Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

"Micromanagement" of the U.S. Aid Budget and the Presidential Allocation of Attention

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

"Micromanagement" of the U.S. Aid Budget and the Presidential Allocation of Attention

Article excerpt

How presidents allocate their time and attention is a venerable part of the folklore of the presidency. Does a president like to spend time talking with people, or is he a loner? Does the president read a great deal, or not? Does he make a habit of attending National Security Council meetings, or does he rely on subordinates to conduct business without him and then receive a report on the proceedings afterward? How much vacation time does he take at Camp David or his ranch or estate? Even his biological functions are subject for discussion, or at least speculation. Was this president one who needed a lot of sleep? Was the president one who was in a great deal, and so unable to perform much strenuous work? Among journalists, biographers, and the general public, this type of discussion of the presidency is commonplace, and always seems to attract a large and attentive audience.

Aside from the common fascination with the great and the powerful and the desire to understand their daily lives in human terms, the interest in how a president allocates his attention across a range of activities is part of how many people come to evaluate presidential performance. Comments about such allocations of time usually have a normative message--that the allocation is somehow not the right one for the president, at least if the president is intending to serve the public interest rather than this own comfort or enjoyment or his personal political fortunes. Implicitly, presidents are supposed to focus on the "right" issues and activities, which presumably means the big ones. On the other hand, if people hear that the president spends a lot of time on "little" issues that they believe to be the proper concern of a subordinate, then they might come to believe that the president is not performing his duties properly.

Given this level of popular interest in the subject, it is a bit surprising to find that there has apparently been no systematic academic study of how a president or presidents spend their time. Indeed, there is apparently nothing in the literature on high-level government officials of any nation or office that is comparable to Henry Mintzberg's (1973) classic study of how business managers allocate their time and effort. We have an abundance of anecdotes, but no systematic knowledge of the presidential labor process, or that of other high officials.

This is not because the topic is frivolous. Aside from our intuition that how a president spends his time is important, we have some normative literature within microeconomics (e.g., Radner and Rothschild 1975) on how decision makers ought to allocate their attention, as well as a normative literature within political science going back as far as Plato that addresses how leaders ought to conduct themselves. From either theoretical standpoint, a normative concern with the allocation of presidential attention and effort is easy to justify.

From the more modest standpoint of merely explaining presidential behavior, one notices that sometimes presidents seem not to give much attention to projects that their own speech and conduct suggest is something that they monitor quite closely, while at the same time they focus substantial attention on topics the importance of which is hardly self-evident. Two examples from the Kennedy administration illustrate each extreme of this phenomenon. Although the Kennedy administration attached a great deal of importance to securing congressional legislation to enable the president to take actions to expand international trade, Kennedy delegated responsibility for drafting the bill that became the Trade Expansion Act primarily to private individuals (McKeown 1994). On the other hand, Kennedy was prepared to meet with the director of the Development Loan Fund (which after the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act became a part of the Agency for International Development) to discuss at length what that director described as "minute questions of internal organization and procedure," including a discussion of how to get enough Kelly girls for secretarial back-up because the civil service was too slow in filling secretarial positions (Coffin 1964). …

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