Knowing What We Want to Know about the Presidency

By Jones, Charles O. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Knowing What We Want to Know about the Presidency


Jones, Charles O., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The editor, George C. Edwards III, has asked an important question of presidential scholars: "What do we want to know about the presidency and why do we want to know it?" Acknowledging the centrality of the issue for our work, however, does not resolve it. In the first place, I doubt very much that I can speak for anyone else, though I can say something of what I learn from others. I am not certain I can even adhere to Edwards's forewarning not to advocate a particular approach or promote a topic of special interest to me. Accordingly, much of what I have written is about what I want to know and why--granted more as advice to others than a personal agenda.

In the second place, I believe there should be a general answer to the question, one that orients a research agenda because it reveals topics that we do or do not know much about or have not thought about in that way. That is no small challenge, but it is what I have endeavored to do. It will not surprise the reader to know that I had several false starts and even more postponements in setting words to paper at all.

In the third place, I have doubts that I can know what I want to know about the presidency by concentrating only on that institution. I cannot escape an orientation that I have committed to print--the presidency in a separated system. The fact is that much of what I want to know is associated with the president's place in the presidency and the place and roles of both in governing and in politics. Actually, I venture to state that I do speak for others in that respect, if not all.

Having explained that what I am about to do cannot be done, I plunge ahead. First I offer a general answer to Edwards's question. Then I specify research topics that relate to the broader theme of desired knowledge. I should note at the outset that I make only limited reference to the voluminous literature on the topics to be discussed, with apologies to legions of scholars. This is not a bibliographical review. It is an essay in the classic sense: a literary composition, analytical and interpretative, dealing with its subject from a more or less limited or personal standpoint.

The Big Answer

I, and perhaps we, want to know how presidents pass from history into history. Persons as presidents enter an existing institution in which they seek to find their place. "Existing" in this context means that people are at work and routines are set when the president is sworn in. Government does not cease, or even pause for very long, during the transition. In four to eight years, less if tragedy strikes, that president will be gone. He, some day she, will have passed through the permanent government, as will a legion of other short-timers who tag along. And they will have participated in effecting change so that the "existing" institution for the next incumbent will have been modified.

Much of what I have just described has been dichotomized into the personal presidency and the institutional presidency. It is as though one had to choose between camps that, in my view, are on the same side. If we seek a big answer to Edwards's question, we accept the reality of persons populating institutions. That is not to exclude the force of practices that come to be accepted as ways of governing, then changed. It is rather to encourage focusing on the broader matter of how the personal--the transient now--and institutional--the prime then--intersect to sustain continuity and generate change. Equally I accept and endorse the vitality of separated institutions' sharing and competing for powers. Consequently, presidential studies should be fitted into what we know and want to know about Congress, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and various political, not strictly governmental, institutions. It is accepted that no one study can do it all. But research can be sited to aid the integration of findings into efforts to manage Edwards's big question. …

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