The Contemporary Presidency: Postpresidential Influence in the Postmodern Era. (Features)

By Schaller, Thomas F.; Williams, Thomas W. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2003 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: Postpresidential Influence in the Postmodern Era. (Features)


Schaller, Thomas F., Williams, Thomas W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


George W. Bush's presidency may someday be remembered as a watershed in the future of the American postpresidency. During Bush's campaign, his father and former president George H. W. Bush provided his son advice and fund-raising firepower. That same year, outgoing President Bill Clinton campaigned for wife Hillary in her successful bid to become the first former first lady to win elected office.

The first eighteen months of Bush's presidency also witnessed plenty of activity by ex-presidents, (1) all of whom except Ronald Reagan played a role in either domestic or international politics, or both. Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford served as honorary cochairs of the National Commission on Federal Election Reform that proposed changes in voting procedures in the wake of the 2000 presidential election. In May 2002, as Clinton was denying rumors that he would host a nationally syndicated television talk show, President Bush appointed his predecessor to a delegation that went to East Timor to celebrate the island nation's independence from Indonesia. That same week, Carter made international headlines as the first sitting or former American president to visit Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

In this article, we examine the postpresidency, with a special focus on the influence of postmodern ex-presidents. (2) Whether campaigning for fellow partisans, traveling on diplomatic missions, writing books and memoirs, opining in the media, or serving as informal advisers to sitting presidents, ex-presidents influence American politics in a variety of ways. But has the power of the postpresidency changed with changes in the power of the presidency?

We contend that postpresidential power has grown, albeit not proportionally, with presidential power. The heightened role of electronic media, the globalization of politics, the successes of governors winning the presidency, and the increasing significance of campaign finance are just a few recent developments that combine to give postmodern ex-presidents unprecedented opportunities to influence politics and policy. How and how well postmodern ex-presidents avail themselves of those opportunities are separate, related questions.

This article proceeds in three sections. First, we provide a brief history of the postpresidency, including descriptive statistics and brief summaries of the postpresidential activities of ex-presidents from George Washington to Lyndon Johnson. In the next section, we focus on postmodern ex-presidents Richard Nixon through Bill Clinton, arguing that the contemporary era provides former presidents unique and unprecedented opportunities to influence public affairs. We conclude with some observations on the state of the American postpresidency.

Postpresidential Power

According to James David Barber (1985), presidential success is a function of a president's psychology and worldview. Similarly, Irina Belenky (1999) classifies the behavior of ex-presidents based on their personal ambitions and agendas, from a desire to restore a damaged public reputation to the advocacy of specific political causes. Paul Light (1991) likens the power of American presidents to that of a "vehicle" of enumerated, formal powers propelled by each president's "fuel" in the form of time, energy, expertise, and information. These studies reify the point that individual capacity, disposition, and ambition affect how presidents approach their public lives in office and beyond.

Of course, presidents exercise real, formal powers beyond the idiosyncratic inputs they bring to office. The president serves as both the head of government and head of state, oversees both foreign and domestic policy, and in addition to exercising constitutionally prescribed responsibilities ranging from commander-in-chief to reporter of the state of the union, acts as the singular political voice and symbolic leader of the nation.

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