February 5, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 9

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    Study debunks assertion that war provides president with more power

    By Sarah Galer
    News Office

    Last summer, as the United States was preparing to pick its next president, Tana Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate in the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, was commencing a study with professor William Howell on war’s effect on presidential power.

    “Will Howell and I collaborated on a paper examining the conventional wisdom that war enhances presidential power,” Johnson said. “This is an important and timely issue, not only because the United States has been engaged in war for the past several years, but also because this conventional wisdom has been bandied about for many decades before that.”

    Howell, Associate Professor in the Harris School, specializes in separation-of-power issues and American political institutions, especially the presidency. Howell focused on the theoretical underpinnings of the study, while Johnson looked at the empirical record.

    The outcome of their teamwork is a study titled “War’s Contribution to Presidential Power.” As Howell and Johnson explain in the paper, “Gallons of ink have been spilled on the proposition that wars augment presidential power. But, most work on the subject has taken the form of a simple assertion made over and over again, rather than a well-developed theory whose micro-foundations are specified with increasing clarity.”

    Based on their rigorous research of conflicts from the Civil War to today’s war in Iraq, the authors found that although conventional wisdom dictates that wartime makes a president much more powerful, the results are actually quite mixed.

    “Evidence of executive largess during periods of war hardly matches expectations,” Howell and Johnson conclude. “On the whole, though, it is difficult to know what to make of these findings. Both empirical and theoretical limitations to this research make it extraordinarily difficult to determine whether claims about an imperial presidency are either wrong or simply in need of refinement.”

    This groundbreaking research has not only added to the literature on presidential power but also has been an enriching experience for both professor and student.

    “One of the great joys of this job, in fact, is collaborating with students on research projects, many of which generate published work,” Howell said. “For the better part of a year, Tana had assisted me on a number of projects. When the opportunity to write an essay on presidential power and war arose, then, I was keen to invite her to join me as co-author.”

    Johnson, whose doctoral research focuses on international relations, noted, “The project was a full partnership, attacking from different angles.” The experience gave her a better understanding of the American presidency and the effects of war on leadership. She also learned a lot about scholarly writing from conception to publication, a process that will help prepare her for a career in academia.

    “It is extraordinarily helpful to have someone whose opinion you value to bounce ideas around,” Howell said. “Tana also did a tremendous amount of legwork in order to characterize the existing scholarship on this issue. I also think that it’s just a lot more fun to collaborate with others than to toil in isolation.”

    Howell and Johnson’s findings will be published later this year in the Oxford Handbook on the American Presidency.