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Very Short Introductions: The American Presidency


By Kirsty OUP-UK

Now that we’re in November, it is only 12 months until the next American Presidential Election. With this in mind, I am thrilled to bring you this month’s VSI column on The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction. Author Charles O. Jones is Hawkins Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a non-resident Senior Fellow in the Governmental Studies Program at The Brookings Institution. He is an expert on the American presidency, and has written or edited some 18 books.

OUP: The US has a President separately elected by the people and who does not necessarily come from the ruling Party. The political leader in the UK, the Prime Minister, is not chosen by the general electorate and does come from the Party in power. How would you compare the two systems?

CHARLES O. JONES: In a system of separated elections, as in the US, often there is no ruling party. One party may win the White House, the other party one or both houses of Congress. In fact that has been the case 75 percent of the time since 1968. Consequently, unlike the Prime Minister in the UK, the President cannot typically rely on partisan support only in Congress. He often must build a cross-party coalition, and do so in two equally powerful chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

OUP: The cost of political campaigning in the US is massive. Should there be a limit on how much can be spent on campaigning and could anyone from a financially modest background ever become President?

jones_americanpres.jpgJONES: It is true that the cost of campaigning is very high and increasing alarmingly. Spending limits were set in 1974 following the Watergate scandals. However, in 1976 the US Supreme Court declared limits unconstitutional, as violating the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. Rising costs are largely explained by developments in communications and the technology of campaigning, as well as the greater length of the campaign due to “front-loading” of the presidential primaries (a majority of states in 2008 scheduling their primaries in January and the first week in February). Can a person with “financially modest background” become President? Many have in recent decades: Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. However, it is essential to be viable that candidates have extraordinary fund-raising skills.

OUP: You claim in your book that “not all presidents are created equal”. Can you explain what you mean by that?

JONES: In claiming that “not all presidents are created equal,” I refer primarily to differences in political capital and institutional status. Ford entered the White House in 1974 without even having been elected as Vice President (he was appointed under provisions of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment). He faced huge Democratic House and Senate majorities. Reagan entered having won a landslide victory over Carter in 1980. His win was accompanied by a surprising Republican takeover of the Senate. Among Democrats, Johnson won in a landslide in 1964 and his party had two-thirds House and Senate majorities. Clinton in 1992 won with just 43 percent of the popular vote in a three-person race and Democrats had a net loss of House seats. The point is that presidents vary dramatically in their advantages in exercising leadership.

OUP: The Bush Administration is Executive-centric, and some have questioned the President’s role in American politics. Is Bush overstepping his constitutionally defined role?

JONES: President Bush has surely tested the limits of executive powers, especially in his role as commander in chief. The explanation appears to be two-fold: (1) an executive style of governing that is less attentive than recommended to incorporating congressional perspectives on issues; (2) unprecedented national and homeland security issues (associated with 9/11 and terrorism) requiring new policies and decisions. With the election of a Democratic Congress in 2006, we are now observing congressional challenges to many of Bush’s decisions. It is worth making this point: A separated powers system works best when leaders of each branch are attentive to the advantages inherent in divergent representation, term lengths, institutional settings, and constitutional prerogatives.

OUP: Once people have read your The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction, which five books would you recommend for further reading?

JONES: Here are five suggestions:
Fred I. Greenstein, The Presidential Difference
Erwin C. Hargrove, The Effective Presidency
Stephen Hess, Organizing the Presidency
Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents
Forrest McDonald, The American Presidency: An Intellectual History

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