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.