The Chronicle Review

Historians Re-Enter Presidential Studies

November 29, 2015

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The Oval Office
In the 1980s and ’90s, the political-science subfield of presidential studies devoted itself to holding conferences decrying the state of presidential studies. I attended a late iteration, held at Columbia University in 1996. A graduate student at the time, I was an unarmed observer of the waning skirmishes in the methods wars. One shot from the floor stuck with me: "Your regressions suck!"

While the phrasing was shrill, the sentiment was accurate. At the time, empirical reductions of presidential behavior did, for the most part, suck. As Harvard’s Gary King pointed out, presidents give us an n=1 problem. With only 40-plus observations to date, we will not have a sufficient population of presidents to achieve statistical significance until at least 2193.

How to systematize a very personal office? Even broader efforts to classify presidential psychology, like James David Barber’s famous take on "active-positive" presidents, wound up verging on the ad hoc. And focusing on individual administrations tended, too, to overstate presidents’ centrality to the divided system in which they operate — to conflate president with presidency.


Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency by Brian Balogh and Bruce J. Schulman, eds.

(Cornell University Press)

 Yet by 2009, Stanford’s Terry Moe, who had spent 25 years proselytizing for the importation of the "new institutionalism" into the subfield, had declared victory in what he called "The Revolution in Presidential Studies." By then scholars had sought to transcend the n=1 problem by shifting their units of analysis away from individual presidents onto behaviors and strategies common to all presidents — proposing legislation or executive orders, making appointments, giving speeches.

That meant more and better quantitative work, but crucially it also carried over to more systematic qualitative approaches. Historical institutionalism, when applied to the presidency under the rubric of the broader study of American Political Development, became influential in the field through books like Stephen Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make (Harvard/Belknap Press, 1993). When done well, this approach, like all social science, derives clear hypotheses — about presidents’ interactions with partisan coalitions, or the fit of certain interests with particular institutional arrangements, for instance — and tests them against the relevant evidence at different points in time. It allows scholars to draw general rules of presidential behavior given certain institutional conditions. But it does not rule out the manipulation of those institutions in ways that can change history.

At the time that political scientists were moving into serious study of the presidency, in the 1980s, historians were being told that doing so constituted career suicide. After all, as Brian Balogh, a co-editor of the new volume Recapturing the Oval Office, notes, history had already been through the institutional versus individual wars, with different jargon. There the battle was called structure versus agency — and structure won, in a walk. The camera-ready cadre of "presidential historians" never lost sight of narrative biography, or of the best-seller lists. But pushing back against the great (or sometimes mediocre) man treatments of American history authored by the likes of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Morton Blum, and John Milton Cooper, academic historians turned instead to bottom-up approaches that stressed the power of social and cultural forces, of "the people." As the volume’s other editor, Bruce Schulman, recalls, in the 1990s UCLA offered two different survey courses: the history of the American people, and the history of the United States. So far had agency diverged from structure, apparently, that those had become different things.

But Balogh and Schulman’s aim here is to reintegrate political history into the discipline, and most immediately to "bring the president back in." The presidency is key, Schulman notes, "because it at once embodies and shapes the broader processes around it," allowing structure and agency to meld in "microhistories" that situate individual presidents in a deeper context. And thus, says Balogh, "the historical profession can look forward to reaping the full benefits of its investment in social and cultural history." At the least, the editors would like the presidential historians to read and heed the new historian presidentialists. As Robert Self’s thoughtful chapter on Reagan and the right wing notes, "the art of politics, and perhaps especially the art of presidential politics, lies in the continual recalibration of public memory." Academic historians should deal themselves in.

They seek to do so here on topics ranging from economic policy to ideology, from presidents’ relationships with political parties, social movements, and the media to the religious underpinnings of their policy agendas. Perhaps the strongest claim of agency comes from Frank Costigliola, who argues that Franklin Roosevelt’s death caused the Cold War, since Harry Truman’s knee-jerk inexperience was a poor replacement for FDR’s cynical pragmatism in dealing with Stalin. On the flip side, Michael Bernstein sees the rise and fall of Keynesianism as constraining presidents’ fiscal-policy options. Gareth Davies takes a middle view in considering the personalization of disaster relief, noting that presidents’ reactions to hurricanes like Agnes (1972), Katrina (2005), and Sandy (2012) were shaped by the dovetailing of their entrepreneurial instincts with shifts in the media environment and the rise of the "celebrity presidency" (chronicled in this volume by Susan Douglas and Kathryn Cramer Brownell). Choices become institutionalized, eliminating future choices as expectations grow. For instance, in Costigliola’s analysis, the Cold War, once in place, prevented Truman’s successors from returning to FDR’s flexible realism.

The chapters included here are never less than interesting. To the extent that they serve as intra-disciplinary amicus briefs aimed at swaying doctoral advisers and hiring committees — or even as claims to the market that journalists (and Bill O’Reilly, too) have cashed in on — I wish them well.

It’s less clear that the project establishes its implicit claim that historians can bring to bear insights and methods otherwise absent from presidency studies. Balogh suggests that "bringing historians back into the debate is likely to reshape the very definition of the powers at the president’s disposal by emphasizing the long history of debate over the nature of the office." But while that debate is certainly open to more comers, it is widely emphasized already in political science, law, and the better biographies of the framing generation. Some of the essays in the present volume might profit from consulting the work of historically minded political scientists working across the range of Americanist subfields, for instance on the workings of the rhetorical presidency or the complications of how Skowronek’s "political time" works cyclically to define the range of presidential authority. And even the structure-agency question was directly addressed from a political-science vantage by scholars brought together by Skowronek and Matthew Glassman in the 2007 edited volume Formative Acts (University of Pennsylvania Press).

That is simply to say that wide opportunities for collaboration already exist, in ways that can make research in the presidency determinedly and reciprocally cumulative. Political scientists and historians do ask different questions — or approach those questions from different vantages — and as Skowronek puts it in a prefatory chapter here, this makes for opportunities for "synergies" explicating the roles and powers of the presidency over time. In fact this volume might be seen as a step toward just that. After all, it contains solid chapters contributed by political scientists; touts a political scientist (the late, great Martha Derthick) as an inspiration; and features the imprimatur of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, a place rightly esteemed for its cross-disciplinary collegiality. There is plenty of room in the Oval Office for good scholarship. This welcome volume punches history’s ticket to the reunion.

Andrew Rudalevige is a professor of government at Bowdoin College. His books include The New Imperial Presidency: Renewing Presidential Power After Watergate (University of Michigan Press, 2005).