The American Presidency: An Institutional Approach to Executive Politics

Image of The American Presidency: An Institutional Approach to Executive Politics
Release Date: 
February 21, 2023
Princeton University Press
Reviewed by: 

“offers a more incisive and balanced examination of this elected office without the undue influence of the personalities of its recent occupants.”

The President of the United States is often called the most powerful person in the world. Commanding the attention and occasional scrutiny of the citizens of the United States, the president is a combination of executive, public relations expert, politician, and sometimes even statesman. The numerous men who have held this office have each left their mark, particularly the presidents of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Author William Howell takes a look at this office from an organizational and political perspective, going beyond the personalities and foibles of the men who have so far held this position to look at the office of the presidency as an institution. Beginning with the Constitutional origins of the office, the author compares the various structures and qualifications for the new chief executive presented during the Constitutional Convention and discusses the merits and shortfalls of each. As a bonus Howell provides the relevant Federalist Papers in the appendix that discuss the role of the new chief executive and why the powers and responsibilities of the presidency were designed in the final ratified version.

The presidency begins with politics of course, and the long and arduous process of political campaigns, conventions, and all of the deal-making and intercourse that it takes to win what has become an arduous and expensive campaign are discussed in great detail, using recent examples of campaigns to show how expensive and sometimes divisive they can be, particularly in the modern day of mass media and the internet.

Of course the president is not an absolute ruler, and the interactions of a president with Congress, the judiciary, and the various departments and stakeholders of government are critical to the ultimate success or failure of a presidency. The author breaks down the many ways a president can wield power, from political appointments to the power of the veto to the ultimate tool of the “bully pulpit.”

But there are also limitations of what a president can accomplish on their own as well. The limits imposed by the checks and balances inherent in the Constitution are discussed as well as the ultimate control of public opinion with its attendant political effect of polling on a president’s policies, since every first-term president wants a second term, and every second-term president wants a legacy.

Along with these levers and limitations of power are the rigors of the job where a president has to have a command of both domestic and foreign policy and be able to constantly balance the demands and public expectations of both. The author devotes a several chapters to this tradeoff of attention and expertise, principally looking at recent wartime presidencies in which the Constitutional role of commander-in-chief overrides nearly every other concern. The wartime power a president yields is examined in terms of both legal and political limits, as well as the role a president’s worldview and background can play on their decision-making.

This is an undergraduate textbook, so there is a great deal of material covered, and each chapter ends with key terms, discussion questions, and a bibliography. Since it is formatted and designed as a textbook, the author has included a number of helpful tables and charts to illustrate his points. Although the material can be quite dense, the shear breadth of material covered makes this a valuable reference for anyone interested in the highest political office in the land. 

Although Americans have almost turned recent presidents into semi-celebrities, it really is the institution that matters more than the person occupying the Oval Office, and this textbook offers a more incisive and balanced examination of this elected office without the undue influence of the personalities of its recent occupants.