pp. 556-558

Presidential Power: Theories and Dilemmas, John P. Burke

Reviewed by Diane J. Heith





For students of the presidency, the roots and sources of presidential power are critical to understanding the office. Axiomatic since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s long tenure in office, the dilemmas and paradoxes for the modern president stem from the difficulties of relying on the limited design of the office with the burden of the weight of modern expectations.

In Presidential Power: Theories and Dilemmas, John P. Burke explores these fundamental principles and problems by summarizing and investigating the now-standard means for evaluating the president’s efforts to achieve an agenda. Burke’s effort is rather unique as it is not a comprehensive textbook per se but rather a treatise on presidential power. The focus for Burke is to explore what scholars, citizens, and presidents understand about power and leadership.

The key to the presidency is to appreciate the sources of presidential power and how those sources structure the use of power. Burke walks the reader through the core components of presidential power: individual skill, political context, constitutional components, and the public. On this walk, Burke also takes the reader on a tour of the watershed scholarship for each component. Consequently, Burke introduces, summarizes, and then questions the continued relevance of Richard Neustadt (the power of skill), Stephen Skowronek (the power of political time), and Samuel Kernell (the power of going public). In fact, the strongest sections of the book are these evaluations of older scholarship applied to recent presidents. Burke contends that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama demonstrate how Neustadt “remains correct that in his assessment that a president’s bargaining abilities do matter,” although Burke acknowledges the wealth of difference between determining and influencing the outcome (p. 68). Moreover, in the Obama case, focused on the attempted debt “grand bargain,” Burke highlights how context mattered, particularly the polarization that holds leaders hostage and ultimately limits bargaining. Similarly, the discussion of public leadership considers whether going public is possible in an age of media fragmentation and political polarization, as well as whether it is necessary. Burke reminds the reader of Jeffrey Tulis’s concern that a presidency steeped in “popular will and shaped by presidential appeals” then “becomes defined by the president’s own view of the office . . . prerogative and the proper determination of president’s inherent claims to power are areas of less-than-clear constitutional guidance” (p. 131). The section focusing on the new mechanisms for public leadership will serve students well as leadership exercised via tweet, webpage, or YouTube video becomes more prevalent.

Unlike skill and going public, Burke’s concept of time is not narrow, focused only on Skowronek’s sweeping view of regimes; he also includes policy cycles and the public mood. However, Burke separates out “the internal time” of White House planning and behavior into another chapter. These disparate facets of political time could be more effectively reconceptualized as the Skowronek approach is the only theoretical approach that is not connected in some fashion to the internal behavior of the institution. In addition, the unilateral presidency discussion could be expanded given the extraordinary outgrowth of recent scholarship, particularly when discussed as a response to the shortcomings of the power of skill and using the public.

The final section, in the tradition of Neustadt, addresses the lessons learned from this investigation into leadership. Burke’s five lessons are both organizational structures for students and psychoanalysis for presidents. They offer the reader and the practitioner a means to look back and move forward. Overall, Burke’s analysis of the guidepost scholarship and its relevance today is successful, particularly for those beginning their explorations of leadership.

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