The Wartime President: Insights, Lessons, and Opportunities for Continued Investigation

By Howell, William G.; Jackman, Saul P. et al. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Wartime President: Insights, Lessons, and Opportunities for Continued Investigation


Howell, William G., Jackman, Saul P., Rogowski, Jon C., Presidential Studies Quarterly


In the course of sending soldiers off to fight and die, presidents wield the greatest powers available to leaders of sovereign nations. But do wars provide presidents with opportunities to go further still--that is, to use foreign crises as justification (some would say pretext) for advancing domestic policy initiatives, particularly when such initiatives only tangentially relate to the war effort itself?.

Viewed from one vantage point, one naturally inclines to the affirmative. During the early stages of foreign crises, the public regularly demands forthright action; inter-branch conflicts often subdue; and the exigencies of foreign crises may convince domestic interest groups to defer to Congress and the president, when in times of peace they might readily obstruct. As John Kingdon (2002) famously argues, crises constitute "focusing events" that pry open "windows of opportunity" for major policy change. And extending Kingdon's insights, David Mayhew notes, "wars seem to be capable of generating whole new political universes. They can generate new problems and open up policy windows, thus often fostering new policies, but they can also generate new ideas, issues, programs, preferences, and ideologies and refashion old electoral coalitions--thus permanently altering the demand side of politics" (2005, 473). These facts bode well for the president. As the individual primarily responsible for marshaling a response to the foreign crisis, the president is well situated to harness these forces in the service of his (someday her) policy agenda.

Consider, then, how the events of September 11, 2001, strengthened George W. Bush's influence at home. In the week following the attacks, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill publicly cajoled people to "buy American," Vice President Dick Cheney urged Americans to "stick their thumb in the eye" of the terrorists by purchasing stocks, and the president directed his officials to devise a plan to support the airline industry. (1) Within days, the House and Senate quickly fell into line, passing an airlines bailout bill by 356-54 and 96-1, respectively. During the brief congressional debate, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) received a standing ovation for highlighting the tragic events that necessitated bipartisanship. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) expressed strong support, explaining, "We need to look at transportation again as part of our national defense." (2) Her colleague Charles Schumer (D-NY) described the times as "a new era where everyone has to give a little bit." (3) With the start of the war in Afghanistan in early October and public approval ratings hovering around 90%, Bush moved swiftly to parlay such sentiments of unity to other items on his domestic economic agenda. He depicted economic growth as "part of the war we fight." (4) He characterized his stimulus proposal as an "economic security plan." (5) He transformed tax cuts into a test of patriotism, calling for legislators to "act quickly to make sure that the American people understand that at this part of our homeland defense, our country and the Congress is united." (6) Indeed, as one Democratic aide noted, "The president has so much power as a result of what happened he thinks he can use that to force huge concessions on a range of issues." (7)

Bush's strategy of linking domestic policy reforms to concerns about war and national security, however, may not be foolproof. Other facts about war may dampen the president's chances of advancing major policy initiatives. For instance, the sheer costs of war may introduce budgetary constraints that limit domestic policy initiatives. As wars become protracted and as death tolls mount, public support for the president may dwindle. And the time and efforts spent maintaining political support for ongoing military ventures may further reduce the resources needed to build the necessary coalitions for enacting domestic policy initiatives.

Contrast, then, Bush's first-term success at enacting economic reforms with Bush's second-term efforts to reform Social Security.

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