The American Presidency: An Exhibit on the Public Presidency in Oregon

By Eisinger, Robert M. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The American Presidency: An Exhibit on the Public Presidency in Oregon


Eisinger, Robert M., Oregon Historical Quarterly


TO STATE THAT U.S. CITIZENS think about the presidency when they conceptualize politics risks belaboring the obvious. For over two hundred years, the presidency has evolved from one of three co-equal branches of government to something bigger, grander--imperial, some have even claimed--and more public. The public presidency demands reflection and analysis, not because scholars are ignoring it but rather because of the opposite--our constant attention toward presidents and their constant attention toward the citizenry suggest that American political institutions are changing in ways unimaginable at the nation's founding.

The Oregon Historical Society's opportunity to house the traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit, The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden (April 28-September 17, 2006) has allowed many of us to evaluate the role of the presidency and, more specifically, the public presidency in Oregon. Is there something Oregon citizens and scholars alike can learn by reviewing what presidents have done and said while in the state? What can we learn about the intersection between political institutions and political behavior by evaluating presidential behavior in the Pacific Northwest? Is there something about presidential conduct in Oregon that distinguishes itself? Finally, how does a review of the public presidency in Oregon educate us about how presidents have become magnified by the media and in our eyes?

We decided to add some of the Oregon story to the Smithsonian exhibit. The last part of The American Presidency, therefore, contains the most illuminating artifacts, illustrations, photographs, and other historical materials from the Oregon Historical Society collections that pertain to the modern public presidency in Oregon.

The OHS collection is best under-stood and appreciated after learning about how scholars have studied the public presidency. Richard E. Neustadt illuminates our understanding of the public presidency with his landmark work Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan. (1) Originally published in 1961, the book transformed the way political scientists thought about the presidency. Neustadt forced them to think about presidential power in terms of each president's ability to persuade--Congress, the people, his party, even the bureaucracy. Rather than envision the presidency as constrained by constitutional rules, Neustadt saw presidential acts as contingent on a chief executive's ability to persuade others that his agenda is worthy of time, resources, and public support. A competent presidency in terms of intellect but without persuasive powers--Herbert Hoover, for example--is an impotent president likely to lose favor with Congress and, ultimately, the citizens who elected him.

This idea that presidents must persuade is also found in Samuel Kernell's groundbreaking book, Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership. (2) Kernell suggests that congressional machinations make it difficult for presidents to woo individual members of Congress. Simply put, there are too many members and too many committee chairs, each with too much territorial autonomy. If a president wants to advance his agenda, then his best strategy is to "go public" by circumventing Congress and taking his case directly--or, more precisely, indirectly via the media--to the American people. A president should visit a particular region, give a speech, and encourage people to tell their wavering member of Congress to support the president's agenda.

Jeffrey K. Tulis's 1987 book, The Rhetorical Presidency, argues that while Article II of the Constitution provides a framework for the powers of the president, there is sufficient ambiguity in the Constitution that presidents can create an "informal constitutional presidency." (3) This "informal" constitution

puts a premium on active and continuous presidential leadership of public opinion . …

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