Scholarship on the presidency remains frozen within the post-Neustadt perspective concerning the uniqueness of the "modern" presidency (Neustadt 1990). The study of the institution and actors in the past has long promised a thaw, but the melting thus far has been marginal. The dominance of Neustadt's approach has been problematized both by the rational choice scholars studying the presidency and by the historical approach that has already been taken by scholars like Stephen Skowronek (see, for instance, Moe and Howell 1999; Skowronek 1997). The former, however, have not so much moved beyond Neustadt's focus on power as formalized it (Skowronek 2009). They have continued to assume that presidents are primarily, if not solely, focused on the accumulation of political power. The latter, although having moved beyond Neustadt's focus on power, have focused so much on the question of political authority, in its connection to the wielding of power, that they have failed to appreciate the ideational origins of the very concern for authority (Siemers 2009). They have failed to appreciate that presidents seek political authority--not just to wield power--but also to instantiate themselves in history as a certain kind of president only willing to do certain kinds of things. In other words, precisely because of the grandness of the stage on which presidents act, any reductionist account of their ambitions will necessarily do violence to some portion of their motivations and corresponding actions.
Just as Neustadt's single-minded focus on power could not really account for Eisenhower's odd behavior as president, so too, as Skowronek (1997) himself admits, his focus on the presidential quest for political authority in different political times and the frictions that quest inevitably creates cannot account for the relative lack of such frictions in Eisenhower's presidency. The grandness of the presidential stage certainly does invite presidents to seek political power and authority so as to wield it to achieve the "extensive and arduous enterprises" about which Hamilton (Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay 2003, 436) wrote so eloquently; but, the vagueness of the Constitution's definition of presidential power also permits presidents to create their legacy as much by the manner in which they occupy the constitutional office as by that which they do with it. Although the Constitution certainly encourages a certain kind of presidency, it still allows presidents to mold the office in a manner that comports with their conception of the proper constitutional presidency. And this possibility means that any deterministic account of presidential behavior will always fail to appreciate that any given president does not simply act within a predetermined constitutional order of the presidency; instead, presidents can do as much to shape for themselves, based on their constitutional ideas, the office in which they then preside.
James Madison's presidency is fascinating because his own prior worries about the "extra-constitutional" scope of presidential power caused him to pursue a far more constitutionally restrained presidency. One cannot understand Madison's presidency without understanding Madison's thoughts about the presidency. Using Madison's presidency to appreciate the essential importance of a president's constitutional conception of the office also helps us to make sense, more recently, of the critical differences between the Barack Obama and the George W. Bush presidencies. Although Obama has wielded power in many of the same ways as Bush did before him, his constitutional conception of the office seems much more limited than his predecessor. In other words, Madison's presidency shows us that the Constitution does not merely establish the "rules of the game" in which the president seeks to achieve political authority and wield power. Instead, the constitutional presidency itself can be actively shaped by its occupants. One has to integrate not just what a president wants to achieve while holding power but the kind of presidency presidents want to create for themselves.
Madison's presidency invites us to integrate his constitutional viewpoints in order to make sense of the heretofore contradictory record concerning his presidency. John Adams, the Federalist who one would not think prone to hyperbole about his Republican opposition, wrote that Madison's administration "has acquired more glory, and established more Union, than all three predecessors, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson put together" (quoted in Rutland 1990, 208-9). Yet, despite this lofty praise, Madison is never ranked as one of our great presidents. Instead, as Robert Rutland shows, another Adams--Henry Adams--"set the tone for a harsh judgment of Madison's presidency by a long recitation of 'executive weaknesses' and mismanagement. Generation after generation of American historians accepted Adams's judgment" (Rutland 1990, 208). Madison is usually ranked at best in roughly the "middle-of-the-pack." At the same time, many in Madison's own time were much more generous to him--much more like John Adams in giving him credit for holding the Union together during the War of 1812.
So, what is the reason for this dramatic discrepancy between our time and his? Why has Henry Adams's negative judgment won out over his great-grandfather's? I would suggest that the discrepancy arises from our failure to integrate a presidents' constitutional conception. And, in failing to integrate a presidents' constitutional conception, we tend to judge them by a "one-size-fits-all" standard of power maximization. How successfully did President x maximize his power and/or authority while he held the office? By these standards, Madison fails. Most importantly, he failed to use the War of 1812 to maximize his power in the way we think a successful president "ought" to use war.
We typically rank presidents as most successful when they successfully navigate the country into, through, and out of war through their unwavering and unflinching leadership. Madison's equivocal presidential rankings stem from his odd leadership during the major war of his presidency. Rather than maximize his power and control the "storyline" of the war, he tended to defer to his cabinet, Congress, and even the states. Then, after the war, when he could have reclaimed that "storyline" by showing the importance of his leadership, he emphasized instead how important it was that a federal republic could successfully fight a war without sacrificing either its federalism or its republican principles.
Madison's presidency should interest us in part because his own constitutional conception would rate his presidency better than ours would; but it should also interest us because, as Andrew Polsky (2012) has shown so well in his recent book, our emphasis on presidential power maximization leads to presidential power-grabs that are not supported by or grounded in the polity. Thus, presidents cannot sustain the wars they seek enough to win those wars; they have the constitutional and political authority to take the country to war but not the authority to sustain that war over the length of time necessary to win it. Seeking to exhibit their ability to lead by themselves, presidents do not encourage or even allow the other branches to play their proper constitutional roles. In the long term, focusing on power maximization as the marker of presidential success leads to a short-sighted focus that fails to account for the effects that a presidents' actions and words have on the polity as a whole. The failures of power-maximizing presidents like George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson in their respective wars point back again to the example of Madison. In other words, rather than simply defending Madison against the charges that he failed in the War of 1812 because he did not lead the fledging nation as it ought to have been led, Madison's presidency ought to lead us to rethink the way we study presidents. The question ought not to be did Madison fail according to our typical notions of presidential success, but how does Madison's example help us reconfigure standards at a time when typical notions of how to succeed no longer ring true?
Madison, the foremost theorist of the Constitution, did not merely understand himself as occupying the presidency in order to advance some subset of Republican political priorities. Nor did he aim merely to acquire and wield power in the manner that one would expect from Neustadt's conception of the office. As I will show in the course of this article, Madison failed as a president precisely on those grounds by which we judge them. He did not effectively lead Congress in the manner we expect; he failed to manage his cabinet effectively; and he failed to capitalize on the War of 1812 to transform himself and his administration into the objects of greatness one would expect from a great president. But it is precisely on those grounds (with the exception of his failure to manage his cabinet) that Madison ranked himself successful. He held the presidency, even during a relatively successful war, in a manner that neither deformed Congress nor the federal nation. Through his own example, Madison managed to inculcate a new notion of presidential power: despite the temptation to give all authority and power to the president, the president should be seen as only one component of our complicated system of separated powers. By conducting a successful war in a manner that neither destroyed our federal system (despite the temptation) nor destroyed congressional independence, Madison showed that his constitutional conception could survive even in perilous times. For this reason, Madison's presidency is tremendously successful precisely because he did not have to become a "great" president in order for it to be so. Resisting the allure of greatness in order to comport with a republican...