Prof. William G. Howell hopes to focus the national conversation about the American presidency. In his new book, Thinking about the Presidency: The Primacy of Power, Howell argues that to understand presidential behavior, it is necessary to recognize that a president’s core interest is in guarding, acquiring and expanding his base of power.
“This single, simple insight about the president and power goes a long way to explaining presidential behavior,” said Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, in an interview about his new book, arguing that once this fundamental truth is more widely accepted, discourse on the presidency will become more coherent and fruitful.
Howell hopes his new work will advance presidential studies similarly to how David Mayhew’s 1974 book, Congress: The Electoral Connection affected legislative studies—providing an organizational template for future arguments and theories.
“Mayhew pointed out the profound effect that concern with reelection had on the behavior of legislators and that changed and focused the conversation,” Howell said. “Right now in presidential studies, there is a real preoccupation with anecdotes and stories while scholars are talking past one another.”
Howell contends that the presidential preoccupation with power is not a single-minded pursuit, but that its attainment and maintenance affects all presidential efforts, whether they involve bargaining with others or new sources of influence. In fact, he adds, concerns about power are logical and necessary to enact public policy, undo the work of predecessors, respond to perceived public mandates and secure a strong place in history.
“The president sits alone atop his governing institution and has eyes on a broader and longer horizon than legislators or judges or bureaucrats,” he explained. “He represents the country as a whole. This is part and parcel of a president’s need to obtain power and to exert control. He needs to dominate his branch of government and the whole institution.”
Of course, wanting power and holding power are two different things. In the book, Howell explains that when the Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution they gave the president only a handful of enumerated powers, but the ambiguity of the document has allowed consecutive presidents to add to their powers over time. At the same time, the Constitution posits that the general welfare will be protected and promoted not by any single branch of government, but through the interplay of all the three branches.
“Sitting alone on a hill and preaching wisdom and exercising self-restraint is not what the founders had in mind,” Howell said. “They built a government premised on the notion that power would be made to check power and that ambition would be made to check ambition.”
Howell believes that today’s popular notion that presidents should exercise more self-restraint and limit their executive authority is misguided.
“It ignores the foundational incentives that executives face, incentives where they are asked to address every conceivable problem in the world and yet they lack the formal authority within the constitution to fulfill those expectations. They have to manufacture power or they have to beseech the other branches of government to give them powers that are not automatically found in the Constitution if they stand any chance at survival.”
Interestingly, even as presidents accumulate more power for themselves, at no time are they seen more as failures than when they do not exercise that power, especially when it appears that they are refusing to act.
One example of this is President Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis. In 1979, a group of young Islamic militants stormed the embassy in Tehran and held 66 Americans prisoner for 444 days. Howell points out that Carter’s failure to end the crisis earlier derived not from unwillingness to act but from a lack of viable options. But the fact that more was not done ultimately led to Carter’s downfall.
Still, beyond the Constitutional limits on presidential power are other restrictions, such as cultural misgivings. Built into the American psyche, largely as a result of the dislike of the absolute power held by the British monarchy they left behind, is a condemnation of presidential candidates who betray too much interest in holding the office.
In the 2000 election George W. Bush regularly needled Vice President Al Gore for his long-standing ambition to become president. Further,Washington Post correspondent David Broder derided Gore’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention because he talked about “what he wants to do as president.” Consequently, Bush was elected, despite the fact that he also came from a long-standing political family. Howell points out that it was the perception of Gore’s thirst for power that defeated him, regardless of the fact that Bush was equally ambitious.
Howells’s nuanced examination of power and the presidency explores more than just the attainment of power, it also looks at how a president’s pursuit of power manifests itself, how it speaks to the standards Americans set for their presidents and how alternative models of executive leadership are ruled out by these standards. Thinking about the Presidency reframes the study of presidential behavior and could change the way the national electorate thinks about its leader.
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Thinking about the Presidency:
The Primacy of Power
William G. Howell
With David Milton Brent
Drawings by Catherine Hamilton
All American presidents, past and present, have cared deeply about power–acquiring, protecting, and expanding it. While individual presidents obviously have other concerns, such as shaping policy or building a legacy, the primacy of power considerations–exacerbated by expectations of the presidency and the inadequacy of explicit powers in the Constitution–sets presidents apart from other political actors. Thinking about the Presidency explores presidents’ preoccupation with power. Distinguished presidential scholar William Howell looks at the key aspects of executive power–political and constitutional origins, philosophical underpinnings, manifestations in contemporary political life, implications for political reform, and looming influences over the standards to which we hold those individuals elected to America’s highest office.
Howell shows that an appetite for power may not inform the original motivations of those who seek to become president. Rather, this need is built into the office of the presidency itself–and quickly takes hold of whomever bears the title of Chief Executive. In order to understand the modern presidency, and the degrees to which a president succeeds or fails, the acquisition, protection, and expansion of power in a president’s political life must be recognized–in policy tools and legislative strategies, the posture taken before the American public, and the disregard shown to those who would counsel modesty and deference within the White House.
Thinking about the Presidency assesses how the search for and defense of presidential powers informs nearly every decision made by the leader of the nation.
William G. Howell is the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago, where he holds appointments in the Harris School of Public Policy, the Department of Political Science, and the College. His books include While Dangers Gather and Power without Persuasion (both Princeton), as well as The Wartime President. David Milton Brent is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Yale University.
“Thinking about the Presidency is an important antidote to all the rhetoric, reporting, prognostication, and public discourse that focuses on presidential individuality. Focusing on commonalities across presidents, Howell looks at how the institutional and political setting influences presidential behavior. His message is important.”–Jeffrey E. Cohen, Fordham University
“Howell is a formidable scholar. His informative book will be of broad interest to educated people who want to read a scholarly analysis of the presidency, as viewed through the lens of power.”–James P. Pfiffner, George Mason University
“This book is a crisp take on a key topic. What makes presidents tick? What makes them succeed? It is a good moment to pare down to fundamentals, and this book will serve as a useful guide to our next chief executive–no matter who that turns out to be.”–Andrew Rudalevige, Bowdoin College