Presidents as agents of change.

Author:Galvin, Daniel J.
Position:Essay
 
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Over the last half-century, most presidency research has been built upon Richard Neustadt's (1990 [1960]) premise that modern presidents operate within a political environment that is intractable and highly resistant to change. Though they may rack up some policy accomplishments and enjoy short-term victories over their opponents, presidents are widely seen as having limited capacities to alter the institutional and organizational arrangements that surround them. As George C. Edwards III has written, "there is little evidence that presidents can restructure the political landscape and pave the way for change. Although not prisoners of their environment, they are likely to be highly constrained by it" (2000, 34). (1)

Not all presidency scholars, of course, have shared this view. Scholars of rational choice institutionalism, in particular, ventured into presidency studies in the 1980s and 1990s heralding a very different perspective. In two important essays, Terry Moe (1985, 1993) urged scholars to shift attention from analyses of presidential strategy and style within fixed constraints to studies of how presidents factor into the broader "logic of institutional development" (1985, 236). As an illustration, Moe suggested that all modern presidents had contributed to a dynamic process of change in the executive branch. In their efforts to make administrative structures more competent and responsive to the White House in the short-term--to achieve "congruence" between inherited structures and their incentives for leadership--modern presidents made incremental contributions to the long-term evolution of the "institutional presidency." Often unwittingly, their actions "set in motion" institutional changes that had "reciprocal effects that alter[ed] individual incentives and resources, which in turn propel[led] the next round of institutional changes," thereby shaping the "directions and dynamics of institutional change" (Moe 1985, 237). Rather than leave their structural environment undisturbed, Moe suggested that presidents regularly engage in behaviors that alter their surroundings and "shift the structure of politics for themselves and everyone else" (1993, 367).

These insights opened two new lines of inquiry for presidency research. The first involved reconceptualizing presidents as "generic types rooted in an institutional system" (rather than individual people) who respond systematically to incentives and interact with other institutions in predictable ways (Moe 2009, 704). The second emphasized the downstream effects of those interactions--effects that may alter institutional trajectories in politically consequential ways.

Subsequent work in the rational choice tradition primarily pursued the first line of inquiry. It depersonalized the presidency, constructed refined theories of presidential politicization, centralization, interbranch bargaining, and unilateral action, and designed formal models to specify the conditions under which different presidents are likely to act in similar ways with more or less success (Cameron 2000; Groseclose and McCarty 2001; Howell 2003; Howell and Pevehouse 2007; Lewis 2003; McCarty 2004; Rudalevige 2002). Taking center stage was comparative statics, or the examination of how changes in the model's parameters affect its equilibrium solution. (2) Comparative statics analyses have many advantages, but they do not consider whether (or how) the outcome of one game might alter the constraints faced by presidents in subsequent games. Each game is treated as distinct from the last, with the parameters exogenously determined and the players remaining the same. Presidents are expected to try to alter the status quo---that is the game--but the consequences of their actions do not factor into the analysis in any meaningful way. Whether the moves they make are informed or constrained by prior rounds--and whether their actions have any long-term effects on their political environment--are not the subjects of investigation.

In other words, Moe's second suggestion--that presidents not only act within but also upon their environments in historically significant ways--was not pursued much further, at least not by those who most explicitly sought to build on his insights. (3) Yet this second line of inquiry retains a strong appeal. In addition to offering a clear-cut alternative to the familiar Neustadtian model of examining presidential strategy within fixed constraints, it expands the range of questions usually addressed in presidency research and provides an opportunity to bring the illuminative power of historical research to bear. What I wish to suggest in this essay is that studying how presidents change things remains a promising path for research. That it was suggested in the mid-1980s by one of the "founding fathers" of the rational choice approach to presidency studies only attests to its enduring interest and importance for the subfield.

The fact of the matter is that presidents can, and often do, alter their structural confines and "restructure the political landscape" (Edwards 2000, 34). They do not always, of course, and certainly not always according to their own designs. But as a growing number of historical-institutional studies have shown, presidents have been instrumental in reorganizing social forces, rearranging political alliances, reconfiguring political structures and organizations, and altering institutional trajectories across the whole of American history (Arnold 2009; Cook and Polsky 2005; Galvin 2010; Ginsberg and Shelter 1988; Hacker and Pierson 2012; James 2000; McMahon 2004; Milkis 1993, 2009; Milkis and Tichenor 2011; Miroff 2003; Sanders 2007; Sheingate 2003; Skowronek 1993; Tulis 1987; Tulis and Mellow 2007; Whittington 2007; Whittington and Carpenter 2003; Wooley 2012). As Stephen Skowronek summarizes in his magisterial The Politics Presidents Make (1993, 4), the presidency is a "blunt, disruptive force" that routinely shakes up the basic contours of American politics. To be sure, some parts of the political landscape are more susceptible to change than others. But as these studies have shown, presidents are often powerful agents of change, and to exclude their potentially system-altering effects from the analysis is to miss out on some of the most important things they do.

Building on these historical-institutional insights, this article suggests an analytical framework for bringing presidential effects "back in" to the center of the analysis. It argues for a return to Moe's prescriptions in this regard, makes a few methodological suggestions for conducting historical research of this nature, and illustrates the potential gains by reconsidering some recent research into the relationship between presidential action and party development. The main argument is that without greater attention to how presidents contribute to the changing shape of the political landscape, appraisals of individual presidents, and of the broader significance of the presidency in American politics, will remain incomplete.

Structures, Incentives, and Resources

The basic analytical framework Moe laid out almost three decades ago remains a helpful starting point for anyone seeking to examine the formative effects of presidential action. To summarize briefly, Moe argued that presidents are driven to act by the degree of incongruence they perceive between existing structural arrangements, on one hand, and their incentives for leadership, on the other. Those structures and incentives are not usually in alignment, so presidents will use whatever resources they have at their disposal to try to bridge the gap. The effects of their efforts, drawn out over time, encourage "certain paths of institutional development and certain patterns of institutional outcomes rather than others" (Moe 1985, 237).

This simple framework is useful, in part, because it is portable--it can illuminate the dynamics of structural change across a wide range of settings. It also helpfully focuses the empirical analysis: the researcher is advised to identify the structures the president seeks to change, examine why he wants to change them, assess the resources at his disposal, and trace the effects of his efforts over time. In Moe's study, for example, presidents find the structure of the "institutional presidency" dissatisfying; they want it to be more responsive to the White House and competent in its operations to help them demonstrate strong leadership; and their available resources include their appointment power and executive branch management authority. The steps they take to change it are "halting, highly imperfect, and nowhere near sufficient," but they do produce "incremental reforms--followed by endless adaptations to new circumstances--that aggregate to substantial change" (Moe 1985, 243-44).

Of course, presidents find many different types of structural arrangements dissatisfying and often have the incentives and resources to try to change them. Consider, for example, their parties. Upon entering office, presidents inherit various party structures--institutional, organizational, coalitional, and ideational arrangements--that they perceive to be incongruent with their individual goals and purposes. The party may stand for things the president does not like; it may not stand for things that the president wants it to stand for; it may be poorly equipped to carry out the activities he wants it to; the balance of power between party factions may be skewed in ways the president does not like; and so on. The degree of president-party incongruence will vary from incumbent to incumbent, but some level of dissatisfaction should always be expected. (4)

This presents a problem for the president, for the simple reason that he needs his party. In the short term, he needs it to help pursue his policy and electoral goals. In the long term, he needs it to help ensure that his policy goals are promoted even...

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