POL 420:  The American Presidency                                                    Fall 2003

SUNY Cortland                                                                                          Prof. Robert Spitzer


Office Hrs:   8:30-10:15, 11:15-12:30, 2:45-3:15 MW; 11:15-12:30, 2:45-3:15 F; 1-2 TUES.

                        (214 E Old Main; x4106)

                        and by appointment.  E-mail: spitzerb@cortland.edu

                        The White House: 202-456-1414


Grades:         One mid-term, 1/3; final, 1/3; paper (both group work and individual work), 1/3; class attendance/participation also figures in.


Required Books:     Warshaw, The Keys to Power

                                    Kunhardt, Kunhardt, and Kunhardt, The American President

                                    Nelson, ed., The Evolving Presidency

                                    Spitzer, President and Congress

                                    The New York Times


Course Description:


            The Constitution's framers created a three-branch system of government, based on the general supposition that the legislature, described in Article I of the document, would be the first and most important branch of government.  In the succeeding 200 years, however, we have witnessed a fundamental change whereby the American system is more nearly executive-centered.  Even though the Constitution has not been altered, few would dispute that the fundamental political relationship between the legislative and executive branches has changed dramatically, as has the nature and scope of executive authority.


            Keeping in mind this first proposition - that we have witnessed the rise of the modern strong presidency in the 20th century - we observe a second, conflicting pattern-- namely, a nearly exponential rise in the expectations and demands placed on this office, which in turn outstrip the actual powers of the office.  The consequence of these two conditions is clear: presidents are impelled to labor mightily, but doomed to disappoint.


            This course will focus on the dilemmas of the modern presidency, including struggles between power vs. responsibility, the individual vs. the institution and the simultaneous drives toward activism and restraint.  Is the president an "elective kingship" or a well-paid scapegoat?


            The theoretical approach of the course will emphasize institutional/structural perspectives.  In what is sometimes labeled "post-behavioral," I will argue throughout that explanations of and for the presidency rest profoundly with its institutional context and inter-institutional relations.  Yet attention will also be paid to traditional approaches, topics, and other theoretical perspectives, including policy making, presidential power, presidential psychology, and the role of elections. Note on the assignments page that various theoretical approaches are listed down the right-hand column to guide your understanding.


            I urge strongly that you attend class, and keep abreast of current presidential politics in The New York Times.  Failure to complete assignments on the dates due will result in failing grades, unless other arrangements are made with the instructor beforehand.  If problems, or unexpected absences arise, please consult me, as soon as possible.  Any instances of academic dishonesty, cheating, or plagiarism will be dealt with severely, in accordance with college policy.  Classes will also include use of the internet, videos, and regular feeds from cable news.

    If you are a student with a disability and wish to request accommodations, please contact the Office of Student Disability Services located in B-40 Van Hoesen Hall or call (607) 753-2066 for an appointment. Information regarding your disability will be treated in a confidential manner. Because many accommodations require early planning, requests for accommodations should be made as early as possible.


Presidents on the Presidency


"My movements to the chair of government [the presidency] will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of execution."

                                                                                                                George Washington (1789-97)


". . .it [the presidency] brings nothing but unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends."

                                                                                                                  Thomas Jefferson (1801-09)


"Make no mistake about it -- the four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the Presidency."

                                                                                                               John Quincy Adams (1825-29)


". . .my pious Mother, nearly 50 years in the tomb, and who, from her cradle to her death, had not a speck upon her character, has been dragged forth and held to public scorn as a prostitute who intermarried a Negro, and my eldest brother sold as a slave. . . ."

                                                                                                                    Andrew Jackson (1829-37)


"After the White House what is there to do but drink?"

                                                                                                                       Franklin Pierce (1853-57)


"My God!  What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get in it?"

                                                                                                                       James A. Garfield (1881)


"Have you seen this -- this so-called White House?  The way the Garfields left it?  I will not live in a house looking this way."

                                                                                                                  Chester A. Arthur (1881-85)


". . .the White House is the lonesomest place in the world. . . .But, on the whole, my wife seems to enjoy it."

                                                                                                                      William H. Taft (1909-13)


"The President is a superior kind of slave."

                                                                                                                   Woodrow Wilson (1913-21)


"I knew this job would be too much for me.  Oftentimes, as I sit here, I don't seem to grasp that I am president. . . .The White House is a prison.  I can't get away from the men who dog my footsteps.  I am in jail."

                                                                                                                Warren G. Harding (1921-23)


"The nakedness of the battlefield when the soldier is all alone in the smoke and the clamor and the terror of war is comparable to the loneliness. . .of the Presidency."

                                                                                                               Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61)


"Foreign affairs is the only important issue for a President to handle, isn't it? . . .I mean, who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, compared to something like Cuba?”

                                                                                                                 John F. Kennedy (1961-63)


“If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy scare on our hands, but I can do it after the election.”

                                                                                             John F. Kennedy (1961-63) to Richard Nixon


"[The White House is] the crown jewel of the Federal penal system."

                                                                                                                      Bill Clinton (1993-2001)


“I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe — I believe what I believe is right.”

                                                                                                                George W. Bush (2001 - ?)


“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. . . you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ‘cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”

                                                                                                                            Monty Python


“It’s good to be the King.”

                                                                                                                      Mel Brooks




AREAS OF STUDY                                                                            THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES


      Aug.  27        Introduction


I.  Defining the Presidency; Constitutional/Legal/Historical Roots             Legal; Historical


      Aug.  29      Warshaw, Ch. 1

       Sept. 1        Nelson,   1, 2

               3         Nelson,   16, 35

               5         Nelson, 3

               8         Spitzer, Ch. 1

              10        Spitzer, Ch. 2  


II. Presidential Power and Cycles                                                              Historical; Power


     Sept.            12         Kunhardt, vii – x, xii – xiii

                         15         Kunhardt, Ch.  1

                         19         Kunhardt, Ch.  3

                         22         Kunhardt, Ch.  4

                         24         Kunhardt, Ch.  5

                         26         Kunhardt, Ch.  6

                        29          Kunhardt, Ch.  7

     Oct.               1         Kunhardt, Ch.  8

                           3        Kunhardt, Ch.  9


                         8        Kunhardt, Ch. 10

                         10         EXAM


III.       Presidential Elections and Opinion                              Politics


     Oct.    13         Warshaw, Ch. 2
                15          Nelson, Ch. 14, 20, 28

                17          Warshaw, Ch. 10


IV.      The Executive Establishment                                      Bureaucratic/organizational

     Oct. 20         Warshaw, Ch. 3
            22         Warshaw, Ch. 4

            24         Warshaw, Ch. 5
            27         Warshaw, Ch. 6

            29         Warshaw, Ch. 7

            31         Nelson, Ch. 5, 24, 26                                                          


V. President and Congress                                                                        


     Nov.    3        Spitzer, Ch. 3                                                                Institutional

                 5        Spitzer, Ch.4                                                                Legal

                7        Spitzer, Ch. 5

              10         Spitzer, Ch. 5                                                               Historical

               12         Spitzer, Ch. 6                                                                Policy

              14         Spitzer, Ch. 7


VI.       President and the Courts                                                   Institutional


     Nov.   17                  Warshaw, Ch. 8

               19                  Nelson, Ch. 21, 23


VII.    Court Decisions and Presidential Powers


     Nov.    21           Nelson, Ch. 41, 44                                                                     Legal

                24            Nelson, Ch. 6, 9


     Dec.     1                 Nelson, Ch. 15

                 3         Nelson, Ch. 22, 25

                5         Nelson, Ch. 29, 36

                8          Nelson, Ch. 42



POL 420, The American Presidency                                                                                           Prof. Spitzer

Research Paper                                                                                                                    September 2003


Analyzing the Presidency Through a President


This research project will consist of two parts.  The first, worth two-thirds credit, will be a research paper that analyzes a particular president, of your own choosing, in the light of the analytical category into which the president falls, as discussed in Kunhardt et al., The American President.  The paper should be about 10-12 pages in length, typed, double-spaced.  Only one person per president.  The second part, counting one-third, will be based on group work you conduct with other students who have chosen presidents in the same group as you. 

1.  Choose a president from a sign-up sheet passed around class.  (Note:  because of the brevity of their presidencies, I urge you to avoid William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield.)


2.  Read the chapter on your president, and the introductory section explaining the trait into which your president falls (e.g. Millard Fillmore, pp. 218-223, and "Happenstance," pp. 206-209). 


3.  Go to the Library and research your president using and emphasizing books and articles as your primary sources of information (do not rely primarily on the internet for source material).


4.  Write your paper by examining your president using the theoretical and organizational perspectives in the Kunhardt book.  I do not want a simple biography or description of the president you choose!


5.  When the papers are completed, you will convene in groups to compare your findings and make a group presentation, before the rest of the class, summarizing how the organizing concept that brings your presidents together explains their presidential behavior.  You may also discuss and analyze the limitations of this organizing concept.  The group work portion will constitute one-third of your total project grade.  Your group work will be evaluated by the other members of your group anonymously through a scoring system I will provide later. 


In your research paper, you must limit your internet use.  Papers based primarily on internet sources will almost certainly receive low grades.  In addition, I may request from you copies of your internet (or other) sources.  You must also rely on at least two books as sources, aside from class books.  Late papers will be penalized, and I cannot accept electronic submissions.


The paper due date is November 10 for the WI section, and November 14 for non-WI.  Class presentations will occur during the final two weeks of class.  Start early!  Do not wait until a few days before the paper is due to begin research, and then come and tell me that you cannot find any sources.  You can obtain all kinds of information from interlibrary loan, or possibly on line, if the Library does not have the materials you need.  Remember also that this is a research paper.  You MUST properly cite the materials you use, and use multiple sources, regardless of whether you are in the WI section or not.  Failure to cite sources properly is plagiarism, which means a failing grade and a letter in your file.  In addition, destruction of any library materials is a form of academic dishonesty that cannot be tolerated.

Return to Top