Ludger Helms – Resources, constraints, and the mystery of presidential performance

This is a guest post by Ludger Helms, Professor of Political Science and Chair of Comparative Politics at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. It is the expanded summary of an article that has just been published in Politics. The full article is ungated and can be accessed free of charge.

As observers of presidential power and leadership we have a vested interest in understanding what makes presidents successful leaders, and what may limit and undermine presidential performance. One of the most basic and popular positions to be encountered in the international literature on presidential power and leadership is that the president’s status and performance depends largely on the number and substance of the resources that he or she commands. Resources are usually considered to include in particular a wealth of institutional and political items (such as the powers of office, the availability of administrative and political support staff, large and stable majorities, or a fresh electoral mandate).

Arguably the greatest advantage of resource-oriented approaches, compared to classic personalist or institutionalist understandings of presidential power and leadership, is that they are keen to avoid both reductionism and determinism, and leave ample room for agency. That is, presidents are not already efficient and successful performers if they command a decent set of resources, but only if they are able to use them adroitly. Still, the dominant assumption of most authors in the field clearly seems to be that the more institutional and political resources are available to a president, the more successful he or she is likely to be.

This may seem plausible, even compelling. And yet, this is not what political reality in many presidential (and other) regimes would appear to correspond to. The presidency of Donald Trump is just the most obvious recent example of a newly elected president whose party controls both the executive and the legislative branch, but who nevertheless conspicuously failed to make any major move for about the first 11 months in power (until the passage of the major tax cut bill early in  December 2017). In terms of job approval, Trump soon became the most unpopular president in the history of political polling. Other examples of presidents who appeared to have what it takes to perform successfully, and still failed spectacularly, can be found. Just think of President François Hollande of France who succeeded what had by then been the Fifth Republic’s most unpopular president, and was the first Socialist president facing a National Assembly and Senate controlled by the Socialist Party. Later on, following the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris of November 2015, he was even fitted with special emergency powers, which seemed set to honour the unspoken promise of crises as welcome opportunities and power boosters for political chief executives. And yet, Hollande ended up as clearly one of the Fifth Republic’s weakest presidents ever, and the only one as yet who did not even dare to seek re-election when his first term drew to a close.

What may seem an arbitrary glance at the larger picture of presidential leadership and performance is actually substantiated by more systematic assessments of the political status and fate of presidents in different regimes. For example, a recent empirical study on US presidents found that ‘presidents are considered stronger under divided as opposed to unified government’, and ‘divided government presidents are more popular than unified government ones’ (Cohen 2015, p. 81). In the same vein, those French presidents that had to perform under the strongly power-restricting state of ‘cohabitation’ (the French counterpart to American ‘divided government’) overall had better re-election records than many presidents commanding a sizeable majority. And while this forum is dedicated to presidential politics, it still seems worth noting that these patterns are not confined to the family of presidential or semi-presidential democracies: Indeed, many prime ministers in parliamentary democracies heading particularly cumbersome coalition governments, widely believed to make prime ministers weak and vulnerable, have enjoyed higher job approval scores than their counterparts in more power-concentrating environments.

How can this be explained? One key to this would appear to be expectations: Presidents commanding an impressive arsenal of institutional and political resources are likely to raise high expectations among the public, which will then play an independent role in shaping presidential performance, or more precisely in influencing the perceived performance of presidents. Ultimately, in politics as elsewhere, virtually all performance is perceived performance, and perceptions tend to be strongly shaped by previous expectations.

A second possible source of this apparent paradox could be the presidents themselves:  Exceptionally resource-rich presidents may tend towards complacency which may undermine the seriousness of their efforts to provide effective problem-solving and leadership, and will eventually be reflected in unfavourable assessments of their performance. Alternatively, they may make full and unconditional use of their resources, possibly resorting to overly aggressive and ruthless leadership styles, in a desperate attempt to meet the towering expectations they face, which is equally unlikely to find the approval and support of the wider public.

Are less resource-rich leaders, after all, better off than their structurally better situated counterparts? As highlighted above, there is some evidence suggesting that, in fact, ‘less can be more’. In order to fully capture this phenomenon, it is useful to remind ourselves that in mainstream political research resources and constraints are widely considered to mark two opposite and complementary phenomena. Understood this way, leaders having few resources at their disposal could, alternatively, be characterized as leaders facing strong constraints. Strictly speaking, of course, even resource-rich leaders may face strong constraints, and leaders facing few obvious constraints may still have limited resources, but the main thrust of the argument is that, other things being equal, resources make leaders powerful, while constraints limit and weaken them.

Rethinking the observations about presidential and prime ministerial performance made above, I suggest to develop an alternative understanding of constraints, and to think of constraints as potential ‘negative resources’. The term ‘negative resource’ seeks to highlight the hidden potential of an apparent constraint. A ‘negative resource’ is a constraint successfully transformed into a positive source that may benefit the status and performance of a political leader. This possible transformation is the result of a complex process which involves in particular a leader’s skills, yet also a wealth of highly contingent contextual factors and, not least, the perception of that leader by others. Again, expectations, in this case modest expectations, would appear to explain much of the support and success that constrained leaders may have. As empirical studies suggest, citizens prefer politicians who set a low expectation and exceed it to those who promise much, and then fail to deliver (Malhotra and Margalit 2014: 1014). But it’s not all about subjective expectations and promises kept: Providing effective leadership from a resource-poor position and in power-dispersing environments marks, by any standard, a more difficult task and greater achievement than simply pulling the levers of power in strongly power-concentrating regimes, and thus deserves to be valued more highly.

More recently, this realization has come to be acknowledged also in normative reflections about leadership in contemporary politics. For most contemporary scholars of political leadership, strong leaders and leadership are two things of the past, not only dated but outright dangerous to any form of genuine democratic governance. Collaborative leadership, shared leadership, and other related concepts are widely seen to mark superior alternative approaches for political leadership in the twenty-first century.

To be sure, all this may seem to amount to a major paradox marking the challenges of presidential leadership, and political leadership more generally, in a new ‘anti-political age’. However, it is important to note that the basic phenomenon is not new at all. In fact, at least since the Philadelphia Convention ambitions have been made ‘to promote ‘leadership’ while constraining ‘leaders’’ (Rhodes and ‘t Hart 2014: 2). It just seems to have taken another quarter of a millennium, witnessing some great successes and many more disastrous failures of political leadership, to truly bring out the deeper truth in this.

References

Cohen, Jeffrey E. (2015) Presidential Leadership in Public Opinion: Causes and Consequences. Cambridge University Press.

Malhotra, N and Margalit Y (2014) Expectation setting and retrospective voting. The Journal of Politics 76:4, 1000-1016.

Rhodes, R.A.W. and Paul ‘t Hart (2014) Puzzles of Political Leadership. In: R.A.W. Rhodes and Paul t’Hart, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Political Leadership, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-21.

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