On Assessing the Ideologies of Presidents

Via email, a reader who is also a political operative writes apropos of this post:

At least as importantly, NOMINATE as an assessment of a President continues the common fixation on the President as a legislative actor and thus obscures the importance of their appointments, regulations and foreign policy & .  e.g., in comparing LBJ and Obama, wouldn’t comparing their Fed chairmen be relevant?  Thurgood Marshall & Sotomayor?  Their FTC Chairs?  Regulations?  Antitrust policy?  Vietnam and Libya and Iraq and Dominican Republic?
There is way, way too much focus on the sclerotic legislative process as a way to assess Obama, when the areas in which he has greater freedom to act are largely ignored.
Cf. my hobby horse issue judicial appointments—poli sci statistical approach can be applied to average age of nominees, pace of nominations, Sunstein has introduced a methodology on relative ideology, etc…  Seems like one way poli sci can complement the journalistic process is to focus on the nuts and bolts, less glamorous areas of governance than legislation.

On judicial appointments, there is a lot of work on measuring the ideologies of Supreme Court justices (see here or here). There is less work on the ideologies of other federal judges (see here for a relevant Sunstein piece, which may be the one referred to above).

On political appointments and the bureaucracy, one place to start is David Lewis’s Presidents and the Politics of Agency Design and The Politics of Presidential Appointments.  For more, see his homepage.  See also Lee’s earlier posts.

On presidents and foreign policy, a place to start is the work of my colleague Elizabeth Saunders, who guest-blogged for us here and here.

But, in general, I endorse the thrust of this comment.  We don’t know enough about governance outside of legislation.

If readers have suggestions for relevant literature, please leave them in comments.

4 Responses to On Assessing the Ideologies of Presidents

  1. Matthew Beckmann May 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    B. Dan Wood’s “The Myth of Presidential Representation” (Cambridge 2009) codes presidents’ ideology from their public rhetoric. Spoiler Alert: He finds presidents are standard ideologues, not moderates or finger-to-the-wind opportunists.

    By the way, there was a Midwest author-meets-critics panel on “The Myth.” You might be able to convince Wood or his panelists (Matthew J. Lebo, Paul J. Quirk, and Christopher Wlezien) to write up something on this.

  2. Andy Rudalevige May 9, 2011 at 6:33 pm #

    It might be worth looking at a recent-ish special issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly edited by Bert Rockman on the topic of “The Administrative Presidency” — it was the March 2009 issue (Vol 39, No. 1). The articles therein provide pretty good one-stop shopping of “what we know” in these sorts of areas. (However, it doesn’t cover the public presidency material by Wood and others that Matt references above.)

  3. Eric May 9, 2011 at 6:35 pm #

    If I may plug myself, I’m trying to finish up a book comparing post-cold war presidential interactions at the U.N. I agree that the work to date hasn’t been great. I don’t expect mine to be either. I am not interested as much in ideology as in policy variation.

  4. John May 10, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    Isn’t this exactly what you’re looking for?


    They are presenting a version at a talk at UCSD next week.