Research Magazine 2006

Faculty Essay: Victoria Farrar-Myers

How choices shape the American presidency

Choices matter, whether small or large. Their ramifications can be long lasting, their consequences underappreciated. Astute scholars of American politics know that while not much has changed in our original U.S. Constitution, the roles and expectations we have for the chief executive have grown significantly.

What choices have our presidents made to bring about this change?

Dr. Victoria Farrar-Myers

Presidents make choices with imperfect information in a fluid environment. Highly charged atmospheres like states of emergency or military conflict lead to decisions that have lasting impact.

- Dr. Victoria Farrar-Myers

Take, for example, a situation where the president committed troops to protect American interests and help instill a democratic system in a country charged with “chronic wrongdoing” and loosening “the ties with civilized society.” When Democrats in Congress challenged the president’s actions, he contended that not only were they within the scope of presidential authority, they were the “ethically right” thing to do.

Although this sounds like an interaction between Congress and former President Bush over the war in Iraq, it was actually a military intervention into the Dominican Republic during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. The question was whether Roosevelt had the authority to implement an unratified treaty. He did so for two years before the Senate ultimately approved it. As a result, the presidency gained greater authority in determining foreign policy without any formal change in the Constitution.

This dramatic political battle is a telling example that the process matters. Presidents make choices with imperfect information in a fluid environment. Highly charged atmospheres like states of emergency or military conflict lead to decisions that have lasting impact.

historical document

As Sen. Hernando Money of Mississippi noted in the Senate’s debate on President Roosevelt’s actions, “If [the president can implement a treaty not yet ratified] in one instance, he can do it in another; if he can do it in another, he can do it in 500, and the effect will be that he need not pay any attention whatever to the Senate in the matter of treaties.” More often, however, only in hindsight do we appreciate the long-lasting impact of such decisions.

To gain such an appreciation, we must look beyond a particular decision to the logic behind it. It’s much like putting together pieces of a puzzle. The words, thoughts and actions of the participants in the decision-making process show us the collective understandings they shared and the basis for the decision.

In Scripted for Change: The Institutionalization of the American Presidency, I examined the growth in the presidency’s authority from 1881-1920. My research included public and private presidential papers, the Congressional Record, private papers of congressional members and key cabinet officers, and other primary sources.

Much of this information can be found only in the Library of Congress, where researchers often can examine private papers, correspondence and other documents in their original form. If you are fortunate like I was, you might even run across an original letter signed by Theodore Roosevelt and sealed in a plastic coating for protection but still publicly available for review.

Although Scripted for Change is grounded in historical analysis, its lessons apply in the modern context. For example, Sen. Robert Byrd’s speech on the Senate floor Dec. 19, 2005, asking “Where is the source of authority” that President Bush claimed supported many of his administration’s actions in the so-called war on terror was in the same vein as Money’s speech a century earlier.

By looking at the underlying reasoning and logic of policy decisions, particularly over time, we can understand how our nation and our political institutions have gotten to where they are and see where they may be going. These lessons apply not only to the scholarly understanding of the development of the presidency, but also more broadly in understanding other institutional settings.

So the next time you find yourself frustrated by institutional red tape and the assertion that “that is how it is done,” ask yourself why. Go beyond this simple statement and explore the impetus that led to that action. Only then will you begin to discover the key to change.

- Victoria Farrar-Myers

Dr. Farrar-Myers is a professor in the Department of Political Science.