Tough Times for the President: Political Adversity and the Sources of Executive Power

by Ryan J. Barilleaux and Jewerl Maxwell


*This book is in the Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy in America book series
(Series editors: Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly)

As Barack Obama neared the end of his second year in office, his political future was in doubt. His job approval ratings had fallen below fifty percent. In the 2010 congressional midterm elections, voters gave Republicans a sizable majority in the House and narrowed the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. Independent voters, who had been so important to Obama’s 2008 victory, abandoned the president and Democratic candidates. Observers began to speculate on whether the president could win reelection in 2012. Unemployment remained high, the economy was still weak, and the president’s conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to satisfy neither his antiwar base nor his conservative critics. The euphoria of Election Night 2008 was gone; in the words of one scholar, 2010 was “the great repudiation” of Barack Obama.

Mr. Obama’s situation is not that unusual for American presidents. Even a cursory glance at the office in modern times reveals that presidents rarely enjoy the sort of strong support that Americans associate with “heroic” presidents. Popular presidents such as FDR and Reagan encountered difficulties. In fact, every president since World War II—except John F. Kennedy—experienced at least one period of political adversity. Nevertheless, the way the presidency is thought of tends to focus on great expectations of what they can accomplish, not the more workaday political challenges that most presidents face. Furthermore, even less attention is paid to those situations in which presidents encounter situations of political adversity that make all efforts at governing difficult, even if any incumbent is more likely to experience tough times rather than grand achievements.

What is known about the difficulties presidents face and what can be learnt by examining situations of presidential adversity? How do presidents respond to such situations, and how do adverse circumstances both limit incumbents and stimulate them to be innovative or creative in their actions? This book explores presidents in “tough times,” a situation that has been generally overlooked by students of the presidency fascinated with the heroic presidents of history. It covers ten presidents—from Truman through George W. Bush—in eleven situations of political adversity.

  • *Harry Truman, following the Democrats’ loss of Congress in the 1946 election;
  • *Dwight Eisenhower, following the Republicans’ loss of Congress in the 1954 election;
  • *LBJ 1967–1968, as the Vietnam War divided the nation;
  • *Richard Nixon, as Watergate loomed ever larger;
  • *Gerald Ford, who lacked any kind of electoral base and whose pardon of Nixon robbed him of popular support;
  • *Jimmy Carter, who seemed overwhelmed by the problems facing his presidency;
  • *Ronald Reagan, as the Iran-Contra affair threatened his presidency;
  • *George H.W. Bush, who seemed paralyzed in the face of economic problems following the Persian Gulf War;
  • *Bill Clinton: after his party lost its forty-year majorities in Congress in 1994, then as the Monica Lewinsky scandal led to his impeachment;
  • *George W. Bush: after Republicans lost their congressional majorities in 2006 and the president’s unpopularity grew.

By examining case studies of tough times for the president, this book broadens the understanding of presidential power and both the limits and opportunities chief executives face as they govern from the Oval Office. It points to a new view of the sources of presidential power.

This study of presidential adversity illuminates the fundamental sources of executive power—executive actions, foreign policy initiatives, organizational changes, going public, and unconventional actions—that form a foundation for the persuasive influence that many see as the epitome of presidential leadership. It also shows how presidents cope with the kinds of tough circumstances in which chief executives find themselves all too often.

The case studies show American chief executives facing some of the toughest political situations of their presidencies, and illuminates important episodes in modern political history. The authors show Gerald Ford trying to govern without any of the traditional sources of political capital, Bill Clinton recovering from two near-death political experiences (the loss of Congress in 1994, then the Lewinsky scandal), and the unraveling of the George W. Bush presidency.

The authors also use these insights to help build an alternative understanding of presidential power. The authors’ cases of presidents in tough times leads to a new view of presidential power as situational leverage. They sketch an understanding of power as leverage that takes into account the resources that a president is able to apply in a particular situation, weighed against the risks and obstacles that threaten to undermine presidential goals and the opportunities that help to motivate the president. This approach presents a more accurate, realistic, and useful view of presidential power than Richard Neustadt’s catchy but misleading “power to persuade.” Moreover, viewing power as leverage helps to account for why recent presidents have devoted time and attention to employing and expanding their capacity for unilateral action.

Tough Times for the President is a unique book because it provides a different perspective on America’s most important office. Most books on the presidency focus on issues of presidential leadership, presidential greatness, or influence over policy, but none compares how presidents have responded to the political challenges confronting them.

This book is appropriate for upper-division undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and informed general readers who are interested in the American presidency. It presents a different view of presidential power from one with which all of these audiences are familiar (that presidential power, according to Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power, is the “power to persuade”). It offers to all readers interested in the nation’s highest office a different way to think about power in the White House.


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