Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Strengthening Presidential Decision-Making Capacity

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Strengthening Presidential Decision-Making Capacity

Article excerpt

"Governance is a scarce commodity" (Peters 1996, 1). An accurate assessment of democratic governments around the world, Peters's observation evidently applies as well to the U.S. presidency. In particular, I will contend that presidential capacity for policy decision making is weak and needs to be bolstered. In what follows, the bases for the claim of attenuated decision capacity are sketched and its implications for effective policy making and legitimacy suggested. After arguing that changes in institutional rules and structuring may help strengthen presidential decision capabilities, the article goes on to propose several such alterations.

At the outset, however, four preliminary points should be made. First, the emphasis here is on presidential policy decision making. This focus encompasses a range of activities, including formulating policy, exploring negotiating stances to be taken when dealing with Congress or with other countries, selecting implementation strategies, and identifying and handling "crises." Even if the distinctions between "policy" and more "political" decision making (involving, e.g., electoral strategies and tactics, the results of public opinion polls) will rarely be clear empirically, they do appear to be analytically and normatively useful. That said, however, it should be underscored that political input is desirable indeed essential in most policy decisions; a crucial challenge is to better balance the two, not to cast them as mutually exclusive or inevitably in conflict.

Second, the discussion views the idea of "reinvention" rather narrowly. It holds the U.S. constitutional framework of separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism mostly constant, recommending only limited alterations in the first two design principles and none in the third. Such a position is grounded in the application to the United States of the assumption that "the organizational and institutional imagination of democracy should be directed to adapting traditional institutions to new uses rather than inventing new ones" (March and Olsen 1995, 225).

Third, then, the understanding of "structure" and "structural change" that informs the discussion emphasizes levels of analysis below those of the U.S. political system as a whole and the constitutionally designed separated powers. In what follows, structure is employed, in ways familiar to most organization theorists, to refer to recurring relationships among actors. The result is a more micro-level perspective of the possibilities for reinvention than that adopted by some of the other conference participants. Such an approach evidently is consistent both with March and Olsen's (1995) caution against wholesale introduction of new institutional forms and with the long-noted American proclivity to "tinker" and experiment with government (e.g., Tocqueville 1945; Hult 1987). Meanwhile, it may encourage the exploration of possible improvements even without the declaration of a governing crisis.

Finally, I must admit that I approach the whole notion of reinvention rather gingerly. Certainly, as it has been applied to state and local governments as well as the federal executive, reinvention has too frequently appeared to be either a fig leaf for slashed government employment rosters or a vehicle for mandating that ill-fitting, for-profit sector approaches be applied to public sector tasks. More important, it seems to me that many of us who seek "reform" sometimes forget that "although we know enough about processes of change to be able to affect history significantly, we do not know enough to be confident that the effects we produce will ultimately prove to be intelligent ones" (March and Olsen 1995, 248-49). Thus, I continue to believe that prescription in examinations of presidential advising and decision making too often is premature and that it should await additional descriptive and explanatory work (cf. Hult 1993; Hult and Walcott 1998a). …

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