Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Does the Revolution in Presidential Studies Mean "Off with the President's Head"?

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Does the Revolution in Presidential Studies Mean "Off with the President's Head"?

Article excerpt

Terry Moe has written an engaging, often compelling, and assuredly provocative essay on what he calls the "revolution" in presidential studies (Moe 2009). It is a powerful piece that will surely find its way onto the reading lists of graduate seminars on the presidency. Certainly, it will appear on mine.

Moe's article develops a thoroughgoing assessment of the long march to respectability for the presidency subfield as he thinks of it. This article also represents an intriguing evolution in Moe's intellectual journey from an exclusively rational choice institutional perspective on how to study the presidency to a discerning engagement with a broader set of theoretical streams. Each of these streams--rational choice institutionalism, historical institutionalism, and the cognitive science of decision making--may help us solve different sets of empirical problems relating to the presidency. The cognitive science aspects especially help us unravel elements of decision making that are relevant to all presidents and all organizational leaders. They may also help us understand the limits of attentiveness, cracks in organizational communications, and other aspects of the world of imperfect knowledge confronting decision makers. Moe's essay reflects an impressive familiarity with a wide range of work emanating from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. I think this is another one of those Terry Moe pieces that we will find ourselves discussing for some time to come.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that Moe has made huge contributions to our thinking about the presidency, both directly in his own work and indirectly through the outstanding contributions of a set of superb former graduate students who worked with him and whom he cites in his essay. They are the intellectual "sons" and "daughters" of Terry Moe and have gone on to develop illustrious careers of their own.

By happenstance, I have had the opportunity to see the progression and elaboration of ideas in this manuscript over successive drafts. When I read some earlier versions, I was inclined to direct my commentary to theoretical issues that Moe has now addressed in his typically lucid style. Moreover, his assessment of these alternative theoretical streams or bodies of work--historical institutionalism and the psychology of choice--is, in my judgment, spot-on. Moe's essay deserves at least 2.8 cheers.

There is, however, a matter that he and I are apt to continue to disagree about, and that is the role of individual leaders. This is a focus that Moe tends to heavily discount or perhaps disparage. This should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Moe's work or his efforts over the years to set presidential studies on a more theoretical course. I think I am not stretching matters too far to say that Moe believes that theorizing and research in presidency studies ought to proceed without presidents and that the "revolution" in presidential studies has succeeded precisely because it has. Correspondingly, although Richard Neustadt's reputation scarcely needs to be defended by me, Moe's long-standing critique of Neustadt on presidential behavior is, I think, misplaced. These differences reflect conversations, panel discussions, conference repartee, and the like that have been going on between us for more than two decades. Although I doubt that we are apt to change one another's minds, the fact is that we share quite a few critical assumptions about how to peel away the hard shell of presidential studies. We apparently differ as to whether or not we get to the spongier and softer stuff inside. I cannot speak for Terry on this, but it is possible that he thinks we can forgo getting deeply inside the shell, if I may use that metaphor. I think that depends on what we want to find out. That certainly should be driven by theory, but it also may be driven by substantive importance or by a problem.

I sympathize with Moe's view that a focus on people is apt to go nowhere if we begin with it. …

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