Presidential Power and the Research Agenda

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This responds to George C. Edwards III's question, "What do we want to know about the presidency and why do we want to know it?"

Let me begin with a top-of-the-head summary of lingering concerns on my part regarding further research consequent on my own writings, especially my early articles and the five cumulative editions of Presidential Power (1960 et seq.). The reception of that book and its longevity exceeded my highest hopes. For both I shall always be grateful (and somewhat amazed). But I also should confess to what turned out to be unrealistic--and perhaps unreasonable--hopes for research the book and articles might suggest to others. Reasonable or not, the disappointment of those hopes stays with me. To emphasize them now gives my response an unduly self-centered quality. I indulge that only because recent illness leaves me too little time to think persistently about the subfield as a whole and all the other things that, on reflection and rereading, I might add if time allowed.

With that qualification, a severe one, I offer a "wish list" of research that would substantially relieve me of parochial concerns. The list has four parts. I can summarize them as follows, in no order of importance. Then I shall add a fifth, which while consistent with the others, goes far afield from my own writings and transcends the other concerns in importance.

First, I wish the younger generation of presidential scholars would get together under Edwards's or anybody else's auspices and cooperatively agree to a common terminology in the English language (with due consideration for its consequences when translated into other leading languages). It seems a bit strange that forty-two years after Presidential Power's initial publication, it continues to sell well enough to remain comfortably in print, even though no contemporary writer on the subject either honors or explicitly rejects its pervasive distinction between "power" (as personal influence) and "powers" (as authority in Constitution, laws, or customs). Yet that distinction remains at the very heart of the book, crucial to its analysis. Alongside all the other, more recent books that do not make it, what is the contemporary student-reader to think?

I do not presume my usage to be "better" than somebody else's; indeed, the reverse may be true. I merely think it problematical that if we hope our field has some potential to be cumulative, we lack agreement on the meanings of the terms in general use among us, power(s) above all. English remains a vital means of communication for us despite our increased use of mathematics.

Should agreement bar my distinction between power and powers, I will try to get a new edition printed eliminating both terms and substituting whatever scholars may choose!

Second, Charles O. Jones recently published an article in this journal (Jones 2001), which greatly appeals to me, proposing tests for numbers of the propositions I advanced in Presidential Power on "professional reputation." These I applaud. I wish somebody or bodies would get at them, hard though they would be to mount effectively. This I have been hoping for, in vain, for almost half a century! I would not say the same about my propositions on "public prestige"--easier to mount and far better addressed--but little has been done, as yet, I fear, about the interpenetrations of those two subjective factors, each into the other, with the evolving communications revolution. One of my continuing concerns with Presidential Power in all its editions, especially its first (1960) and fifth (1990), is its failure to stir systematic probing of those particular interrelationships.

Third, I may not be a "new" institutionalist, but I certainly am an "old" institutionalist, as numbers of my articles in the fifties and sixties will suggest. So will a number of my case studies for the Kennedy School. …