An individual who is elected President of the United States accrues enormous prestige and the constitutional authority to exercise quite extraordinary power (Holden, 1992, p. 5). Thomas Cronin (1977, pp. 73-80) posits that the public often holds conflicting views of how the prestige and constitutional power of the office ought to be used. On the one hand, a president is expected to be above politics; to have the wisdom equivalent to the Old Testament King Solomon, a king who had great insight and understanding of human nature and politics. Citizens do not want the president to make decisions with an eye entirely on the next election, nor do they want the president to favor any particular group or political party (Cronin, 1977, p. 77). On the other hand, presidents are expected to get legislation through Congress and to stay abreast of the political demands and needs of the electoral coalition that placed them in office.
An examination of presidential leadership in civil rights policy from Reconstruction through Ronald W. Reagan indicates that presidents are rarely confronted in that policy domain with the paradox that Cronin suggests. American presidents must win elections and govern in a society in which a majority of the white population opposes the allocation of governmental resources to eradicate racial inequality (McClosky & Zaller, 1984, Chap. 3; Hacker, 1992, Chap. 4). Aside from the fact that the individualistic character of American political culture predisposes people to favor a limited federal government, there is some empirical evidence that racial polarization contributes to opposition to federal involvement in black civil rights. Bobo and Kluegel's (1991) findings from the 1990 General Social Survey indicate that whites tended to rate blacks as being more lazy than themselves, and they rated blacks as being more prone to violence and to have less intelligence. In addition, an examination of presidential elections reveals that, with the exception of the 1964 election, the Democratic Party has not won a majority of the white electorate since 1948, the year that the Democratic Party made black civil rights a national policy issue (Edsall & Edsall, 1991; Brown, 1991; Huckfeldt & Kohfeld, 1989).
It can be argued that the Constitution itself constrains presidential action in the civil rights domain, because in origin it was a social contract written for and by Anglo-Saxon whites that described the conditions under which others will be incorporated into the political community (Holden, 1973, pp. 6-7; Hacker, 1992, pp. 23-26). In the mid-1830s the American Anti-Slavery Society sought to change radically the social contract between the black and white worlds by demanding equal civil privileges for blacks and for whites. The term civil rights came to be used to describe the legal rights and immunities which were enjoyed by white persons under municipal law of the various states, but which were often denied in whole or in part to free blacks. In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 stated these very principles--that blacks at both the state and national level would have the same rights as white Americans. Thus civil liberties or civil rights in the 19th century meant the eradication of a racially stratified social order.
This paper proposes that racial politics, like all politics, is a process of social combat in which some people seek to organize control over other people. If we suppose that people generally are rational, then it follows that they will do what they think is good for themselves. Obviously our inquiry includes the question: How do presidents come to make judgments about what is good for themselves in the civil rights domain? In this paper I will show that presidential civil rights policymaking, or the lack of it, is influenced by three interrelated factors.
First, a president's interpretation of political history is one determining factor of his civil rights …