The Wartime President: insights, lessons, and opportunities for continued investigation.

Author:Howell, William G.
Position:Critical essay

In the course of sending soldiers off to fight and die, presidents wield the greatest powers available to leaders of sovereign nations. But do wars provide presidents with opportunities to go further still--that is, to use foreign crises as justification (some would say pretext) for advancing domestic policy initiatives, particularly when such initiatives only tangentially relate to the war effort itself?.

Viewed from one vantage point, one naturally inclines to the affirmative. During the early stages of foreign crises, the public regularly demands forthright action; inter-branch conflicts often subdue; and the exigencies of foreign crises may convince domestic interest groups to defer to Congress and the president, when in times of peace they might readily obstruct. As John Kingdon (2002) famously argues, crises constitute "focusing events" that pry open "windows of opportunity" for major policy change. And extending Kingdon's insights, David Mayhew notes, "wars seem to be capable of generating whole new political universes. They can generate new problems and open up policy windows, thus often fostering new policies, but they can also generate new ideas, issues, programs, preferences, and ideologies and refashion old electoral coalitions--thus permanently altering the demand side of politics" (2005, 473). These facts bode well for the president. As the individual primarily responsible for marshaling a response to the foreign crisis, the president is well situated to harness these forces in the service of his (someday her) policy agenda.

Consider, then, how the events of September 11, 2001, strengthened George W. Bush's influence at home. In the week following the attacks, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill publicly cajoled people to "buy American," Vice President Dick Cheney urged Americans to "stick their thumb in the eye" of the terrorists by purchasing stocks, and the president directed his officials to devise a plan to support the airline industry. (1) Within days, the House and Senate quickly fell into line, passing an airlines bailout bill by 356-54 and 96-1, respectively. During the brief congressional debate, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) received a standing ovation for highlighting the tragic events that necessitated bipartisanship. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) expressed strong support, explaining, "We need to look at transportation again as part of our national defense." (2) Her colleague Charles Schumer (D-NY) described the times as "a new era where everyone has to give a little bit." (3) With the start of the war in Afghanistan in early October and public approval ratings hovering around 90%, Bush moved swiftly to parlay such sentiments of unity to other items on his domestic economic agenda. He depicted economic growth as "part of the war we fight." (4) He characterized his stimulus proposal as an "economic security plan." (5) He transformed tax cuts into a test of patriotism, calling for legislators to "act quickly to make sure that the American people understand that at this part of our homeland defense, our country and the Congress is united." (6) Indeed, as one Democratic aide noted, "The president has so much power as a result of what happened he thinks he can use that to force huge concessions on a range of issues." (7)

Bush's strategy of linking domestic policy reforms to concerns about war and national security, however, may not be foolproof. Other facts about war may dampen the president's chances of advancing major policy initiatives. For instance, the sheer costs of war may introduce budgetary constraints that limit domestic policy initiatives. As wars become protracted and as death tolls mount, public support for the president may dwindle. And the time and efforts spent maintaining political support for ongoing military ventures may further reduce the resources needed to build the necessary coalitions for enacting domestic policy initiatives.

Contrast, then, Bush's first-term success at enacting economic reforms with Bush's second-term efforts to reform Social Security. In 2005, Bush designated Social Security reform as the centerpiece of his State of the Union address. Overhauling a massive national entitlement program would require money, voter support, political capital, and presidential attention. Precisely these resources, however, were being expended by ongoing efforts to enlarge the Defense Department and wage the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq. Reacting to the war's erosion of Bush's public approval ratings, congressional expert Ross K. Baker pointed out, "I think there is a very acute realization on the part of Republicans that they no longer can hitch their careers to his popularity. That, combined with the new aggressiveness by the Democrats, means you're seeing basically a Bush agenda that is largely being derailed." Others agreed. Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg characterized the Iraq War as "a cloud over everything." First-term Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), who took office with hopes of revamping Social Security, lamented, "I feel like every morning, I wake up, get a concrete block and have to walk around with it all day. We can't even address the issues." (8) Preoccupied by Iraq and other foreign policy concerns, the president eventually quieted his calls for Social Security reforms, (9) realizing that foreign wars had led to his "circumscribed sway over Capitol Hill." (10)

Do wars regularly usher in new opportunities for presidents to advance policy change? Or do wars instead undercut presidents' policy initiatives? The short answer is that we do not know. As the above anecdotes suggest, the impact of war on the power that presidents wield at home is hardly obvious. And for all that has been written about wartime presidents--and lest there be any doubt, an extraordinary amount has been written (see Howell 2011 for a review)--few social scientists have built the data sets needed to systematically gauge the varying impacts of war on presidential power. Those who have, meanwhile, nearly universally have assigned war the status of an ancillary control variable in a regression meant to shed light on some other aspect of presidential power (for more on this point, see Howell and Johnson 2009).

While quantitative work on presidential power and war has run in short supply, efforts at theory building have been nonexistent. To be sure, a great deal has been written about the ways in which wars influence public support for the president (see Aldrich et al. 2006 on this point). And legal scholars, in particular, have made much of the ways in which presidents have used wars as a pretext for ever more expansive interpretations of their Article II powers (see Howell, 2009 for a review). We lack any theory, however, about how wars might increase a sitting president's actual influence over the content or implementation of public policy. While grand narratives about particularly audacious displays of wartime presidential power are ample, no one has developed theory with clear microfoundations that isolates the features of war that have the potential to turn legislative deliberations to the president's advantage.

In The Wartime President, we offer correctives to these empirical and theoretical deficiencies. Empirically, we collect data and suggest tests that are expressly designed to mitigate the standard identification and endogeneity concerns that pervade research on separations of powers issues generally and the American presidency in particular. Theoretically, we develop a formal model of interbranch relations that explores one mechanism through which wars might generate policy outcomes that better approximate presidential preferences.

In this article, we summarize the main empirical and theoretical contributions of our forthcoming book. In the interests of space, we omit many of the model extensions and robustness checks to which we subjected our analyses. We also set aside the case studies, literature reviews, and efforts to distinguish our own theory from other plausible explanations about the relevance of war for interbranch negotiations. In an effort to reach as broad an audience as possible, moreover, we summarize our formal model without any mathematics. What follows, then, is intended as much to entice as to inform. Readers who harbor doubts about our claims or who want to see further analysis are encouraged to consult the book itself.

Evidence of a Wartime Effect on Presidential Power

Our empirical evidence is presented over four chapters--two quantitative followed by two chapters of case studies. In this section, we summarize some of the main findings from the two quantitative chapters. The first focuses on budgetary outcomes, while the second canvasses members' voting patterns on the broader universe of roll calls.

Wartime Appropriations

Appropriations present an especially profitable opportunity to assess Congress's variable willingness to support the president during war and peace. Every year, after all, presidents must issue a budget proposal, and Congress must subsequently enact a final set of appropriations. Unlike the traditional legislative process, the appropriations process does not permit presidents to remain silent on particularly controversial bills or members of Congress to refuse to cast judgment on presidential proposals. (11) Thus, by examining proposed and enacted budgets, we, as observers, have a basis upon which to gauge the difference.

Budgets, moreover, are not saddled by the same basic facts about the legislative process that make gauging presidential influence so difficult. Bills regularly undergo substantial amendments, with final enactments often yielding hazy renderings of original proposals. But with budgets, the president must take a public position on the amount of money to be allocated to an executive agency, and members of Congress must decide how much to award. The difference between these quantities...

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