Shifting currents: Dwight Eisenhower and the dynamic of presidential opportunity structure.

Author:Polsky, Andrew J.
Position:Essay
 
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In May 1960 President Dwight Eisenhower looked forward to a summit meeting with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the leaders of France and Great Britain that held great promise for moving beyond the hostility of the Cold War to a new era of detente. For more than seven years the president had been building toward this moment. He had maneuvered between suspicion and anti-Communist hysteria at home and tense confrontations abroad. By escaping the Cold War stalemate, Eisenhower could not only lessen the risk of nuclear war that had hung over his presidency, but also help him reach other cherished goals, such as curbing U.S. defense expenditures and balancing the federal budget over the long term. A rare opening seemed to beckon, a moment when a president could initiate far-reaching transformations at home and abroad.

And then the moment vanished, in the explosion of a high altitude Soviet air defense missile that brought down the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers. The spy flights had been going on since 1956, despite the Soviets' private protests at the violation of their air space. (To denounce the flights in public would also require an embarrassing admission by Moscow that it lacked the capability to shoot down the aircraft.) Eisenhower understood the risk should a plane be downed, but he valued the reassuring information the missions yielded that the Soviet missile program lagged behind that of the United States. So he decided to approve one final flight two weeks before the scheduled summit. When the plane went missing, the president and his advisors hoped at first that it had been destroyed and Powers killed, leaving no evidence for the Soviets to exploit. But Khrushchev soon announced the Soviets held the pilot alive. After initially denying knowledge of the mission, Eisenhower accepted responsibility and called the flights necessary to preserve national security. This acknowledgment in turn placed the Soviet leader in a vulnerable position with his own hardliners, and he adopted the public posture of a man betrayed. The four-power summit came to nothing (Pach and Richardson 1991, 214-19). Once on the verge of a thaw, U.S.-Soviet relations again turned to ice.

The U-2 episode raises questions about how we think about the "opportunity structure" of presidential leadership. The opportunity structure framework has become a cornerstone of presidency research over the past generation. Led by Stephen Skowronek (1993), scholars have emphasized that circumstances facilitate, inhibit, or preclude presidential action. Presidents are agents--they make consequential decisions that others in their shoes might not make--but they operate within a context in which only some actions are possible at an acceptable political cost. To ignore the environment is to court failure. Yet the way scholars have construed opportunity structure, I would argue, has been too narrow. The emphasis, per Skowronek, has been on the partisan context in which a president is situated, based on the problematic framework of partisan regimes. If we consider the U-2 example or, for that matter, a host of other situations Eisenhower faced, a regime focus tells us nothing about what he could or could not do. It did not matter when Powers was shot down that Eisenhower was a Republican president during a Democratic era. Further, the impact of the incident on the summit and on the president's late-term agenda highlights both the fluid character of opportunity structures and how they can be reshaped by a president's own choices.

Drawing on the Eisenhower presidency, I propose to reformulate the opportunity structure approach to presidential leadership in three ways. First, without dismissing the significance of the regime context, I reject the presumption that it always belongs in the foreground when we attempt to make sense of a president's political environment. Other contextual elements enter a president's calculation of what he can and cannot do, and these elements often weigh more heavily on his interpretation of the possible than does his relationship to the dominant coalition. The contextual factors that shape the costs and benefits of action also vary across issues and policy domains. Second, the opportunity structure for a president is always changing. A partisan regime evolves, but the movement within a single presidency is modest; the terrain on which a given president acts shifts much more quickly. We might think of it as a river: though from a distance it appears to follow the same course, those who navigate it realize that it is always changing and thus always requiring adjustments to avoid new hazards. Third, the changes in the opportunity structure may be the consequence of a president's earlier actions. His choices, ranging from diplomatic maneuvers to key appointments, will set new forces in motion to which he will later have to respond.

Eisenhower demonstrates the complex and dynamic character of presidential opportunity structure. After examining critically Skowronek's opportunity structure concept and developing some of its implications, I apply my expanded framework to the Eisenhower presidency. I first show that, while we cannot neglect Eisenhower's position in a partisan regime context, this sheds light on few aspects of his administration (though they are important ones). When he entered office, other elements were at least as important in his assessment of what his situation allowed, required, or prohibited. I next examine how his opportunity structure changed across several key foreign and domestic policy areas. Then I take a second look at some of these examples to explore the impact of Eisenhower's own agency on the environment he later encountered. I suggest in closing that we can make effective use of the opportunity structure framework as an analytical tool only if we appreciate how multifaceted and shifting a president's environment is.

Broadening the Opportunity Structure Framework

Presidency scholars have long appreciated the importance of context in explaining presidential success. To single out but one noteworthy example, Aaron Wildavsky's classic "two presidencies" thesis recognizes that presidents enjoy significantly greater latitude in the realm of foreign policy than in domestic matters. In foreign affairs, a president enjoys stronger constitutional resources, can anticipate broader domestic backing, and typically faces less legislative opposition (Wildavsky 1966). The vast literature examining patterns of presidents' legislative success also represents an ongoing effort to weigh context. Scholars have considered such factors as the impact of presidential partisan control of Congress and partisan polarization (Eshbaugh-Soha 2005). Other literature on the presidency has explored the importance of other contextual elements that include the national mood (liberal or conservative), public attitudes toward government, and more (Renshon 2008). Suffice it to say that few if any presidency scholars would ignore context.

To this ongoing conversation, Stephen Skowronek added the explicit consideration of what he terms the opportunity structure for presidential leadership. His influential formulation of political time brings to the foreground a contextual element that had received little attention among presidency scholars. What a president can do is shaped not only by the broad constitutional powers of the office or its secular development across history, but also by the vitality of the dominant partisan coalition and the president's relation to it. In Skowronek's formulation, partisan regimes may be resilient or vulnerable, while a given president is either affiliated with the regime or a member of the opposition coalition. This typology gives rise to four recurring presidential opportunity structures: vulnerable/opposed (reconstruction), resilient/opposed (preemptive), vulnerable/affiliated (disjunction), and resilient/affiliated (articulation). Complicating the picture, presidents are also actors in a durable constitutional order and in a political system that has developed over time. The latter, Skowronek argues, has led to a pattern of institutional thickening that has weakened the capacity of regimes to disrupt and uproot the previous partisan order and led to a waning of political time. Still, the politics presidents make are shaped first and foremost by the partisan context. They will engage-- capitalize on, attempt to circumvent, confront, and at times stubbornly deny--the partisan opportunity structure that presents itself. As he puts it, presidents are "willful agents, more or less inclined to test the limits of their power and to act on the political world according to their own beliefs, ambitions, and outlooks" (Skowronek 1993, 46).

Skowronek's framework has shaped presidency scholarship for the past two decades, but his concept of political time invites a number of questions. To begin with, even for those who accept the opportunity structure approach, the regime construct is problematic. He never defines partisan regimes. Others have done so but in ways that call into doubt the utility of a regime framework for explaining political outcomes across long stretches of American history. I have argued that partisan coalitions operate as strong forces only for a short period after they first attain effective governing power. At most other times, a regime operates largely as a boundary condition, setting the outer limits of what is politically possible but otherwise doing little work to explain specific political outcomes (Polsky 2012b). This in turn leaves open how we might use the idea of a leadership opportunity structure when the vitality of the governing coalition and the president's relation to that coalition do not function as dominant contextual conditions.

Even if we adhere to the idea that regimes always matter, it is not clear why we should treat them as the most...

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