The Paradoxes of the American Presidency

By Thomas E. Cronin; Michael A. Genovese | Go to book overview

Preface

Alexander Hamilton persuaded us that an American presidency was necessary. Many others have now demonstrated that the American presidency is unique and always potentially dangerous. Yet beyond this consensus-- that the presidency is unique, necessary, and potentially dangerous--the American presidency remains a challenging institution to explain.

One sign of a discipline's maturity is the ability of those practicing in the field to agree on a "unifying theory" that both explains and predicts behavior. Presidency researchers have long lamented the absence of such theories.

What is it about the American presidency that defies theoretical precision? Why can't we devise propositions that predict the behavior of presidents and explain presidential leadership?

Much of the difficulty stems from the unusual character of the institution. The presidency is both unique and evolving. It defies simple explanations. It is dynamic, variable, and often a contradictory office. Lacking a precise constitutional delineation of powers, the American presidency is elastic and changing. Different occupants at different times may mold the institution to the nation's needs, or to suit their own needs; at other times the office and the U.S. system of separated and shared powers limit and constrain a president.

This book is an effort to understand the American presidency by viewing it through the lens of a series of paradoxes that shape and define the office. Our goal is to convey the complexity, the many-sidedness, and the contrarian aspects of the office.

A paradox is a sentiment or statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet may nonetheless be true. We use the term in a general sense, that we often hold clashing or contradictory notions of what a leader should do. A more rigorous definition is as follows:

A logical paradox consists of two contrary, or even contradictory propositions to which we are led by apparently sound arguments. The arguments are sound because when used in other contexts they do not seem to invite any difficulty. It is only in the particular combination in which the paradox occurs that the arguments lead to a troublesome conclusion. I

-vii-

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