Why Do Presidents Fail?

Article excerpt

What do we want to know about the presidency? As part of the future research agenda for presidency scholars, I would suggest two distinct but related issues: the first involves failed presidential decision making, particularly in the employment of prerogative power; the second involves the failure of interbranch collaborative decision making.

By presidential failure, I am referring here to the study of the kind of decisions that led John Kennedy to ask himself after the Bay of Pigs, "How could I have been so stupid?" Often these cases become defining moments for presidents: the U-2 flight, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam escalation, the Carter energy speech, the Iran hostage rescue attempt, the Iran-Contra affair, Bush the elder's reversal on "read my lips, no new taxes," and the Clinton health care plan.

The study of failed presidential decisions and policies is a topic of inquiry related to, but somewhat distinct from, the question of the "failed presidency" that has already engaged some presidency scholars. "They geld us first," Lyndon Johnson remarked in an interview he gave to David Brinkley after leaving office, "and then expect us to win the Kentucky Derby." (1) I take as a given the political weakness of the post-World War II presidency, weakness that has been accurately measured and assessed by a generation of scholars analyzing presidential success rates in dealing with Congress and presidential leadership of public opinion. Presidential weakness as a party and public leader is a fact of American politics, and it surely complicates life in the Oval Office, but I do not think it lies at the root of spectacular failures. (2) Presidents have experienced fiascoes when their political power was at their zenith (Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War) and at its nadir. They have failed when they have used their constitutional powers on their own prerogative (the Steel Seizure) and when they have agreed with Congress on new legislation (the tax increases of 1991). They have failed when they have gone public (the Clinton health care plan) and when they have operated behind closed doors (the Iran-Contra affair). They have failed at the start of their first term (the Bay of Pigs) and after a term's experience under their belts (the U-2 flight). In some respects, presidential failures are the "black holes," the singularities of presidential studies--the usual laws of politics that apply to presidential "business as usual" seem not to apply inside the event horizon, but we do not know the laws that do, and we have yet to develop hypotheses about why fiascoes occur.

Related to the study of presidential failure is the exercise of prerogative power. We need to develop systematic hypotheses that can be tested about the probability of failure when prerogative is exercised. In such research, we should distinguish between failures of authority and failures of legitimacy. The failure of authority is twofold: first is the failure of rulers to provide a reasoned elaboration for their decisions. (3) But in a deeper sense, it is also the perception that the decision-making process within the White House is flawed. Decision dysfunctions may involve a failure to collect accurate data or intelligence information, or a failure to develop and apply theories that can explain and predict, or a failure to carry public opinion because of a dissonance between underlying values and the values embedded in the decision, or a failure to manage small group decision making. The failure of legitimacy is the failure of rulers to adhere to legal and ethical norms of behavior, so that even if they know what they are doing, Congress or the judiciary do not accept their right to do it and are prepared to use their own powers to check and balance. We need to understand not only how presidents wield prerogative power but also why the attempts at interbranch collaborative decision making, through the passage of framework legislation such as the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974, and the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980, have had such limited success. …