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Hard Times for Presidential Leadership?

(And How Would We Know?)

University of California, Los Angeles
University of Pittsburgh

This article asks whether presidential leadership has become harder and focuses on
what we would need to know to answer that question. It examines several possible expla-
nations for the leadership is harder hypothesis and argues that the combination of di-
vided government and strong party differences has made presidential leadership more dif-
ficult. The authors conclude that while a maximalist conception of the presidency is unre-
alistic, presidents will do what they can to push their preferences and find loopholes to cir-
cumvent a recalcitrant Congress. Traditional forms of pluralist accommodation do not
fare well in this climate of political confrontation.

Has presidential leadership become harder? The question itself raises numerous,
and fundamental, boundary-defining questions. For example, how much time must
elapse before we can say that a change is meaningful? The question clearly implies a
change of condition. What changed? Why did it change? When did it change? The
what changed question includes the notion of a change in outcomes or success and
forces us to focus on the dependent variable, in this case, what are the outcomes pre-
sumably desired by the president, and what, therefore, is the presidents level of suc-
cess in achieving them? The why did it change question leads us to focus on inde-
pendent variables and the structure of explanation. If presidential leadership has
become harder, why? What are some of the possible lines of inquiry? The when did it
change question implies not only that something did change (a matter open for
debate) but also invites us to investigate the form of the changelinear? curvilinear?

Joel D. Aberbach is a professor of political science and director of the Center for American Politics and Public
Policy at UCLA. His books include Keeping a Watchful Eye: The Politics of Congressional Oversight and (with
Bert A. Rockman) In the Web of Politics: Three Decades of the Federal Executive (Brookings Institution Press,
Bert A. Rockman is the university professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh and a nonresident
senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is coeditor of Governance and has coedited (with Colin Campbell) and
contributed to The Clinton Legacy (Chatham House) and coauthored (with Joel D. Aberbach) In the Web of Poli-

Presidential Studies Quarterly 29, no. 4 (December) 757

1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency

logarithmic? punctuated? and so forth. Has presidential leadership become harder is

an easy question to ask but an extremely difficult one to answer.
It is safe to say that we will not answer those questions here. However, we need
to put a searchlight into this thick fog to illuminate essential questions, a precondi-
tion to obtaining appropriate answers. We first note the problem of timenot as a
philosophical problem but as a way of thinking about what we are trying to compare
over what span of time and whether the comparison ought to take cyclical or chrono-
logical functions. Then, our next and, also, later our last stop is to try to clarify the
what question; that is, just what is the dependent variable we should be focusing on
when we talk about presidential leadership? Thus, we begin by asking what basic
alternative models of presidential leadership are articulatedand, implicitly, there-
fore, how the role of the president in the political system is conceptualized. To what
extent are the problems we detect regarding presidential leadership related to our
choice of leadership model, and, consequently, how do we conceptualize the role the
president plays in the American political system? Later in the article we come back to
look at some standard measures of success and also some nonstandard ways of thinking
about presidential success.
We look at some of the explanations offered for changes in the circumstances of
presidential leadership, some of which (increased party cohesion, for example) were
once proposed to strengthen the hand of the president in governing. We look both at
broad-scale notions of changing conditions, for example, a transformation of elite
culture, and some more down-to-earth and precise ones, such as divided government.
Again, we arrive at no definitive conclusion but do note the possibility of the com-
pounded (interactive or multiplicative) effects of several key variables, for example,
divided government, greater party cohesion, and greater average distance between
party positions.
Always in the background of this exploration is the when question. When was
some condition of presidential leadership said to have changed and in what form? If a
function is nonlinear and also part of a longer cycle, a shorter time frame is likely to
produce a falsely positive linear function. We are often tempted to compare the pres-
ent unfavorably with a more distant past that we know only dimly, if at all (Ellis 1990).
We often have gripes about the present (or at least concerns, even amid the balmy
economic climate of the day) because we are living through it; we know the Republic
survived the past, however, and being less aware of past blemishes by virtue of not
directly experiencing them or being youthfully oblivious at the time, we tend to focus
less on past problems.
At the end of this article, we again come back to the dependent variable, that is,
success, and focus on the extent to which presidents have sought (and successfully
implemented) new means of defining success in an environment of almost continu-
ous divided government.

From When to When?

Stephen Skowronek (1993) asks us to think about presidential leadership as fol-

lowing a relatively regular but rather long cycle that he calls political time. He sees
political time as a function of increasing and decreasing opportunities to lead. Leader-
ship is entropic within each political cycle. Skowroneks ideas seem to be related in
rough fashion to cycles of political realignment and dealignment. From this perspec-
tive, the question of whether leadership is harder is a function of the point in the cycle
that a particular president holds office. A big idea president who arrives at the right
moment in the cycle is apt to be a president of accomplishment. Few are. (Such presi-
dents, incidentally, are not necessarily endowed with such big ideas at the outset but
acquire them along the way as they see opportunities to build or solidify new political
coalitions.) Those with big ideas who arrive in office during the downswing of the
political cycle are apt to be greatly frustrated. Much, if not most, of the time, small
ideas meet limited opportunities for accomplishment on the part of presidents.
Where cycles fit into the larger expanses of what Skowronek (1993) calls
chronological time, that is, the commonsense meaning of time, is hard to say,
although Skowronek and realignment analysts (Brady 1988) obviously believe that
the political cycles are more meaningful than the chronological definition of time. As
a variable, however, time is meaningless by itself. It derives meaning from conditions
that are changing (again, whatever the form of the change) and that may make the
problem of presidential leadership more or less difficult. One of the difficulties of the
political time cycle is that unless it is explained by a regularized set of conditions (such
as realignment or some other generalized causal forces), it is merely an unexplained
descriptive regularity.
It is also no easy matter to sort out cycles from noncyclical tendencies or at least
to discern the length of a cycle. The problem is a bit like looking at climatic change.
Should we look at means or at the tails of a cycle? The tails of a climatic cycle (which
we can only know in retrospect) are apt to be higher and lower than the mean of a
long-term (even though fundamentally cyclical) shift. So, too, political time may
provide us with highs and lows, but the magnitude of the potential for leadership also
may be encased within longer term shifts (Rockman 1984). The institutional impact
and durability of realignment periods, for example, weakened in the twentieth cen-
tury. Why? Obviously, there is an interaction between cyclical and longer term effects,
but we do not know precisely what these are.
The period of approximately the past thirty to thirty-five years is one in which
we have frequently heard the more difficult to lead chant concerning the presi-
dency. It is possible, of course, that our sense of the problem mainly reflects the fact
that we have been present to hear about it. Nevertheless, it is true that conditions
likely to impair presidential leadershipdivided government, political dissensus,
public distrust, and so onhave been prevalent during this period. These conditions
have given rise to the feeling that presidential leadership has become especially diffi-
cult in the contemporary political climate. But the necessity of comparing over time

begs several questions: (1) What time horizons should be employed? (2) Is chrono-
logical time of any value at all? (3) What exactly do we have in mind when we talk
about presidential leadership? The latter will obviously affect how we see the prob-
lemwhether, in fact, there is even seen to be a problem and what, if anything, can
be done about it.

Models of Presidential Leadership

What expectations should we place on presidential leadership? While scholars

vary quite a bit in their perspectives, there has been a tendency over the years to think
of presidents more in terms of their constraints than their opportunities.1 This might
be a realistic reaction to aberrant high achievement presidencies such as Franklin
Roosevelts. But it also may reflect the newer conditions of governance under divided
government. Roughly, we might distinguish four models of presidential leadership.
We call these, in descending order of their expectations of the president, the maxi-
malist position, the presidency-centric bargaining position, the system-bargaining
presidency, and the guardian presidency.
The maximalist position is what James MacGregor Burns (1978) refers to as
transformative leadership. This view stresses the educating side of leadership as
much as its practical consequences (Hargrove 1998; Campbell 2000). In this view,
presidents need both to reach and preach. Their role is not only to achieve in the pres-
ent but also to set the tone for the future. That, it is fair to say, is a pretty sizeable task
and makes it especially difficult to assess what a president has achieved during his
term. For the ardent proponents of the maximalist view, such as Burns, the develop-
ment of a highly cohesive party system is essential to a presidents transformative
capacities; it must, therefore, follow that the presidents party needs to be in the con-
gressional majority. If presidents are to appeal successfully to the better angels of our
nature, they are apt to need help from the political machinery. There is a heroic
assumption as well that presidents have the moral standing to appeal to our better
selvesand such a better self is likely to be defined implicitly as a liberal Democrat
self uplifted accordingly by a liberal Democrat president. The model puts the presi-
dent at the vortex of policy change and sees the presidential role as the principal pro-
active role within the government. What the president wants (or should want) is
generally good unless, of course, what the president wants is at odds with ones prefer-
ences. Under the assumption that the president should have the power to do what
maximalist theorists would like them to do, the more the president gets the better. Put
simply, presidents should want big thingsafter all, what else could transformative
possibly mean?
Presidents should thereby be judged in accordance with their achievementsor
their preparation for achievements by their successors (which is something less than
straightforward to measure). Preparing the path for results, however, is problematic

1. For example, see Edwards (1989) and Moe (1985).


for an incumbent president. The results may wind up being credited to another presi-
dent if the preparation is successful, or they may simply fail to come to fruition at all,
despite strenuous efforts. The maximalist model may emphasize transformation and
the presidents use of the bully pulpit to educate the public, but in the end, accom-
plishment in the here and now is what counts. The maximalist model, hence, is unre-
mittingly presidency centric and focused on accomplishments in office. The parties
should be obedient lap dogs for presidents, responding to presidential commands.
From this standpoint, and measured against the putative legendary accomplishments
of the Roosevelt New Deal presidency, most other presidencies pale, with the possi-
ble exceptions of the first Johnson years and the early Reagan period. In the case of the
maximalist model, presidential leadership is harder to exercise because more is being
asked of it than can plausibly, certainly normally, be delivered. In all likelihood, even
the storied Roosevelt administration would not be able to live up to the popular
mythology surrounding it. By definition, too, transformations that went on all the
time would produce chaos. Something has to remain stable. Some presidents have to
be unsung guardians rather than heroic change agents (Mervin 1996). However, it
is typically the standard of the presidential greats against which others are measured
in the maximalist model. This standard implies not only that presidents get a lot done
but also that they get a lot of big things done. Or, minimally, they prepare the way to
get them done.
A second model might be labeled as presidency-centric bargaining. The proto-
type for this is to be found in Richard Neustadts Presidential Power (1990). Neustadt
sees the president as a key actor amid a multitude of strategic players within a very
convoluted strategic game. The game sets some profound limits on a presidents possi-
bilitiesthe result of a complex constitutional scheme that divides power and puts a
presidents agenda at the mercy of others. Still, within these limits, a president has the
opportunity to optimize his bargaining position and make use of the leverage points
available to him. Political leadership, in this regard, is a craft, and a president has to be
a skilled artisan in the craft of politics, adjusting, when necessary, to changes in the
available tools of political persuasion. Although there is actually much overlap
between the maximalist and presidency-centric bargaining models, the latter clearly
emphasizes the use of communication and rhetoric less as a tool of moral suasion and
transformation than as a means of manipulating the incentives of other elites who
hold some power resources affecting the presidents fate. Burns (1978), perhaps the
leading proponent of the maximalist school, dismisses the Neustadtian perspective as
merely transactionala somewhat cynical manipulation of power to enhance the
presidents position rather than to elevate the level of public discussion.
Neustadt (1990) suggests, however, that without effective presidential leader-
ship, not only will the president flounder but so will the system. The presidency, as
seen by Neustadt, is a forbidding political job; only the politically agile can make it
work. In view of a presidents dependence on others, two conditions seem necessary to
help a presidents chances. The first is unified government. This is important because
without it a president is apt to be playing defense (impeding the agendas of others)
rather than playing offense (advancing his own agenda). Unified government, of

course, hardly ensures a government of like minds; the obverse, however, is certainly
true, namely, that divided government ensures a government of unlike minds. In all
but a few years since 1968, though, presidents have been dealing with divided
A second condition helpful to a president seeking to trade his resources for
greater policy advantage is when the political game is substantially based on issues of
distributive benefits rather than on competing and nondivisible worldviews. In turn,
the distributive benefits game rests on surplus resources and the perception among the
political elite that it can reap political benefits by dipping into the pork barrel. Side
payments are the grease of political bargains. Their availability can help presidents
bargain, although the nature of the side payments has been changing over timeless
focused on expensive capital projects and more on political appointments. In part,
this is because less discretionary money has been available in the federal budget as a
consequence of the growth of entitlements and legislatively mandated budget con-
straints. It is also partly because public works projects now raise the ire of many con-
stituencies, especially middle-class and educated ones, likely to become politically
aroused by what they perceive as unnecessary or wasteful government largess or envi-
ronmentally detrimental projects. And, finally, it is because presidents have been
forced to bargain increasingly, or at least more visibly, with activist constituencies
within their own parties, having need to please them and ensure their support (Sapiro
and Canon 2000). For this purpose, appointments work better than public works
From the presidents bargaining standpoint, some presidential resources (mostly
of the public relations variety) have gained greater currency. But the most critical
ones, especially with respect to the success of a presidents legislative agenda, have
been in decline. Particularly crucial here is the near permanence of divided
Terry Moes (1985) frequently cited article on the politicization of the presi-
dency suggests that presidents caught in the web of divided government will not read-
ily concede losing to their political opponents but will devise ways of countering them
through centralization and the use of executive edicts, appointments, and so forth.
Richard Nathan (1983) labeled such maneuvers as the administrative presidency
strategy. Aberbach (2000) notes how elements of the administrative presidency have
been employed across presidential administrations, presidents of seemingly different
temperaments, and presidents of different parties. Presidents go the administrative
route when other options are foreclosed. In baseball, the best plays often do not show
up in the box score; this also may be the case for presidents. And it may be that looking
at how presidents fare legislatively is less informative than whether they have effec-
tively countered the opposition through executive means. By implication at least,
this means paying less attention to grand gestures and more to stealth tactics. Yet, in
the end, the use of administrative regulations and executive orders has less staying
power than does legislation and is, therefore, less likely to impact the system perma-
nently. Operating through executive means is apt to leave few footprints in the sand
because what is done by one administration via executive edict can be undone by a

successor. But the willful use of administrative tactics may serve to poison the atmos-
phere of interbranch relations (Aberbach and Rockman 1988).
Model three we describe as a system-bargaining model. Its emphasis is less on
what the president wants and what, therefore, the president gets than on how the
competing and sometimes cooperative agendas of various actors in the system eventu-
ally come together to produce a product (Jones 1994; Mayhew 1991; Peterson 1990).
The president here is often seen as a key actor but not necessarily the central one in
the production of policy. The predictions from this model are conditional. What hap-
pens depends on the extent to which presidents and their political opponents desire
to come to terms. Frequently, they have incentives to do exactly the opposite (Gil-
mour 1995; Sinclair 2000), especially when Congress and the presidency are in the
hands of different parties. Consequently, the system-bargaining model of presidential
leadership often predicts stalemate. However, it also may result in outcomes for each
political actor that, while suboptimal, are preferable to their available alternatives. In
other words, there may be a lot of cooperation or very little depending on the nature of
the proposals and the political benefits they offer to the political actors. The out-
comes, therefore, may be plentiful or sparse, and they may be big or small. How pro-
posals fare depends most on the firmness of the lines of cleavage to which the
proposals adhere.
This model assumes that failure to produce successful outcomes is a function of
one or more of the actors pressing to achieve their optimum goals. If compromise is
necessary to reach agreement, then presidents need to be sophisticated not only at
gaining leverage to cut their best deal but also knowing when they have one. To make
the system work, the political actors need, first, to have a limited range of disagree-
ment over issues so that they are capable of being accommodated through compro-
mise and, second, a common understanding that they cannot press for optimal goal
achievement in the face of significant resistance. Agreement that half loaves are bet-
ter than no loaves must be high, and tolerance for purely symbolic politics must be
low. This assumes that politicians have more inducements to produce policies than
they have to create issues.
In the system-bargaining model, the emphasis essentially is on process in a
highly pluralized system in which outcomes are the product of bargaining. Colin
Campbell (2000) refers critically to presidents inclined to operate in accordance with
such an outlook as lets deal presidents, since they prefer to deal than to lead. We
suppose that the public has little interest in an outcome qua outcome, except perhaps
to the extent that a lot of outcomes make it look as though the political elites in
Washington are cooperating with one another, and that induces less public hostility
toward what is otherwise commonly held to be the self-interested machinations of a
self-serving political class. But when segments of the public have intense preferences,
not just any outcome will do. In such an environment, a lets deal president is apt to be
viewed as unprincipled and possibly even sleazy. Whatever else, a president desperate
for a record under circumstances of discord will be seen by others as an easy mark.
Finally, it is worth touching on a fourth model, namely, what David Mervin
(1996) calls the Guardian Presidency. The guardian presidency notion is a

classically conservative one in that the presidential role is to maintain the status quo
and keep things on an even keel rather than to embark on creating (or legislating) big
programs. Social harmony and legitimacy are the bread and butter of guardian (or
Tory) presidencies (Rockman 1991; Greenstein 1982). A guardian presidency, more
than most, depends on good times and little demand for policy. Charles Jones (1991)
notes the appropriate level of expectations for such a nonprogrammatic presidency in
the title of a book chapter he wrote: Meeting Low Expectations: Strategy and Pros-
pects of the Bush Presidency. Of course, expectations of Bushs presidency changed as
economic conditions got bleaker for Bush, leading ultimately to his electoral defeat.
Even the fabled Eisenhower began to lose credibility and popularity as the economy
slid deeply in the middle of his second term.
Our discussion of four models of presidential leadership suggests that, in
descending order, they have different levels of expectation surrounding the idea of
success. (The biggest distinction, however, comes between the first two and last two
models.) These expectations most certainly have to do with our understandings of the
role of the president in the system and the presidents relationship to other actors. All
of these models may have some currency, and different ones may be activated even
within the same administration as presidents seek to educate on some matters,
exploit opportunities, cooperate, and forego choice on still others. Whether presiden-
tial leadership is harder in the contemporary political climate than it has been hereto-
fore is a function of the model of presidential leadership we hold and the conditions
influencing its prospects for success. It is self-evident to say that the greater our expec-
tations, the greater the prospect of failure. Having said the self-evident, we need to
look at common conditions regarded as at the root of the presidential leadership prob-
lem, which we do in the next section.

Explanations for the Leadership Problem

As we mentioned, both fairly cosmic and more concrete explanations exist for
the putative decline in presidential leadership capacity. We briefly discuss the issues
of trust in government and whether presidents work from less popular support than
they once had. Then, we look more extensively at the question of whether there has
been a decline in comity (a change in the American political culture), examine what
the impact of divided government has been, and, finally, discuss the intensification
and widening of differences between the parties. There is much interrelation between
these ideas. That is obvious. What is much less obvious is what is causing what here.

The Decline of Trust in Government

In 1964, about three-quarters of the American public trusted the government to

do what was right. Since then, and for some time, this figure has fallen dramatically,
often hovering around 25 percent and only rarely rising higher than 40 percent. Why
has this occurred? And what is its importance? How does it affect presidential

leadership? The short answer to all of these questions, despite speculations, is that we
do not know (Orren 1997). A few things seem to be assumed from the decline of trust
in government: the public is angry, and their anger is taken out on political leaders
providing leaders with less slack than they may have had in the past, thus contribut-
ing to a problem of governability.
We do know a few things, however. One is that the long-term decline in trust
seems, in the main, to be attributable to bad times and the untrustworthy behavior
of political leaders. The three biggest spirals downward occurred during the period of
the late Johnson years as urban riots, campus disturbances, and the war in Vietnam
(which Johnson said he would not send American boys to fight) dragged on, then dur-
ing the Watergate and post-Watergate trauma when Nixon was driven from office
and revelations of presidential misconduct were regularly occurring and, finally, dur-
ing the tailspin of the Carter administration, its political troubles, and, ultimately, its
economic ones (Orren 1997, 81). Obviously, adverse conditions and duplicitous con-
duct in the presidency have helped ratchet trust downward, essentially providing a
new range of variation with a lower limit. But distrust tends to be universalized to
some degree. Other institutions also fare less well in tandem with distrust of govern-
ment. Hence, the problem is that trust is overdetermined and underspecified. Presi-
dents have done well and poorly under conditions of higher and lower trust,
depending on more proximate factors, such as their partys share of congressional
seats. Whatever other issues the decline in trust is about, precisely how it is reputed to
affect leadership prospects, especially the presidents, remains, at the very least,
inconclusive; indeed, not even clearly formulated.

Presidential Approval

Possibly because of declining trust, presidents also are viewed as having lesser
amounts of the currency of public approval for the performance of their jobs and to use
in performing their jobs. Jon Bond and Richard Fleisher (1990), for example, note
that, aside from the tendency of most presidents to fare less well later in their terms
than early (a cyclical effect), there is a trend line in regard to presidential popularity.
They state, Presidents who served between 1953 and 1968 began their terms with
greater public approval and were more popular in general than were presidents who
served after 1969 (p. 179). The finding continues to be accurate nearly a decade after
Bond and Fleisher published their book, but the gap in average approval of presidents
has narrowed somewhat recently. From a difference of fourteen percentage points
between pre- and post-1968 presidents, the gap is now (1999) down to 11 percent (63
percent to 52 percent). But if we include only the last three presidents in the post-
1968 series, the gap is only half of what it had been at the beginning of the 90s (63 per-
cent to 56 percent). In fact, the difference in average approval (9 percent) is slightly
greater between the last three presidents in the post-1968 series (Reagan, Bush, and
Clinton) and the first three (Nixon, Ford, and Carter) than it is between the last trio
and the pre-1968 series (7 percent). In sum, the pattern in presidential popularity is
now more curvilinear than linear in form seen from the perspective of 1999. Still, the

level of popular support for Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson has not, on average,
been sustained even by the most popular of the post-1968 presidents.
As with the secular decline in trust, the question remains as to why presidential
approval is down or, better put, has not recovered to the levels averaged under Eisen-
hower, Kennedy, and Johnson. An even more important question is, so what? The
first question, as with trust itself, raises the issue as to which is the more normal stan-
dardthe very high level of trust that existed in the mid-1960s and the high levels of
approval experienced by Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson (whose
decline, however, was massive in the midst of urban turmoil and the Vietnam war) or
the period since? The second question is what difference popular approval makes for
legislative success. The answer, traditionally, is at least some difference (Edwards
1980, 1989; Bond and Fleisher 1990; Peterson 1990; Brace and Hinckley 1992).
Almost always, the findings are more complex than straightforward. Brace and
Hinckley (1992, 87-90), for example, argue that while a presidents popularity does
affect his level of legislative success, the more legislatively active presidents become,
the less well they do in the polls.
The effect of approval on legislative support, as Edwards (1980, 1989) earlier
showed, was greatest among members of the presidents electoral coalition. It should
follow that in a unified government, popular approval helps and its absence hurts
more than is likely to be the case under divided government since congressional mem-
bers, constituting a majority in opposition to the president, are also more likely to
respond, regardless of the level of approval, to those elements of the public that are a
part of their (but not the presidents) electoral coalitions. Two factors that we discuss
later become especially relevant here: the persistence of divided government and the
greater distinctiveness between the parties.
A datum is not a finding, of course, but the Clinton impeachment imbroglio of
1998-99 may be explainable by the fact that, for the most part, despite Clintons high
level of public approval at the time, the majority Republicans (and minority Demo-
crats) were each fundamentally listening to their own party constituenciesand the
most activist among themfor cues (or threats). Clinton may have been popular in
the country as a whole but not among Republicans constituencies. Hence, the
Republican majority had leeway to proceed because, however popular Clinton may
have been overall, he was not popular with the constituencies that mattered most to
the Republican members.

The Decline of Comity

In A Preface to Democratic Theory, Robert Dahl (1956) downplays the direct role
of American institutions in accounting for political restraint and the maintenance of
democratic and constitutional practices in the United States. The system works

2. In this regard, Neustadt (1990) assumes that presidents search for bargaining levers within a pluralistic sys-
tem in which reciprocity is a critical feature over the longer run. Persuasion, Neustadt tells us, not command, is the
presidents tool within such a system. The guardian presidency goes much further. It assumes that agreements can be
hatched without an actively interventionist presidency.

despite imperfections, according to Dahl, not because of guarantees enforced by its

Madisonian structural features but because those structural features produced a
decentralized and loosely jointed political system requiring substantial bargaining.
The need to bargain seemed to have nurtured the arts of compromise and norms of
reciprocity. In short, elite political culture was the direct arrow leading to democratic
maintenance even as the culture, in turn, may have been promoted by these structural
arrangements (Rose 1980). The norms that Dahl believes influence elite interaction
seem to be especially in tune with the third model of presidential leadership we dis-
cussed above but could also fit the second and fourth models as well. They do not,
however, fit with the idea of dominance by any one institutional actor, whether that
be the president or Congress.2
In recent years, there has been much concern about alterations in the American
political culture that are thought to have adverse consequences for governing, dispute
resolution, and the capacity to reach policy agreement. There certainly has been con-
cern that trust has withered and with it part of the glue that holds together a healthy
democratic process (Nye, Zelikow, and King 1997). In a system in which trust withers,
so too, it is postulated, does the capacity for leadershipat least of the democratic
One explanation for declining leadership capacity is that American society has
itself become more fractious, and this fractiousness and sectarianism is being
expressed, perhaps even exacerbated, by our political elites and through our political
institutions (Uslaner 1993). This explanation is at least thematically connected to
the theses of declining communitarianism, drop-offs in civic association, and loss of
social capital (Putnam 1995). However, as Uslaner (1993) notes, there appear to be
longer and shorter cycles of incivility. Viewed from the perspective of members of
Congress challenging one another to duels in the early nineteenth century, or beat-
ings administered on the House floor, even the tactics of contemporary firebrands
seem mild. But viewed from the narrower time frame of approximately the past two
generations or so, the present level of political enmity is rather strong. There is no
doubt that by the standards of the 1950s and 1960s (an era with significant problems
of its own), todays legislative politics are more cantankerous, divisive, dilatory, and
partisan than they were then (Binder and Smith 1997). Eric Uslaners provocative
book on this subject locates the decline of comity among the political elite in the con-
text of changing values and norms in societychanges that erode trust and challenge
the basis for communitarianism and social reciprocity. Such conditions are not favor-
able to a presidents chances of getting a lot done legislatively, especially when we add
other conditions such as divided government to this stew.
Within the past few decades there has been a general decline in the trust of
establishment institutions, a lessening of deference given to authority, and an
increase in the prevalence of the sound bite. Such phenomena are now widespread
outside the American context. Campbell and Wilson (1995), for example, find
changes in the role of the British civil service unsurprising in the face of a changing
and less deferential British culture. Uslaner (1993, 164-65) notes the rise of disruptive
incidents and practices in other national legislative bodies and concludes that there is

a general, transnational disenchantment with established institutions and with the

political class. Why this is going on, of course, is the great unanswered question. But as
an explanation for leadership problems, the demise of trust and the disenchantment
with politicians does not seem adequate. Disenchantment should logically lead to
replacing one set of politicians with another. In this regard, replacement is tradition-
ally considered as presenting an opportunity to exercise leadership rather than
impede it. Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich were, in 1980 and 1994 respectively,
the temporary beneficiaries of such opportunities arising from disenchantment. The
puzzle is that disenchantment, for the most part, seems to coexist handsomely with
keeping the rascals inat least as an aggregate outcome.
There is substantial literature exploring the dark side of the political process in
the United States (and elsewhere) that contrasts vividly with the optimistic perspec-
tives expressed by Dahl and many other analysts of American political institutions.
Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (1995), for example, argue that the unruliness of the
democratic process itself contributes to a declining legitimacy of political institu-
tions, especially Congress. Anthony King (1997), too, believes that the visibility of
American democratic processes makes U.S. politicians feel highly vulnerable. This
leads them to resort to demagogic and symbolic policy stances, often resulting in bad
policy. Others see the media as bearing significant responsibility for a growth in cyni-
cism toward politics (Patterson 1993); still others (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995)
see negative campaign tactics, while effective, as also contributing to an atmosphere
of political negativism.
So what does all of this mean for presidential leadershipassuming that it is, in
fact, actually new? By itself, probably not much. It is certainly possible that public dis-
enchantment with politics is a function of a highly disenchanting politic that has
moved farther and farther from the median (but mostly indifferent) voter. Politicians
may be more responsive now to their most rabid partisans (indeed may have been
recruited from among them), and the public may, according to Shafer (2000), decide
rationally on a median vote position by splitting the difference between the parties,
thus producing divided government. Surely, not all of these explanations are consis-
tent with one another. If voters are deeply concerned with the unruliness of democ-
racy and stalemated politics, this could actually provide the president with
advantages in cutting through the mess. Certainly, their discontent provides fodder,
one might think, for presidents to strengthen their positions. An alternative view is
that a breakdown in the etiquette of compromise simply makes it harder for the system
to perform, regardless of whose agenda is being processed.
The basic problem with theories about breakdowns in the political culture is
that we cannot be sure that the culture was ever all its enthusiasts cracked it up to be.
Was Dahls period the norm? Or are the present, more strident outlooks the norm?
Until we have a data series long enough to assess, we obviously cannot tell. Even more
important, until we know what to look for, independent of the level of agreement
itself, we will be spinning our wheels. The present appears to be a period of unusual
political harshness, especially for a time that is otherwise remarkably prosperous and
socially quiescent. The polarization of political elites appears to be especially great by

the standards of a few decades ago. Alterations in our political culture with adverse
consequences for political decorum and compromise may be occurring. However, the
significance of these consequences for presidential leadership is not altogether
clearor, at least, the effects may be bidirectional. Furthermore, the posited altera-
tions that are sometimes attributed to the political culture may actually be the result
of other, more tangible and, perhaps, shorter term changes in the political system.

Divided Government
Morris Fiorina (1996) argues that divided government in the United States may
not be so aberrant after all. He notes that it has existed historically (at least in the first
third of the Republic) to a greater degree than conventional wisdom stipulates and,
also, is widespread across our state governments. Furthermore, David Mayhew (1991)
tells us that divided government may not necessarily impede the production of impor-
tant legislation. And some literature, as noted, tries to explain the prevalence of
divided government (and presumably, therefore, the possibility of compromise out-
comes) as a rational positioning of the electorate between the parties (Shafer 2000)
whose activist wings are to the right (Republican) or left (Democrat) of the elector-
ate. The electorate, thus, chooses a course that forces the parties to accommodate to a
position closer to the electorates median than if either party were given freer rein in a
unified government. This is a highly rational, though perhaps empirically dubious,
proposition at the level of the individual voters decision-making calculus. It does,
however, have some measure of consistency at the level of aggregate preference and
party position (Fiorina 1996, 63-81; Alesina and Rosenthal 1995), which, however,
complicates further, rather than simplifies, the nature of the puzzle. The logic of bal-
ancing needs to be demonstrated at the individual level to show causality. Consis-
tency at the aggregate level is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the viability
of this balancing hypothesis.
If we were to assume that the balancing hypothesis accurately accounts for
divided government, however, then the outcomes of divided government should pro-
duce moderation at an approximate midpoint between each partys preferred posi-
tion. Such a view seems systemically sanguine. It means that all of the elite actors
essentially reach equili- brium at positions that are suboptimal to each of them,
although perhaps optimal to the median voter. This sounds suspiciously like the
system-bargaining outcome of model 3.
In this regard, other studies have concluded that the divided government
regime may be less divisiveat least with respect to some outcomesthan it is typi-
cally thought to be. Jones, True, and Baumgartner (1997), for example, argue that
while divided government has a significant positive effect on budgetary volatility in
the federal government, the overall trend, including the period of divided govern-
ment, is toward less volatility. Their findings are complex. But they provide support
3. This possibility mirrors a longer standing debate about the incrementalism of the budget in toto as against
fluctuation in the context of programs. See Davis, Dempster, and Wildavsky (1966) and Natchez and Bupp (1973).

for the contention that, adjusting for the more powerful effects of a long-term
decrease in volatility, divided government, when conjoined with partisan polariza-
tion in Congress, still increases the level of volatility over what it otherwise would be.
Volatility and, inferentially, the effects of dissensus are apparently more powerful at
the program level, even as the ups and downs of various programs equilibrate to a rela-
tively stable aggregate outcome.3 Whatever the case, the budgetary process in the
aggregate seems not to be the place where polarization and divided government have
their most profound effects. The magnitude of budgets may be less important in this
regard than their shape and managementwho quite literally is getting what, when,
and where. On such matters, presidents of one party and congressional majorities of
the other often continue their dispute into other venues, particularly through the
mechanisms of the administrative presidency.
In addition to the balancing hypothesis, two other hypotheses tend to predomi-
nate in the divided government literature. One is the familiar gridlock hypothesis in
which neither partys preferences are attainable and in which each party therefore
feels it is better off with an issue or a scandal than a policy (Ginsberg and Shefter
1990). At some point farther down the road, of course, conditions may ripen to pro-
duce an acceptable outcome (Kingdon 1995). But for the time being, no group gets its
way, and no one has incentives to reach an agreement. A second hypothesis is the bid-
ding escalation hypothesis which stipulates strong incentives for each party to claim
credit for supporting a public benefit. Escalation to up the ante continues because tak-
ing a position provides each politician an opportunity to go on record. With luck, the
escalation is impeded by a veto player (often the president) somewhere in the system,
and potentially irresponsible outcomes are avoided at no cost to the biddersin fact,
the existence of veto players may stimulate bidding wars that allow individuals or par-
ties to go on record with the assurance that they will not have to live with the out-
come. But sometimes all the players feel compelled to top off, and irresponsible
legislation is thus facilitated. In a system of multiple principals and convoluted
accountability, the bidding hypothesis stipulates that adding divided government to
the obstacles to accountability complicates the problem of responsible government
yet further. In principle, if one party had to face the consequences of its extravagance,
it would be less inclined to tolerate bidding wars.
Edwards, Barrett, and Peake (1997) note that while major legislation has a
harder time passing during divided government than under unified government,
presidents themselves fare about the same under each condition. This is because
much of the proposed legislation that fails is blocked by presidents rather than
advanced by them. The presidential rate of success in blocking legislation is about the
4. The authors note that this could be because the vast majority (pre-104th Congress) involve activist Demo-
cratic Congresses and Republican presidents.
5. Thus, in Clintons first two years under unified government, Barbara Sinclair (1996) noted that Clintons
legislative success rate was historically high, while Charles Jones (1996) observed that during that same period, Clin-
tons success with respect to important legislation was very low. Mark Peterson (1990) also suggests that the distribu-
tion of seats in each chamber provides norming properties as to how well or poorly presidents should be expected to
6. Downs (1957), for example, argues that the two-party system normally should produce a competitive hunt
for the median voter, thus producing a peaked party distribution at the center and, obviously, blurring lines of conflict.

same under both unified and divided government, but the quantity of proposals presi-
dents oppose is higher under divided government.4
In sum, the divided government condition by itself is inconclusive in its conse-
quences for presidential leadership. Presidents seem to do about as well legislatively
with Congress under divided as well as unified conditions, at least when it comes to
potentially significant legislation. The major constraint of divided government is
on legislative proposals initiated by Congress. While presidents do consistently better
overall with Congress under conditions of unified government than under divided
government, it is possible that this does not affect significant legislation.5
From the standpoint of far-reaching legislation, the one conclusion that can be
safely arrived at is that important proposals are more frequently blocked under
divided government than not (Edwards, Barrett, and Peake 1997). That does not
mean, of course, that important results do not occur under divided government (May-
hew 1991). Furthermore, there may be all sorts of processes that occur under divided
governmentescalatory bidding wars, accommodation, and stalemate (although the
latter may be resolved over time), and, therefore, outcomes under divided government,
per se, are indefinite without specifying conditionals. In any event, some of the out-
comes attributable to divided government may be more the result of the dynamics of a
two-party system, especially, but by no means exclusively, under conditions of sepa-
rated institutions.6
Is it possible, however, that the effects of divided government depend on how far
and distinct the parties are from one another? We will explore this question next.

Party Differences
By the standards of the last half century or so, party differences have sharpened
as the parties became more cohesive and homogenous (Rohde 1990; Abramowitz and
Saunders 1998). There is, consequently, persistent conflict between the parties. The
legislative production that occurred under divided government may have been
achieved during periods of greater consensus within the polity, an interesting subject
for further work.
Whether based on congressional floor voting, the beliefs of activist party con-
stituencies, or even the cohesiveness of the parties electoral support, the evidence for
increased party difference is relatively strong (D. King 1997). Does increased party
polarization make it more difficult to achieve significant legislative outcomes under
divided government? Logically, it should, and it seems to. Comparing CQ Presiden-
tial Support Scores for the fourteen congressional sessions of pure divided govern-
ment (both chambers of Congress under control of the opposition party) between

It is reasonable to conclude therefrom that parties should accommodate their preferences since both have discounted
the tails of the distribution of public preferences. On the other hand, Aldrich (1983) and also Gilmour (1995) believe
that the dynamics of a two-party system under certain conditions will produce precisely the opposite effects, namely,
an abandonment of the center to accommodate their own core constituencies (and at the same time have the bene-
fitor liabilityof creating an issue). The assumption here is that at the center of preference distributions lies indif-
ference and, thus, lesser reward. Most of the empirical literature on the subject indicates that politicians pay special

1955 and 1976, the mean level of support for the president is 70 percent, whereas for
the nine congressional sessions of pure divided government between 1987 and 1997,
it is 49 percent. Even more remarkable is that one has to go back to 1971 to find a level
of presidential support above the 1955-76 mean. The obverse, however thin the evi-
dence, also appears to be true, namely that unified government under increased party
difference brings a greater level of presidential support. Since 1980, there have been
only two years of unified government, during the period of the 103rd Congress under
Clinton. But these years, while not fulfilling the dreams of presidential maximalists,
each had higher-than-average support scores than for similar periods of unified gov-
ernment dating back to the 83rd Congress (1953-54) under Eisenhower.
One should place numerous caveats around these data, among which is that
they do not speak to the issue of significance. Divided government is a nominal vari-
able but also a function of a continuous one (seat distribution). Who controls the leg-
islative agenda of a chamber is a function of which party organizes the chamber
(although this is more important in the House than in the Senate). But how much
support is sufficient to pass legislative proposals depends on the distribution of seats,
especially in the Senate, in which a nonmajoritarian ethos holds sway and where,
increasingly, extraordinary majorities are necessary to spring any controversial legis-
lation or appointments. With respect to appointments, indeed, the fact that the Sen-
ate has been under divided government during most of the Clinton years has had a
profound impact on the pace, the quantity, and, ultimately, the kind of appointments
the Clinton administration has been able to make to the executive branch and to the
judiciary (Aberbach 2000; OBrien 2000).
Other things being equal, under conditions of unified government, increased
party cohesion can help a president. Increased party cohesion, however, has come
simultaneously with, perhaps even (if the balancing hypothesis is correct) been a pre-
cipitant to, divided government. Such circumstances have made life for presidents
more difficult. But the fact of the matter is that it has made it more difficult to opti-
mize anyones preferences, and we suspect that it has induced frustrated political
actors to try to rule through highhanded means rather than compromise. The result-
ing product injects increased inefficiencies and irrationalities into government in the
form of micromanagement. Even worse, it may create a culture among elites of deep
distrust, making civility increasingly difficult. The hope among presidential maxi-
malists that party cohesion could generate a workable equivalent to party govern-
ment has been only partially fulfilledand with perverse consequences. The basis for
party government has been strengthened, but the voters penchant for creating
divided government has made legislative life for presidents increasingly difficult.
That being the case, presidents may understandably conclude that the legislative
branch is not to be reasoned with or appealed to but to be warred against.
Two things seem to be different here: (1) clashes over sociocultural issues (many
of which have powerful symbolic appeals to potentially mobilizable individuals), and
attention to their party-based constituencies and the support of their party-based constituencies is what is vital to
them. See Edwards (1980), Fenno(1977), and Peterson (2000).

(2) significant increases in the use of the appointment process for bargaining purposes
(a matter, of course, that mainly exists when the Senate is controlled by the party in
opposition to the president). And, of course, controversy about appointments, espe-
cially to the judiciary, is often tied to the perceived sociocultural positions of the
nominees. Nominations galvanize opposition activist groups, which typically are part
of one or the other partys support coalition. Contemporary politics is often fueled by
the ire of activist constituencies. Cause-oriented groups have needs to mobilize their
rank and file financially and, consequently, few inducements to reach compromise
agreements that are, in any event, difficult to obtain in the face of sharply contrasting
world views. Mobilization is best induced by conditions of threat. Thus, for the issue
organizations that form a formidable core of each partys activist coalition, it is
rational to be unreasonable. Having an issue often trumps having a satisfactory out-
come, which can be poison to agitprop issue organizations. From satisfaction, the
staffs of agitprop issue organizations fear, comes smugnessand from smugness comes
a reluctance on the part of members to part with cash or the loss of opportunities to
increase membership. Fear stimulates adrenalin, and adrenalin stimulates mobiliza-
tion and cash flow. Nothing so stimulates either as issues dealing with lifestyle and
culture (Converse and Markus 1979).7
The partisan fervor and rise in nondivisible disagreement may have to do with
both the issue-advocacy characteristics of modern political mobilization and the
growth of a highly charged cultural agenda that helps stimulate political mobilization.
The latter issues have added further fuel to the fires of partisanship. Party conflicts
have both deepened along traditional lines involving the role of government and
widened to include new cultural issues that were always political but not always parti-
san, at least in most of the twentieth century. Their focus in party agendas is great by
the standards of the twentieth century, and such issues have gained renewed promi-
nence (as measured by their attention in party platforms), but morality issues in the
nineteenth century, especially in the period of roughly 1848 to 1880, had an even
sharper partisan edge (Gerring 1998, p. 151). These differences are fueled by activist
party constituencies from which elected elites may be increasingly drawn. In any
event, the elected party elites are now greatly dependent on the activist constituen-
cies. Obviously, these circumstances have helped sharpen executive-legislative con-
flict under conditions of divided government.
Ironically, homogeneity within the congressional parties has produced a system
far different than that which James MacGregor Burns described in the early 1960s in
his book, Deadlock of Democracy (1963). Members of the legislature are every bit as
responsive to constituency opinion and concerns as they ever were; it is just that their
districts are also now more homogenous. While the members parties have been
emboldened, the individual members are also less likely to bolt from the party line.
Under conditions of divided government, that does not augur well for a presidents
legislative agenda or, indeed, for virtually anything a president does that requires leg-
islative approval. Whats a president to do in these circumstances?

The Administrative Presidency

The answer to this question is that in these circumstances, presidents try to find
ways to circumvent their would-be tormentors on Capitol Hill, if at all possible. This
is one case in which a compelling logic for presidential behavior (Moe 1985) and
empirical evidence seem to coincide (Tiefer 1994; Aberbach 2000). American insti-
tutions thwart the exercise of power at least by model 1 standards. Divided govern-
ment makes things harder, and intensified party differences interact with divided
government to make things even more difficult. Presidents find that one lever they
have to maintain an edge is the power to act unilaterally through executive means.
Terry Moe and William Howell (1999) present evidence to show that even when
there have been judicial and legislative challenges to presidents, presidents prevail
overwhelmingly. This has been true in the area of national security decision making
as well since the courts consistently side with the executive (Koh 1990). When frus-
trated by divided government over policy differences or interpretations of preroga-
tive, presidents of all stripes resort to unilateral behavior challeng- ing Congress to
assert itself.
Congress can assert itself by trying to micromanage the executive. Often it
asserts itself by holding up other things that an administration may want. In the end,
the administrative presidency is a political response to a structural problem. It is an
effort to find the levers that might put the president in a better bargaining position
with his adversaries. It cannot, however, substitute for a legislative agenda. When
aggressively used, though, the administrative presidency sometimes creates facts on
the ground that require legislation (meaning concurrent and extraordinary majori-
ties) to get past a presidential veto. Furthermore, as we noted, the administrative
presidency cannot institutionalize policy in the same way that legislation does. A
future administration may reverse the edicts of a present one.
But the administrative presidency can operate to increase a presidents influ-
ence over both policies and appointments in the face of congressional opposition. In
this sense, at least, it is consistent with the Neustadtian model of presidential influ-
ence inasmuch as a president may act in ways whose constitutionality is unresolved
(but not clearly forbidden) to take advantage of the levers available to him. No presi-
dent can expect to do a big policy agenda in a consistent way purely by executive
means, but all presidents can fight for their prerogatives and for their policy interpre-
tations through executive means. Divided government stimulates the administrative
presidency (which has always existed to some degree), and presidents have come to
use the tools of the administrative presi- dency. When assessing the capacity of presi-
dents to lead and exercise influence, we need likewise to consider how presidents
make use of these toolsand the price they may pay for doing so.

The Hard Times QuestionConcluding Thoughts

Whether presidential leadership has become harder is a function of both what

we expect of presidents and what they, in turn, expect to do. It is also, inevitably, to
think about time as a linear or repetitive function, meaning that there either are new
or recurrent conditions that influence the prospects of presidents to lead. One very
safe generalization in the U.S. system is that everybody is looking for an edge, and lit-
tle is granted to anyone. And they will find that edge where they can. Not all presi-
dents are equally adept at finding the levers (Neustadt told us that); not all are equally
inclined to push their advantage (perhaps for temperamental reasons, perhaps for
strategic reasons, such as the recognition that one is playing in a repetitive game).
Presidents with big legislative agendas and far-reaching proposals are at the greatest
disadvantage because the conditions under which they might be successful are very
rare. The maximalist presidency (model 1) has minimalist chances of success, barring
unusual circumstances. That, more or less, is nothing new.
But are there fundamental changes in our system that have intensified the
nature of political conflict and made executive-legislative relations especially tense?
Specifying time frames here is essential to answering that question. There is, logically
at least, a case to be made that strong party differences in the face of divided govern-
ment increase divisiveness. Whether they produce stalemate or results remains unre-
solved. We have noted the various arguments here, suggesting alternative outcomes,
and we must look at comparable eras as well. We are, in the end, skeptical of invisible
hand arguments about the capacities of the U.S. political system to govern effec-
tively, even to resolve conflict effectively, in the midst of the clashing perspectives
and escalating tactics that have come into being in our era. We are not, however, sure
how completely dissimilar our era of harsh partisanship and divided government is
from other eras, but we think the conjoint property of the two is relatively unique.
The view (model 3 especially) that the product of sharply conflicting prefer-
ences will produce moderated systemic outcomes is appealing but open to serious
question. The actors, we think, instead will push to find comparative advantage,
whether these be senators trying to get their preferred appointments past a reluctant
administration or presidents pushing their preferences and finding loopholes to cir-
cumvent a recalcitrant Congress. In an era of divisively divided government, political
actors will refine older bargaining tactics and scout for new ones. In this respect, it is
possible that actors will do what they can to advance their bargaining positions; the
modalities of persuasion, however, may have become less friendly because in the sys-
tem that has evolved many will see it as rational to be unreasonable. The long-term
costs of unreasonableness should be a matter of great concern.


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