once upon a time my political opponents honored me as possessing the fabulous intellectual and economic power by which I created a world-wide depression all by myself.” Sharing Hoover's sentiments, William Howard Taft observed,
There is a class of people that … visit the President with responsibility for everything that is done and that is not done. If poverty prevails where, in their judgment, it should not prevail, then the President is responsible. If other people are richer than they ought to be, the President is responsible. While the President's powers are broad, he cannot do everything…. This would be ludicrous if it did not sometimes take serious results. The President cannot make clouds to rain, he cannot make the corn to grow, he cannot make business to be good. (1916, 47–50)
In many ways, the success or failure attributed to individual presidents may well be the result of conditions in the broader social, political, and economic environment that make presidents look good and bad, or better and worse, than they would otherwise.Incumbent Differences
President-specific dynamics comprise a third set of patterns derived from the data. General patterns take on recognizable 4 reveals that President Richard Nixon held significantly fewer news conferences than did other presidents. Another example from Chapter 5 indicates that President George W. Bush's public approval ratings started high, soared even higher, then dropped precipitously. A final example from Chapter 6 shows that President Ford sharply cut the size of the Executive Office of the President upon taking office.
Yet each of these incumbent-specific patterns must be placed in the larger context of the office. Nixon held fewer news conferences, but he did not abandon these sessions with the press because he could not. The practice of giving news conferences is an institutional feature of the presidency that a president—even Nixon, who bitterly distrusted the press—would stop only at his political peril. George W. Bush obtained the highest approval rating of any president after the terrorist bombings on September 11, 2001, yet the institutional pattern still caught up with him when public expectations went unmet on domestic and economic issues and the country soured on the Iraq War. President Ford drastically cut the size of the White House staff, but he did not cut its budget.
None of these examples are meant to suggest that the institution has some kind of magical power over individual incumbents. Rather, the institution represents an encompassing set of offices, procedures, and relationships within which presidents act and react and which help to guide their behavior.Systematic Research on the Presidency
Although this book contains many statistics, data points, trend lines, and figures, this does not suggest that all research on the presidency should be quantitative or that all quantitative research is better than qualitative research. Indeed, not all questions worthy of being asked can be answered with quantitative data. Quantitative or qualitative work done shoddily reveals nothing. Quantitative and qualitative work done thoroughly can provide (and has provided) important insights into the office. It is surely possible for presidency scholars to develop theoretically driven, systematic analyses using either type of data. There is nothing intrinsically more rigorous, difficult, or informative about quantitative research relative to qualitative research (King, 1993; King, Keohane, Verba, 1994). But, ultimately, this book stands as a reminder that there is little room left in the study of the presidency for research based on unsystematic, albeit absorbing, anecdotes and passing observations. Researchers often masquerade such anecdotal evidence as systematically gathered and analyzed qualitative data, which it is not.
Anecdotal observation has at least two negative consequences. First, it leads observers to make misinformed judgments and statements. For example, the 1980 and 1984 elections were widely perceived as two of the largest presidential election victories ever. Accordingly, Democrats and Republicans alike believed that the American public supported Ronald Reagan's policies wholeheartedly. Although his 1984 victory was a substantial electoral college win, fully one-third of all election victories in this century were decided by larger popular vote margins (see Chapter 3). Moreover, two-thirds of all presidential elections in this century were decided by larger popular vote margins than Reagan's 1980 victory.
Second, anecdotal observation leaves scholars without a reliable basis for comparison and analysis. Presidential behavior, reporters' comments, newspaper editorials, presidents' biographies and autobiographies, and political arguments by members of Congress or the administration are impossible to evaluate adequately without knowledge of comparable situations and statistics. For example, commentators often overstated Carter's unpopularity, portraying him as unable to lead the country during trying times. In an equally overstated fashion, observers pointed to Reagan's exceptional popularity, dubbing him the “Teflon” president when his personal popularity remained seemingly untouched by the relative unpopularity [Page 13]of his political positions. Yet systematic analysis of the evidence reveals that these characterizations of the two presidents were erroneous. Data in Chapter 5 make clear that during the first two years of their terms, these two presidents had similar public approval ratings.
Thoroughgoing data analysis—whether quantitative or qualitative—of an individual president's term or across several presidents' terms alleviates these twin problems. Comparisons are routine and evaluations of the evidence are more reliable. Presidency watchers of all kinds have an interest in eliminating anecdotal observation to reduce the chasm between information about American presidents and information about the presidency. As more presidency scholars test theories and hypotheses with appropriate data, generalizations about the presidency become more numerous and more trustworthy. Many of these generalizations are already in place (Ragsdale, 1997). Such research provides the opportunity for cumulative scientific study that will move the field toward a consensus about how to ask new questions and away from past squabbles about the second-class status of the field.Outline of the Book
The book is organized into ten chapters. Data in the chapters are presented in as long a time frame as possible. Chapter 1 offers a brief look at presidents from Washington to George W. Bush—their personal backgrounds and their political experience. The chapter reminds readers of who these men were and the significance of the eras in which they lived.
Chapters 2 and 3 consider how elections create structural aspects of the presidency as an institution. Chapter 2 offers a view of the presidential selection process, providing data on presidential nominating conventions beginning in 1832. It continues with an examination of the rise in importance of presidential primaries since 1912. Media coverage of recent nominations is also addressed, showing that what was once a heavily party-dominant task is now a much more candidate-driven process. Chapter 3 examines general election outcomes since 1789 and offers information on modern-day presidential campaigns.
Chapters 4 and 5 consider the nature of institutional behavior, first from the perspective of presidents' activities and then from the perspective of the public's reactions to these activities. Chapter 4 provides an analysis of presidents' public appearances since Calvin Coolidge as a form of institutional behavior. Chapter 5 offers public opinion data on presidents since Franklin Roosevelt that reveal a downward trend over time. The presidents' public institutional behavior may shape subsequent public behavior.
Chapters 6, 7, and 8 look at organization as a pivotal part of the presidency as an institution. Chapter 6 considers the size and shape of the office [Page 14]of the president, its budget, and the units within it since its inception in 1924. The chapter also examines the broad outlines of the executive branch and stresses that the organization of the presidency is not the same thing as the executive branch, nor is it in control of the executive branch. Chapters 7 and 8 look at the independent policymaking the presidency as an organization produces. Chapter 7 examines presidents' efforts in war and diplomacy. It highlights their use of military force, whether sanctioned by Congress or not, and the powerful precedents these military efforts have created for future presidents. The chapter also examines U.S. diplomatic efforts in the form of executive agreements and treaties. Chapter 8 considers the domestic and economic policymaking of the White House. It presents data on presidents' executive orders and their efforts at budget and tax policymaking.
The final two chapters examine relations between the presidency and the other institutions of government. The structural, behavioral, and organizational dimensions of the presidency are evident in relations between the presidency and Congress (Chapter 9) and between the presidency and the courts (Chapter 10). Chapter 9 inventories presidential requests to Congress and presidential positions on legislation before Congress since Dwight Eisenhower and notes vetoes taken since Washington. Chapter 10 depicts the judicial nominations of presidents and examines court rulings against presidents since Washington.
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