The Empirical Presidency

In a piece last week in Foreign Policy, Historian Aaron David Miller writes that “we have reached peak president.” I agree with a lot of what Miller says in this piece and in his recently released book – the expectations surrounding the presidency are unrealistic and at times undemocratic, and that the institution, not just the individuals who occupy it, shapes outcomes. Miller insists that leadership is measurable, and concludes, based on his “three C’s” – character, crisis, and capacity- that we’ve had three great presidents and are unlikely to have anymore.

Leadership is a popular topic in some journalist and historical circles. But it’s acquired something of a stigma in political science, conflated with fluffy notions of unmeasurable qualities and overemphasis on soaring rhetoric. This isn’t entirely fair. There are several aspects of presidential leadership that lend themselves to the kind of systematic scrutiny that political scientists know and love. For all there is to like in Miller’s new book, it is still one more book describing the greatness of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If presidentially-minded political scientists applied some more rigorous analysis to the question of leadership, perhaps we would come up with some new answers, or at least a few new hypotheses about great leadership.

Here are a couple of ideas for how we might bring some new analytical energy to the study of leadership:

1. The relationship between leadership and the presidential selection process

The development of the presidency is inescapably bound up with the evolution of the party system. A number of scholars have argued that presidential nomination process has influenced the kind of candidates who seek and receive the party nod. In the nineteenth century, the parties nominated “dark horse” candidates like James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce. These candidates weren’t anyone’s first choice, but were minimally acceptable to the various factions within the Democratic Party. In the new Republican Party, Lincoln was a similar kind of choice, but attained (so the argument goes) a somewhat unlikely greatness because of his leadership during the Civil War.

As the process became more oriented toward voters and candidates, and less driven by bargaining among party factions, a different brand of presidential candidate emerged. During the Progressive-New Deal era, we saw a string of presidential candidates with experience as governor (Wilson, both Roosevelts). As the story goes, the post-reform era (combined with the media environment) has attracted telegenic “outsiders” like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. It’s debatable how much each of these candidates were really outsiders – but they certainly weren’t the most experience in their respective fields. More broadly, a process that requires substantial travel, TV appearances and primary season debates, and innovative media strategies is going to favor some candidates and repel others.

As resistant as I am to arguments that rely on the personal characteristics of presidents and aspirants, I think it’s possible that our selection process stresses the wrong ones. One, as Richard Skinner pointed out, there’s an overemphasis on presidential authenticity at the expense of more relevant political qualities. Another consideration is that the emphasis on personal qualities and on fresh faces (especially sought by Democrats) seems to work against candidates with long legislative records or service in previous administrations.

2. Leadership isn’t about rugged individualism; it’s about building and maintaining coalitions.

In his book, Miller observes that we have no “real-time connection with greatness” in contemporary American politics. But I think someone writing in 1864 or 1935 might have said the same thing. In their times, Roosevelt and Lincoln were quite divisive, and often looked politically vulnerable. So our assessment of leadership may require some historical distance.

In particular, it’s easy to overlook the divisions of history once we know how the debates were resolved. Conventional wisdom says that polarization has eclipsed statesmanship. Here’s where the focus on the personal qualities of individual presidents is particularly misplaced. Accounts of presidents as lone statesmen, swimming against the tide and making Great Decisions is the stuff of hagiography and cartoons. Politics is not an individual enterprise; it is a collective enterprise. All presidents – great, mediocre and otherwise – have dealt with parochial interests, partisanship, and clashing ideologies. The ones who have been most successful weren’t acting alone; rather, they understood the political situation – the stakes of policy and the necessarily coalitions for passing and implementing new legislation. They also brought a sense of who the winners and losers would be, and used tools at their disposal – patronage, rhetoric, etc. – to make it harder politically for the losers to build their opposition, either by marginalizing them or finding a way to bring some of them on board.

3. Analytical tools like counterfactuals can help us understand leadership.

Rigorous studies of leadership require carefully considered counterfactuals. The list of questions should include whether a different person would have made the same decision, and whether a different leader would have done the same things to build and maintain a coalition before and after a big policy decision? Faced the same constraints?

Closer attention to counterfactuals would also help scholars critically reexamine a central axiom in the study of leadership: greatness only happens in times of crisis. The connection between greatness and crisis is obvious; many scholars, including Miller, have written persuasively about it. When I discuss greatness in my American presidency course, it’s usually the first pattern the students notice.

But making this a necessary condition for greatness basically concedes that leadership is circumstantial. Ok, maybe that’s true. But let’s not settle on that conclusion without thinking about it some more. I think Miller is on to something when he writes about the merits of “good, not great” leadership, but perhaps we can break this down even more.

One under-explored area of leadership is the ability to head off a crisis? This is controversial for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s as difficult to determine causation in the study of politics as it is in any other context. We’ll never know definitively that these presidential actions meaningfully changed the course of events. We’ll never know for sure that a different choice wouldn’t have produced a better outcome. But I can think of a couple of controversial examples of decisions that were made in order to prevent crisis (or at least keep it from getting worse). One is Andrew Jackson’s proclamation against state nullification of federal laws in 1832. (Specifically, South Carolina declared that it would not obey a recently passed federal tariff law.) Jackson is always a controversial choice on which to bestow the “great” label, as his cruelty and moral failings with Native Americans are undeniable. Nevertheless, I’ll go out on a medium-sized limb and say that his decision to stand up to South Carolina and articulate the reasons was forceful and correct. Jackson asserted the authority of the federal government. Sidney Milkis and Marc Landy credit Jackson’s rhetorical move with providing doctrine that helped Lincoln deal with full-blown crisis a few decades later. Jackson’s response to the situation probably prevented the crisis over tariffs and nullification from getting worse, and thus allowed the country a few more decades of development before confronting the bigger issues.

An even less likely, but similarly worthy, contender for preventative greatness is Ford’s pardon of Nixon. It was no Emancipation Proclamation or New Deal. It didn’t reshape how we understand the Constitution or give anyone any new rights. And certainly not everyone thinks it was the right thing to do. But Ford made a decision under difficult circumstances, and it was one that clearly weighed in favor of stability. We won’t ever know what would have happened if Ford had made a different choice; perhaps, as Rick Perlstein suggests, Ford made the worse decision for American politics in the long term. But the pardon was a decisive; it settled the question of Nixon’s guilt and allowed him to exit the public stage.

Response to crisis has been a central theme in the presidential leadership literature, especially that which focuses on historical comparisons and “greatness.” We could probably do this with a lot more nuance, thinking about the crises that didn’t happen or didn’t get worse.

4. Scholars of leadership need to refine our concepts and reconsider the unit of analysis.

Our focus on holistic evaluation of presidents is an outdated paradigm. We keep getting stuck in the same dilemmas. Lyndon Johnson had great domestic achievements but bungled Vietnam. Woodrow Wilson changed the role of the office but was a horrible racist. Thomas Jefferson expanded the country but failed to build up institutional capacity, and he supported the Embargo Act of 1807, which is widely considered a serious policy mistake. American presidents are human, and as a result they display both positive and negative qualities.

These dilemmas are not resolvable. They distract us from more rigorous assessments of the decisions that presidents make – how to rank priorities, how to frame decisions, how to interact with their own parties. Whether, and how, to intervene in conflicts abroad. We don’t try – at least not this hard – to integrate discrete decisions for any other institution.

We generally accept that the 110th Congress or the Roberts Court or whatever will make some good moves and some poor ones, some whose significance may not be apparent for many years. Courts and Congresses will miss opportunities. But we don’t endlessly try to reconcile these different decisions.

This holistic focus on presidential history isn’t just a scholarly problem. It also informs our broader understanding of the president’s role and, in turn, what we want in a Commander-in-Chief. Twenty-first century narratives of the presidency emphasize leaders as national symbols. This further polarizes the office by connecting it to debates about culture, religion, and even region. It also leads to undue focus on presidential candidates’ family lives and personalities, without real reflection on what those mean for the tasks that face presidents.

It doesn’t make sense for scholars to dismiss leadership because we don’t think any contemporary leaders can rise to the level of Washington or Lincoln. And just because leadership is difficult to define, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily meaningless. Plenty of important concepts in politics suffer from that problem. We have the analytical tools to address that – why not use them to ask new questions about leadership?

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.