Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Administrative Presidency and Bureaucratic Control: Implementing a Research Agenda

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Administrative Presidency and Bureaucratic Control: Implementing a Research Agenda

Article excerpt

A quarter century ago, Richard Nathan (1983) called renewed attention to the phenomenon of the "administrative presidency." In describing the strategies of the inner circles of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan as they sought to enhance the responsiveness of their respective executive establishments, Nathan's basic query did, of course, far predate his own study--for it boiled down to whether the president could control the bureaucracy and, if not, who did or could. And as Francis Rourke observed, that question of bureaucratic control "has haunted the relationship between the president and Congress from the very beginning of their history together" (1993, 687).

Still, whether the question is 25 years old or 225, it is increasingly important that we turn our attention to answering it, as well as its corollaries. How do presidents seek to control the bureaucracy? How effectively do they do so? We might even ask, how effective do we want them to be? After all, real-world developments in the size and scope of the public sphere mean that "the study of administration" is more crucial even than when Woodrow Wilson pioneered it with his 1887 essay of that name. "In a complex, technologically advanced society in which the role of government is pervasive," Nathan pointed out, "much of what we would define as policymaking is done through the execution of laws in the management process" (1983, 82). Indeed, the most salient events of the George W. Bush years were basically administrative in nature, from the management of Hurricane Katrina and postwar Iraq to the alleged politicization of the Justice Department and lack of regulatory heft in the financial sector.

In fact, the increasing size of the federal establishment--even as successive presidents have declaimed obituaries for the "era of big government"--has made the deft administration of that government more objectively important for all presidents. At the start of fiscal year 2007, there were more than 4 million executive branch employees, about two-thirds of them civilian; this number would be even higher if contracted employees and those paid by federal grants were included (OMB 2007, 365; see also Light 1999). Reflecting their need to gain traction over this mass of personnel, perhaps, recent chief executives have been aggressive both in asserting expansive boundaries for the office's prerogative authority and in using unilateral administrative tools as a mechanism for policy change, highlighting the potential for what William Howell (2003) calls "power without persuasion."

Thus, the conditions under which such power can be exercised successfully--and when it will fall short of presidential desires--is a critical topic for sustained study. This essay suggests a research agenda along those lines, examining recent advances in studying aspects of the administrative presidency and identifying areas in which more work is needed. Studies that turn on the president's relationship with the "presidential branch" and the leadership exercised through that entity's relationship, in turn, with the wider bureaucracy have gained particular traction in the literature since Nathan reminded scholars of its centrality (Fine and Waterman 2008; Hart 1995). My perspective is shaped largely by this recent work, centered as it is on the organizational imperatives and resources that presidents seek to command rather than find themselves constrained by. But, like the question itself, it has deeper scholarly roots. Indeed, despite arguments that the bargaining model of presidential power laid out by Richard Neustadt (1990) is overly tied to presidential personality at the expense of the study of organizational imperatives, the question that motivates both Neustadt and the "new institutionalists" is very much the same: In a system in which presidents are structurally weak, how can they exhibit strong leadership (Dickinson 2008; Moe 1985, 1993)? One answer is to spend their presidential capital on the organizational assets within their reach. …

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