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Toward a Representational Framework for Presidency Studies.

In recent years, there have been numerous scholars who have taken the values and needs of democracy under consideration. Indeed, in political theory circles, the problems of democracy and self-governance stand today as central concerns. Some have written to rediscover the foundations of democratic theory, while others have taken up the tasks of proposing fundamental reforms of the American system of representative government designed to facilitate more popular participation.

Presidency studies have also undergone a renaissance in recent years. More scholarly attention than ever before has been focused on the American chief executive as that office has made its own move to the center of American politics over the past century. Nearly every aspect of the executive institution has been placed under the political scientist's microscope--dissected, interpreted, evaluated, and made the subject of prescription. We know more than ever before about such important topics as presidential elections, the institutionalization of the modern staff system, presidential rhetoric and the symbolic aspects of the office, and the office's prerogative powers. Yet, despite all the literature produced on the presidency, we are still missing a coherent vision of the office that brings the literature together and accounts for presidential activity and political symbolism in a democratic polity.

The primary flaw in presidency studies today is not a lack of methods, approach, or "rigor," as was the standard criticism of the field in the past. Rather, the major gap in the current field is that the volumes of literature produced have been so fragmented and compartmentalized. This is perhaps the natural and possibly inevitable consequence of the scientific process and progress in the field. As scholars have tended to delve deeper into their areas of research, be they presidential personality, rhetoric, staff systems, or the like, we have sometimes lost touch with what in a democratic regime must be of paramount importance--the republican character of the office and its affect on self-government.

In the American system of representative government, the president stands in a unique position as the only nationally elected political figure. As such, to make an account of democratic politics in America necessitates a serious concern with the presidency. Likewise, a full accounting of the American presidency necessitates a concern with its representational functions--its democratic character. What is needed is for presidential scholars to take up the renewed concern with democratic political theory that has been exhibited in recent years by political philosophers and theorists.

What I wish to argue is that by studying the presidency through the lens provided by the concept of representation, we will be able to give a better accounting of the office's place in the American Republic as well as provide a unifying framework for presidency studies. Neither of these laudable goals, it is my contention, have been completely met by the existing literature.

By taking the normative and empirical theories of representation that have been developed and applied traditionally to legislatures and their members and applying them to the office of the American presidency, we are offered not only the basis for a democratic standard for presidential evaluations but also afforded the unifying theme that can unite a disparate field. Indeed, this approach accords with an important if often neglected assumption about the presidency itself--that it is consummately an office of political representation.

Although it has to date been taken up for serious scholarly consideration only in the most preliminary manner, there has been an underlying assumption in the political science literature that presidents provide representational functions, and presidents themselves have certainly asserted this role for the office.(1) In the nineteenth century, Andrew Jackson convulsed his congressional Whig opponents by asserting that "The President is the direct representative of the American people" and is" elected by the people and responsible to them."(2) According to Theodore Roosevelt, "the executive is or ought to be peculiarly representative of the people as a whole."(3) But the idea of the president as representative is perhaps best associated with Woodrow Wilson, who himself bridged the gap between academic political science and life in the executive mansion.(4) A representational framework for presidency studies affords the scholarly community the added benefit of exploring this important and often neglected assumption about America's chief executive.

Others have produced reviews of existing scholarship in which they attempted to categorize the literature under some rudimentary framework. For instance, Bert Rockman writes of three types of presidency studies divided according to the scope of the elements or actors considered. According to such a view, there are three possibilities for the focus of research; on the person of the president ("the one"), the interdependencies with other elites ("the few"), and the interdependence with the broader public ("the many")(.5)

Ryan J. Barilleaux has also made an admirable and useful attempt to unify the literature on the basis of an organizing framework.(6) Building on the movement that has been termed the new institutionalism, he constructs a framework to organize the literature and to guide further research. His framework is built around what he sees to be four institutional roles of the presidency. According to Barilleaux, the presidency is (1) the agenda-setting institution for the political process, (2) the "prime mover" of American politics, (3) the administrative management for the government, and (4) the focal point of the American political system. While Barilleaux's effort goes a long way toward providing coherence to the field, it does not go far enough. Barilleaux's piece is limited to considering the institutional aspects of the office, which are considerable and, I would argue, central to any research agenda on the office. What we need, however, is to make room also for the more behavioral research in any unifying theme.

A representational framework for presidency studies will provide us with the ability to unify both behavioral and "personal" research along with the more institutional, legal, and formal literature on the presidency and executive politics. Because in a democratic republic all official actions of a governmental official must in the broadest of senses be conceived of as acts of representation, such a framework also will provide the most possible "space" into which studies of the office can be organized.(7) That is to say, with a view toward the presidency as an office of representation, nearly all aspects of that office are of integral importance. This is not the case when in the past scholars have conceived of the office only in its capacity as executive, been concerned solely with the office's role in the legislative process, or looked at any of the specific roles the president plays in the American political system such as chief of state or chief of party.

Symbolic and Active Representation: The Overall Structure

A framework for presidency studies built around the concepts and values of representative government affords us the opportunity to unite two literatures in particular that are central to the presidency. Namely, the traditional dichotomy between symbolic representation and active representation is of particular importance to the study of the American presidency.

No other public official is seen by the people as a symbol of the nation and embodiment of its values. Incumbent presidents are possibly only rivaled as symbolic entities by the American flag itself and those previous incumbents of the office with which people associate their belief in 'American exceptionalism." The president occupies the role of chief of state and acts as figurehead for the nation, no less than he is the active executive and leader of the government. In short, as Clinton Rossiter remarked,
 The President ... is the one-man distillation of the American people just
 as surely as the Queen is of the British people; his is, in President
 Taft's words, "the personal embodiment and representative of their dignity
 and majesty.(8)

Considerable interest has been expressed recently in the symbolic aspects of the office, and scholars are now taking the symbolic aspects of politics in general more seriously than has at times been the case. Barbara Hinckley, for one, has noted the need to unite the literature on symbolic politics with the literature on the presidency, as symbolism is so central to the office.(9) Most of the concern with symbolism and the presidency has of necessity centered around presidential rhetoric. It is through their words that presidents attempt to portray themselves as one with the people and their values and mores. Beyond their rhetoric, however, presidents also engage in symbolic politics when they meet sports teams and award-winning girl scouts or present awards such as the Medal of Freedom. All these activities are done as the symbolic representative of the nation, the embodiment of a larger entity than his own person or constitutional and statutory authority. For other reasons, presidents are seen by the American people as the "father figure" and mean more to them than any other constitutional officer.(10)

But, presidents are far more than symbols. As the bulk of the literature on the presidency instructs, the president is also a constitutional officer, an executive, and an agenda setter and public policy leader of the other branches of government. In these capacities, presidents provide active representation in the political system. These two basic forms of representation, symbolic and active, encompass within their respective purviews the entire field of presidency studies. It is for this reason that conceiving of the office as one of political representation can provide the overarching framework that will bring coherence to the field of the presidency and executive politics.

One additional point deserves a brief mention here. While the traditional literature on representation has tended to separate and treat as distinct these two forms of representation, the nature and the experience of the office of the American presidency affords us no clear distinction. Where in a parliamentary system such as that of Great Britain, the roles of symbolic and active representation are divided between a monarch or other officer and the parliament and its leadership, the American presidency is a unique blend of the two. This fact has not been lost on the incumbents of the office, and they have made full use of their roles as symbols to augment their power and influence as active representatives. Because presidents regularly invoke symbolism in their efforts to gain public support and to influence the other actors in the policy process, no clear and impenetrable demarcation can be made between these forms of representation. Future scholarly efforts in either of these two realms should always be conscious of this relationship.

Symbolic and active representation, then, can provide the field with an overarching framework under which the literature can be organized to provide a more complete picture of the office and its place in the regime and in society. But, what types of questions would such a framework lead presidential scholars to consider? Three general sets of questions apply to this overarching framework. Each concern both empirical questions as well as normative evaluations and prescriptions. Likewise, presidency studies organized under such a framework will necessitate scholarship of both an empirical and a normative and interpretive nature.

First, scholars will need to concern themselves with the symbolic nature of the office. What does the office mean to the American people? How does the hero worship of past occupants affect the institution and subsequent incumbents? How do presidents engage in symbolic politics? What are the societal effects of presidential symbolism?

Second, we must concern ourselves, of course, with presidential activity in the policy process. As an active representative, what is the president's place in the regime? How does his representation differ from that of other representatives in the system? Is there room in the political system for more than one legitimate representative institution? In what ways do presidents seek to represent? What affect does presidential leadership have on the political and constitutional system? How should presidents act as policy leaders and representatives? How does the presidency provide a representational "link" between the people and other members of government?

Third, scholars will also need to be concerned with the intersection between symbolic and active representation. Those studying how presidents portray themselves, the government, and the people should also be concerned with how that symbolism affects public policy and the president's role in its formulation. How do presidents manipulate symbols to improve their influence with the people in Washington and in other nations? How do symbolic politics in campaigns and election cycles affect the policy process of government? How should the president act at this intersection between symbolism and activity in politics? Is there a danger to democratic governance in this unique combination of embodiment and power that is found in the presidency?

Levels of Analysis

These three general types of questions provide the overarching framework for organizing the literature and for guiding future research efforts. Within this general outline, we can identify five levels of analysis that would be of particular concern when approaching the presidency from the perspective of representation. I discuss each below in a brief manner by raising some of the most important questions. The questions raised are by no means exhaustive; they are meant only as a sample of areas for concern and scholarship. Nor do I attempt any sort of comprehensive review of the literature. I mean only to demonstrate the wide body of literature that can be organized under the outline I here propose and to point to some of the important questions raised by such an approach. As seen in Table 1, these eight elements together combine to form a framework for understanding the executive office of the American Republic.


The President and the Public

Of central importance to the framework would be the intersection between the president and the American public. In any consideration of political representation, a concern with the relationship between the represented and their representative must be of prime importance, and the study of the presidency is no different. What functions as the primary representational link between the people and the president? Traditionally, elections have served this purpose and so campaigns and elections will be of prime importance to researchers. Presidential rhetoric also serves as a very important point of linkage between the president and the people in today's society.

What are the "filters" through which this representational relationship is transferred? The mass media, and television in particular, are important filters through which the people gain knowledge of, and hear from, the president, and the media also influences the president's agenda and decisions. The institution of polling public opinion has also become a central link between the public and the president. To what extent does the recent explosion of polls affect public opinion itself, and to what extent, and to what effect, do polls influence the way incumbent presidents carry out their duties?

Specific concern needs also be given to the symbolic aspects of the office and the manner in which presidents serve as head of state and as symbolic representatives of the nation. What is the presidency's relation to the American public philosophy? How can presidents affect the way the people think about themselves, their world, and their government?

The Idiosyncratic Presidency

Studies of executive politics that center on the president as an individual human actor and the human factors of the office are also of concern. What type of president do we want? What type of representative do the people wish to have occupy the office and that have been the most effective in the past? What type of personality or world view best fits the needs of the regime and the prevailing political environment? How much room do presidents as individuals have to act within the larger institutional and political context of the office?

Although the field of presidency studies has repeatedly been chastised for its inability to "get past biography," studying the presidency as a place for political representation reminds us of the important place individuals have had in that office. Political and personal biographies of past presidents and those who have worked with past presidents are important at this level. So are studies of the abilities of individual presidents, such as those on Ronald Reagan's communication skills or Richard Neustadt's concern with the abilities of various presidents to bargain. The more general evaluative literature on individual presidents could also be placed here by employing some version of a democratic or representational yardstick to determine the "great" presidents from lesser ones. Also at this level are the psychological studies dealing with the office and incumbents such as have been done by James David Barber(11) and Bruce Buchanan.(12)

Internal Organization and the Institution

Standards of presidential activity that are determined through a representational approach will also affect our view of how presidents should organize and staff their presidencies. If the logic of my thesis holds, presidents must, and do, organize the White House not only to govern but, in so doing, to represent as well. The broader institutional dynamics of the office that both encourage and restrain presidential activity as well as the discretionary organizational environment of a given president are important factors to consider when attempting to understand the office. Decision making has always been a concern for those who have thought seriously about political representation, and it is no less a concern when considering the presidency.

Beyond concerns with the efficiency and the institutional arrangements of the presidency, scholars might also be concerned with the representational dynamics of the presidential bureaucracy itself. Then-candidate Bill Clinton's promise during the 1992 campaign to have a "cabinet that looks like America" and the reports of the lengths his White House staff went to hire minorities and women to staff the executive bureaucracy begs important questions about what qualities presidents should look for in staffers and their impact on the representation the office offers. Behind Clinton's promise is a particular understanding of representation--that representatives should in some way "mirror" those they represent. The president being a single white male can broaden his administration's "representativeness" through a hiring process centered around diversity; this seems to be the assumption. Does such an understanding supplant or augment the idea of merit-based appointments? These are all areas of potential concern to scholarship carried out under this framework.

The President and the Bureaucracy

With the huge expansion an the size and scope of the federal government over the past century, students of democratic politics must devote continuing attention to the federal bureaucracy. Is the power of unelected, and in some cases nearly lifetenured, bureaucrats a problem for free government in the United States?

Scholars have shown how Congress as an institution as well as individual members of the legislative branch have come to serve as important links between the people and executive agencies.(13) Congress, particularly in its capacity to investigate and control the allocation of funds, serves as a democratically elected check on the bureaucracy. Individual congressmen in their role as ombudsmen for their constituencies also influence the bureaucracy as they intervene to "right" bureaucratic "wrongs." Although they are not elected, we can also see the media as serving an intermediate function between the public and the bureaucracy. Through their roles in reporting, agenda setting, and investigative reporting, the media has at times served democracy by highlighting bureaucratic indiscretions and malfeasance. Despite this, the president still remains the primary link between the public and the federal bureaucracy. The president appoints and staffs the top positions of the agencies, the president is held responsible for the acts of his subordinates in a manner unmatched by Congress, and it is only through presidential elections that the public can have a wholesale effect on incumbent bureaucrats. For these reasons, studies of the bureaucracy and its relation to the office hold important implications for understanding the president as a political representative.

The President and the Regime

Finally, and in some ways perhaps most important of all, a framework for presidency studies built around the concept of representation necessitates that we consider the broader environment within which presidents operate. Presidency studies have historically been plagued by treatments of the office colored by institutional partisanship that have encouraged us to look at the American polity from the perspective of the presidency? Approaching the presidency as a representative institution forces us to consider the other institutions of the federal government in which political representation takes place. Here, I have Congress foremost in mind as the traditional representative body. Such a framework, then, encourages us to view the orifice and the Republic from a regime level or systematic perspective in which the president is but one of a number of essential players.(15)

On this level can be organized the myriad of studies that have been done on the presidential relationship with Congress. As the two popularly elected organs of government and the ones through which the people's views are most directly represented, the interrelation of the two is of the utmost importance to the student of representative government. Studies concerning presidential leadership and power, the presidency in the public policy process, and the foreign policy presidency all are important at this level. So is a concern with the president's relationship with the federal courts, both in the appointment process and in the courtroom itself.

Together, the classic division between symbolic and active political representation along with the five levels of analysis for studying the presidency provide a framework in which the literature can be organized to provide a more coherent view of the office. Such a framework may also hold considerable pedagogical appeal for teachers of the presidency and executive institutions. As has been seen, this framework also points to additional areas that should be of concern to scholars and forces students of the presidency to think of executive power within the context of a wider democratic polity.


(1.) Among the very few scholarly pieces directly related to the topic of presidential representation that have been published are the following: Kathy B. Smith, "The Representative Role of the President," Presidential Studies Quarterly (Spring 1981): 203-13; James MacGregor Burns, Presidential Government: The Crucible of Leadership (New York: Avon, 1965), pp. 281-86; Alfred DeGrazia, Public and Republic: Political Representation in America (New York: Knopf; 1951); David J. Vogler and Sidney R. Waldman, Congress and Democracy (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1985). The only book-length study of presidential representation is Gary L. Gregg II, The Presidential Republic: Executive Representation and Deliberative Democracy (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).

(2.) Quoted in Robert V. Remini, The Revolutionary Age of Andrew Jackson (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1987), p. 165.

(3.) Quoted in Alfred DeGrazia, Public and Republic: Political Representation in America (New York: Knopf, 1951), p. 181.

(4.) See Woodrow Wilson, "Constitutional Government," in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 18, ed. Arthur S. Link (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974).

(5.) Bert Rockman, "Presidential and Executive Studies: The One, the Few, and the Many," in Political Science: The Science of Politics, ed. Herbert F. Weisberg (New York: Argathon, 1986), pp. 3-29.

(6.) Ryan J. Barilleaux, "Toward an Institutionalist Framework for Presidency Studies," Presidential Studies Quarterly 2 (Spring 1982): 154-58.

(7.) This statement will no doubt meet with some skepticism and engender some controversy. I do not necessarily mean to deny the traditional dichotomy between representation and executive activities such as found in the thought of John Stuart Mill. I do, however, contend that in the American Republic, the actions of the president who is given considerable legislative powers and discretion in conducting all his Constitutional powers and roles, and who is the choice of a "popular" process, should logically be considered those of a representative. If not the acts of a representative official, then what type of office conducts these important activities in a representative democracy? It is my contention that the presidency is such a unique office that if the traditional executive-legislative dichotomy did or does have any relevance elsewhere, it does not apply to the presidency in the United States. The office is more than an executive; it is more than the sum of its constitutional powers and responsibilities. It combines execution with politics, governance with representation, and is a place of moral leadership.

(8.) Clinton Rossiter, The American Presidency, rev. ed. (New York: Mentor, 1960), p. 16.

(9.) Barbara Hinckley, The Symbolic Presidency: How Presidents Portray Themselves (New York: Routledge, 1990).

(10.) See, for instance, Sebastian DeGrazia, "A Note on the Psychological Position of the Chief Executive," Psychiatry, 8 (1945), pp. 267-72.

(11.) James David Barber, The Presidential Character, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1977).

(12.) Bruce Buchanan, The Presidential Experience (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1978).

(13.) For instance, see Morris P. Fiorina, Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment, 2d ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).

(14.) This "cult of the presidency" phenomenon has been aptly documented and critiqued by William G. Andrews in his "The Presidency, Congress, and Constitutional Theory," in Perspectives on the Presidency, ed. Aaron Wildavsky (Boston: Little, Brown, 1975), pp. 24-45. See also Thomas Cronin, "The Textbook Presidency," in Perspectives on the Presidency: A Collection, ed. Stanley Bach and George T. Sulzner (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1974), pp. 54-74.

(15.) Craig A. Rimmerman has made a similar call for "demystifying" the modern presidency. He writes, "Instead, students must be asked to consider the president as one actor in a highly fragmented political system and to develop a more realistic view of both the sources and uses of presidential power," Presidency by Plebiscite: The Reagan-Bush Era in Institutional Perspective (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993), p. 131. For a fine example of a study that takes a systematic perspective on the office, see Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).

Gary L. Gregg II is National Director at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is the author of The Presidential Republic: Executive Representation and Deliberative Democracy and the editor of Vital Remnants: America's Founding and the Western Tradition. He is currently editing a book on the life and works of George Washington to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death in 1999.3
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Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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