Tough Times for the President: Political Adversity and the Sources of Executive Power.
Tough Times for the President is a fascinating, challenging, and important book. It looks at presidents in trouble, and the authors rightly claim that presidents are in trouble more often than they are in good times. "Trouble" is the norm, and that, alone, is a worrisome starting point, if you are the president. As the authors write, "tough times are a common situation for presidents. Since the end of World War II, every chief executive except John Kennedy has experienced at least one period of political adversity while in office" (p. 261). Barilleaux and Maxwell examine how presidents respond to tough times and what strategies they might employ to govern under such difficult and common circumstances.
The authors focus on three types of political trouble: unmandates, scandals, and national division. Unmandates (an awkward term, to be sure) represent the president's political fall in midterm elections. In an unmandate, the president faces significantly larger losses in Congress than might ordinarily be expected, and this complicates efforts at governing. Scandals of both the personal and political variety further gum up the political works for presidents, putting them on the defensive (here, the authors might have profited by examining more of the extensive literature on political corruption). Periods of national division "pose particular difficulties for chief executives" (p. 163), and can occur when there is "division within the president's own party which led to a challenge for re-nomination" (p. 164-65), when there is a loss of confidence that leads to the emergence of a third party, when the president's job approval rating falls below 40%, and when the public ideology shifts against the president. The authors want to know (1) How did adversity limit what the president could accomplish? (2) Did adversity open opportunities in any way? and (3) What powers did the president retain despite adversity, and how did the president exercise them in a relevant way?" (pp. 87-88).
Presidents may be beleaguered in such periods, but they are not helpless--far from it. They have what the authors call "situational leverage" (p. 27). Here, the authors take on Richard Neustadt's model of presidential persuasion (Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power [New American Library, 1960]), and find it wanting. It is now fashionable to attack Neustadt, and the authors do so with considerable skill, and yet, they, and we, as presidency scholars, may go a bit too far in dismissing "persuasion" as a presidential tool. The authors then focus on other options a president might employ when faced with tough times. They are particularly fond of unilateral executive actions, noting that "Tough times for the president--the situations of political adversity--are occasions when the chief executive is likely to take recourse to unilateralism" (p. 17). Beyond bargaining and unilateralism, presidents in trouble are drawn to foreign initiatives and actions, organizational changes, "going public" (the authors list "going public" as separate from and different than persuasion, a position they might rethink), and "unconventional actions" (e.g., the 1995 government shutdown). In the end, presidents are limited but not imprisoned in tough times. Creative leadership can give the president some leverage, and presidents have a significant repertoire of options when facing tough times.
Barilleaux and Maxwell have given presidency scholars much to chew on. Their rather optimistic view on the options presidents have in tough times is both counterintuitive and perhaps correct. It is also decidedly not the lens through which most troubled presidents see the political world. The authors make a strong case that even when the going gets tough, creative and tough-minded leadership can, at times, overcome the challenges and roadblocks faced by presidents during periods of adversity. Plus, given the frequency of tough times, it behooves a president to explore the alternative approaches to governing outlined in this book. The authors look at this dilemma from a presidential perspective. It would be useful to study this problem, also, from the point of view of the disgruntled public, the congressional opposition, from opponents in the president's own party, and from the media. In doing so, we might get a much fuller picture of how the various actors in the president's political universe react to presidential initiatives designed to overcome the challenges of tough times.
--Michael A. Genovese
Loyola Marymount University
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|Author:||Genovese, Michael A.|
|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Feb 9, 2014|
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