The "Post-Modern" Presidency- a New Presidential Epoch?

Published date01 March 1991
Date01 March 1991
Subject MatterArticles
Review Essay
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Ryan J. Barilleaux. The Post-Modern Presidency. New York: Praeger Pub-
lishers, 1988. Pp. 175. $35.95.
Gary King and Lyn Ragsdale. The Elusive Executive: Discovering Statisti-
cal Patterns in the Presidency. Washington, DC: Congressional Quar-
terly Press, 1988. Pp. 525. $26.95.
Richard Rose. The Postmodern President: The White House Meets the World.
Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1989. Pp. 350. $17.95.
Lester G. Seligman and Cary R. Covington. The Coalitional Presidency.
Chicago: Richard D. Irwin, 1989. Pp. 191. $13.95.
John Kenneth White. The New Politics of Old Values. 2nd. ed. Hanover,
NH: University Press of New England, 1990. Pp. 270. $12.95.
residential scholars are continually challenged in their quest to
develop adequate theories of the American presidency. The
absence of a clear constitutional statement of precise presiden-
tial powers guarantees changing sources of presidential power and prom-
ises diverse approaches taken by various occupants of the Oval Office
as they attempt to meet heightened citizen expectations of presidential
performance. In the past thirty years, the president has been deemed
a potential savior (Rossiter 1960; Finer 1960; and Neustadt 1963), the
office has been identified as &dquo;imperial&dquo; (Schlesinger 1973), &dquo;impossible&dquo;
(Barger 1984), &dquo;tethered&dquo; (Franck 1981), &dquo;no-win&dquo; (Light 1983) and
&dquo;plebiscitary&dquo; (Lowi 1985b). Invariably, a new president arrives in
office, refutes the most recent presidential evaluation, and prompts
presidential scholars to reconsider their descriptions of presidential per-
formance. As a result, we have many descriptions of presidents, but
no theories of presidential performance or of the institution (Nelson
Most scholars have agreed, however, that the development of pres-
idential power can be seen from the vantage point of two fairly distinct
historical epochs - the traditional presidency (the nineteenth century)
and the modern presidency (1932 to the present). In recent years,
questions have been raised about how useful such periodization is for

understanding the presidency, as well as how accurate it is to charac-
terize the development of presidential power in such clearly demar-
cated ways. For example, Steven Skowronek’s work on American polit-
ical development draws a number of important parallels between
twentieth century and nineteenth century presidents (Skowronek 1982,
1984, and 1986). Similarly, Jeffrey Tulis has made a convincing case
that perhaps we should turn to Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow
Wilson for a better understanding of changing sources of presidential
power that ushered in the modern era (Tulis 1987).
recent books on the presidency, The Post-Modern Presidency (Baril-
leaux 1988) and The Postmodern President: The White House Meets the
World (Rose 1989) suggest that recent changes in the office of the pres-
idency and what it means to be president are so great that we have
moved into a third major epoch in the development of presidential
power-the &dquo;post-modern&dquo; era. Both works attempt to outline the nature
of these changes and persuade the reader that if we are to better under-
stand the institution of the presidency, we must evaluate the institution
with this newly recognized paradigm in mind.
This essay argues that while both Barilleaux’s and Rose’s analyses
of the &dquo;post-modern&dquo; presidency make useful contributions to the study
of changing sources of presidential power and the relationship of the
electoral process to presidential governance, they fail to make a con-
vincing case on behalf of the &dquo;post-modern&dquo; paradigm. In making this
argument, I will rely on three additional recent works on the presi-
dency, The Elusive Executive: Discovering Statistical Patterns in the Presidency
(King and Ragsdale 1988), The Coalitional Presidency (Seligman and
Covington 1989), and The New Politics of Old Values (White 1990).
I will argue instead that presidential scholars should consider the
important relationship between the office of the Presidency and the
citizenry, which underlies the plebiscitary presidency. The presidency
as plebiscite may well be a more useful concept for analysis than the
&dquo;post-modern presidency&dquo; because it implicitly rejects arbitrary attempts
at periodization. Instead, the plebiscitary presidency takes into account
the consequences of the constitutional context for presidential perfor-
mance, the organizational complexity and policy fragmentation that
faces every president, the decline in the importance of political party
roles in campaigning and in governance, the symbolic role of the pres-
idency reinforced by &dquo;going public,&dquo; and the resulting dissonance
between promise and performance characterizing the modern presi-
dency. Underlying all of these features is a lack of fiscal resources that

impedes overall presidential performance (Lowi 1985a and 1985b).
In addition, I will argue that the plebiscitary and modern presidency
concepts should be viewed as mutually reinforcing and complementary
Presidential scholars have traced the development of presidential
power according to the interaction between the President and the Con-
gress and the Supreme Court, the size and characteristics of the pres-
idency, and the role of the presidency in the American political cul-
ture. The presidency literature, however, offers little rationale for why
the periodization of the presidency is helpful in understanding the
institution as well as the performance of individual presidents.
Skowronek’s work suggests, in fact, that there are distinct parallels to
be made between presidents from various eras, thus eschewing presi-
dential periodization as a conceptual approach (Skowronek 1982, 1984,
The presidency literature is replete with discussions of the histori-
cal development and characteristics of the traditional and modern eras.
Seligman and Covington and Rose, for example, contribute signifi-
cantly to this literature. Their analyses suggest that throughout much
of the nineteenth century, a passive president in domestic policy mak-
ing was deemed both acceptable and desirable (Seligman and Covington
1989: 94). Congress took the lead in formulating public policy initia-
tives and there was outright hostility to presidential suggestions that
particular legislation should be introduced. In fact, early in the nine-
teenth century it was commonly assumed that the president should not
even exercise the veto to express policy preferences (Greenstein 1988:
298). The president’s primary responsibility was to execute the laws
passed by Congress faithfully. For the occupants of the Oval Office in
the traditional period, the Constitution imposed &dquo;strict limitations on
what a President could do&dquo; (Rose 1989: 21). Rose concludes that the
constitutional separation of powers was taken seriously by all parties,
and the prevailing view regarding the proper role of government was
&dquo;the best government governed least&dquo; (1989: 20). As opposed to the
presidential government of the modern period, the traditional era was
characterized by congressional leadership in the policy process.
In the foreign policy arena, however, the president did establish
himself through the war-making power (Schlesinger, Jr. 1973: viii).

Yet Rose argues that even here the president was restrained when
compared to the occupant of the Oval Office in the twentieth century
(1989: 21).
Presidential speechmaking also reflected the largely symbolic and
chief-of-state roles played by presidents in the traditional era. Jefl’rey
Tulis’s content analysis of presidential speechmaking reveals that pres-
idents rarely gave the kind of official popular speeches that character-
ize speechmaking in the modern era. When speeches were given, they
were considered &dquo;unofficial&dquo; and rarely contained policy pronounce-
ments. Virtually all presidents of the time adhered to the same kind of
presidential speechmaking. The only exception was Andrew Johnson,
who attempted to rally support for his policies in Congress through the
use of fiery demagoguery. While Johnson’s &dquo;improper&dquo; rhetoric fueled
his impeachment charge, it is this same kind of rhetoric that has been
accepted as &dquo;proper&dquo; presidential rhetoric today (Tulis 1987).
With the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson
and the rise of the progressive movement in American politics, the
prevailing view that the president should play a limited role in the
legislative process began to change. The progressive movement embraced
a managerial approach to government that emphasized increased citi-
zen participation in political parties and a commitment to principles
of efficiency and scientific expertise. Progressive reformers called for
greater presidential involvement in the legislative process because the
executive better represented the public interest than did Congress.
Seligman and Covington’s excellent analysis of the linkage between
the progressive reformers and the development of the modern presi-
dency suggests that from the vantage point of the progressive reform-
ers, the presidency was best situated to make up for past legislative
failure to protect the public interest (1989: 33-35).
The progressive reform...

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