Why Do Presidents Fail?

By Pious, Richard M. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Why Do Presidents Fail?


Pious, Richard M., Presidential Studies Quarterly


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Why Do Presidents Fail?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.