How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency

By Benjamin, Gerald | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2013 | Go to article overview

How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency


Benjamin, Gerald, Presidential Studies Quarterly


How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency. By Saladin M. Ambar. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 184 pp.

If only Saladin Ambar's small, elegantly written book was available years ago. I needed it when, as a Fulbrighter lecturing in Asia, I was again and again asked to explain how and why we Americans regularly advanced provincial politicians--governors with no experience in national government or international matters--as potential chief executives of the most powerful nation on earth.

I did what I could. I explained the career paths to the presidency created by the federal nature of the American political and governmental systems. I talked about the intergovernmental aspects of national domestic policy. I suggested that the governance roles and administrative responsibilities of a state chief executive were far more analogous to the president's than those of a national legislator. But if I had this book, I would have been able to say with confidence: "Governors are not only rightly considered for the job; they created it in its modern form."

Ambar identifies five elements of the modern presidency for which he finds roots in the legacies of governor/presidents: assertive legislative leadership, the use of party dominance as a presidential resource, sophisticated media management, an embrace of the role of chief administrator of the government, and a commitment to executive-centered governance (p.5). He finds the Tilden-Hayes presidential election in 1876 to be a watershed moment, the first time that the two major parties' presidential nominees were both sitting governors. "Tilden and Hayes helped spawn a new thinking in executive leadership," he writes, "positioning the American governorship as a popular and characteristically 'honest' executive institution for democratic reform" (p. 32). Grover Cleveland (also a former mayor, of Buffalo) was storied for his use of the veto and his willingness to exercise national power on his own authority; he provided the governor/ president bridge to the Progressive Era.

Progressive theory joined populism (direct democracy) and the emerging corporate model (governor/president as chief executive) to recast the elected executive as tribune of the people. This was, of course, a stark alternative to then prevalent legislative- and party-centered government, defended as constitutionally prescribed. At the state level, to effect their vision, progressive reformers changed constitutions wholesale, or sought to (a matter to which Professor Ambar gives only passing attention). At the national level, with constitutional amendment or revision much harder, change was achieved through reinterpretation, driven by the actions of governor/presidents. During his campaign for governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, the political-scientist governor/president, embraced rather than resisted the idea that his expansive, popular-based view of executive office was "unconstitutional." "If you elect me I will be an unconstitutional governor in that respect," he said.

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