Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Shifting Currents: Dwight Eisenhower and the Dynamic of Presidential Opportunity Structure

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Shifting Currents: Dwight Eisenhower and the Dynamic of Presidential Opportunity Structure

Article excerpt

In May 1960 President Dwight Eisenhower looked forward to a summit meeting with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the leaders of France and Great Britain that held great promise for moving beyond the hostility of the Cold War to a new era of detente. For more than seven years the president had been building toward this moment. He had maneuvered between suspicion and anti-Communist hysteria at home and tense confrontations abroad. By escaping the Cold War stalemate, Eisenhower could not only lessen the risk of nuclear war that had hung over his presidency, but also help him reach other cherished goals, such as curbing U.S. defense expenditures and balancing the federal budget over the long term. A rare opening seemed to beckon, a moment when a president could initiate far-reaching transformations at home and abroad.

And then the moment vanished, in the explosion of a high altitude Soviet air defense missile that brought down the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers. The spy flights had been going on since 1956, despite the Soviets' private protests at the violation of their air space. (To denounce the flights in public would also require an embarrassing admission by Moscow that it lacked the capability to shoot down the aircraft.) Eisenhower understood the risk should a plane be downed, but he valued the reassuring information the missions yielded that the Soviet missile program lagged behind that of the United States. So he decided to approve one final flight two weeks before the scheduled summit. When the plane went missing, the president and his advisors hoped at first that it had been destroyed and Powers killed, leaving no evidence for the Soviets to exploit. But Khrushchev soon announced the Soviets held the pilot alive. After initially denying knowledge of the mission, Eisenhower accepted responsibility and called the flights necessary to preserve national security. This acknowledgment in turn placed the Soviet leader in a vulnerable position with his own hardliners, and he adopted the public posture of a man betrayed. The four-power summit came to nothing (Pach and Richardson 1991, 214-19). Once on the verge of a thaw, U.S.-Soviet relations again turned to ice.

The U-2 episode raises questions about how we think about the "opportunity structure" of presidential leadership. The opportunity structure framework has become a cornerstone of presidency research over the past generation. Led by Stephen Skowronek (1993), scholars have emphasized that circumstances facilitate, inhibit, or preclude presidential action. Presidents are agents--they make consequential decisions that others in their shoes might not make--but they operate within a context in which only some actions are possible at an acceptable political cost. To ignore the environment is to court failure. Yet the way scholars have construed opportunity structure, I would argue, has been too narrow. The emphasis, per Skowronek, has been on the partisan context in which a president is situated, based on the problematic framework of partisan regimes. If we consider the U-2 example or, for that matter, a host of other situations Eisenhower faced, a regime focus tells us nothing about what he could or could not do. It did not matter when Powers was shot down that Eisenhower was a Republican president during a Democratic era. Further, the impact of the incident on the summit and on the president's late-term agenda highlights both the fluid character of opportunity structures and how they can be reshaped by a president's own choices.

Drawing on the Eisenhower presidency, I propose to reformulate the opportunity structure approach to presidential leadership in three ways. First, without dismissing the significance of the regime context, I reject the presumption that it always belongs in the foreground when we attempt to make sense of a president's political environment. Other contextual elements enter a president's calculation of what he can and cannot do, and these elements often weigh more heavily on his interpretation of the possible than does his relationship to the dominant coalition. …

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