The Spectacle Blog

Executive Leadership…and Unlikely Restraint

By on 11.8.13 | 4:03PM

In a 2005 article reviewing a book on presidential leadership, John Yoo—professor of law at the University of California at Berkley, and Bush-era architect of the “9/11 constitution”—wrote:

‘‘A ‘great’ President may be one who does not stay within carefully chalked lines of acknowledged presidential and congressional authority, but one who, to surmount a crisis, revolutionizes the accepted understanding of his powers.’’

In hindsight, Yoo’s bullish stance on the revolutionary powers of the chief executive is appropriately terrifying.

Somewhere between the presidential institution’s intrinsic demand for power and its ever-expanding authority, we seem to be dealing with an altogether new sort of executive leadership. More and more, the president’s enhanced administrative capabilities allow him (or her) the ability to accomplish a lot more than we might like—often without much congressional, partisan, or public support.

Since the Reagan administration (and before that, until the Nixon years) presidents have increasingly bypassed Congress using administrative authority that is regularly less time-consuming and demanding of political capital. By use of formal and informal executive powers, presidents have wielded the power of appointment, executive orders, executive agreements, proclamations, signing statements, an augmented Executive Office of the President and increased White House control of federal bureaucracy.

In the case of the Obama administration, we are witnessing all of the institutional muscle with none of the necessary leadership through restraint. The Bush years were no better.

Ideally, the president, and subordinate bureaucrats, administrative wonks, EOPers, etc. would resist Yoo’s prescribed impulse to outstrip the lines. That hasn’t happened recently. And the bigger the executive office grows the more opportunity there is for it to slip the bounds of restraint.

Consider the institutional layers of the modern presidency. They begin at the top. A White House staff is comprised of analysts and advisors tasked with meeting the chief executive’s needs and preferences.[1] The EOP, in and of itself, has grown from six administrative assistants in 1939 to today’s 400 employees working directly for the president in the White House office – not to mention some 1,400 individuals staffing the divisions of the EOP.[2] All told, the president enjoys an enormously enhanced capacity to gather information, develop programs and strategies, communicate with various constituencies, respond to interest groups and exercise supervision over the executive branch. This extended staff serves as a bureaucratic, programmatic force multiplier of the president’s eyes, ears, and arms.[3]

For instance, the executive controls the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which offers the president the means to exert his or her influence over the flow of monies, and the shape and content of national legislation—for its part, the OMB is tasked with the analysis and approval of all legislative proposals (not just budgetary requests), not to mention all legislation and executive orders that originate in the White House.[4]

Of course, this is only one small wing of a presidential bureaucracy.[5] The institutional officialdom—or organization—is comprised of a vast network of smaller bureaucracies and the success of those subsidiary services ultimately depends upon their successful leadership and management and restraint.  

Some 2.6 million federal employees work at the behest of the president and his cabinet. Any surprise they’ve ALL avoided ObamaCare?

Until we recognize that the executive institution is not an expressionless, impassive structure—but a startling nerve-center of American politics that wields fearsome influence—we will not fully appreciate the importance of executive leadership…through restraint.


[1] Theodore J. Lowi, The Personal President, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp.141-150.

[2] Harold W. Stanley and Richard G. Niemi, Vital Statistics on American Politics 2001-2002(Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2001), pp. 250-251.

[3] Sidney M. Milkis, The President and the Parties (New York: Oxford, 1993), p. 97.

[4] Ibid. 160.

[5] John Vaughn and Jose Villalobos, “The Managing of the Presidency: Applying Theory Driven Empirical Models to the Study of White House Bureaucratic Performance,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 1 (March 2009) p.158.

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