Presidential Power Proves to Be Rich Subject for Scholar’s Study

Posted: June 23, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

White House
School of Public Policy Professor James Pfiffner has devoted his scholarly career to examining the U.S. presidency.
Photo courtesy of Mary A. Behre

By Jocelyn Rappaport

As the two U.S. presidential candidates move into the final phases of their campaigns, they could do themselves a favor by paying attention to James Pfiffner’s body of work. Pfiffner, University Professor in the School of Public Policy, has written extensively on the presidency, including how best to grasp the reins of power after taking office.

Pfiffner has lectured at universities in Europe and throughout the United States, including the Federal Executive Institute, the National War College and the U.S. Military Academy. His analysis of presidential power is nonpartisan and balanced.

A Fascination with Power and the Presidency

James Pfiffner
James Pfiffner

Pfiffner is a well-established authority who has already written or edited 10 books on the presidency. In his newly published book, “Power Play: The Bush Presidency and the Constitution,” Pfiffner analyzes facts within a historical context and explains their relevance in a straightforward, easy-to-understand narrative.

He helps the reader understand the historical and philosophical origins of the U.S. Constitution, the most important document in establishing the American government. “Power Play” speaks to every American who values the balance of power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Pfiffner’s interest in organizational power dates back to the time he served with the military in the 25th Infantry Division in 1970. (For his service he received the Army Commendation Medal for Valor in Vietnam and Cambodia.)

After his military service, Pfiffner earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. His dissertation focused on President Richard Nixon’s use of power and his relationship with Congress. In his dissertation, Pfiffner examined Nixon’s attempt to assert presidential power by not spending the full amount of money Congress allocated for programs that Nixon did not favor.

The dissertation developed into Pfiffner’s book, “The President, the Budget, and Congress: Impoundment and the 1974 Budget Act” (1979).

In his books, “The Managerial Presidency” (1999), “The Modern Presidency” (1997), “The Character Factor: How We Judge America’s Presidents” (2004) and “The Presidency in Transition,” edited with R. Gordon Hoxie (1989), Pfiffner studies how presidents make decisions, choose political appointees and interact with civil servants and Congress.

Pfiffner’s research covers the administrations of presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. Pfiffner addresses the centralization of power in White House agencies, the clash of cultures between career civil servants and political appointees and the public’s view of presidential character.

“The framers of the U.S. Constitution consciously set up institutional rivalry because they understood ambition,” says Pfiffner. “The balance of power among the three branches of government has served the nation well. When the balance is upset, power becomes concentrated and dangerous.”

Pfiffner watched the transition of power from an insider’s vantage point when he worked in the Office of Personnel Management in 1980 and 1981.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president, Pfiffner found it fascinating to see how power shifted from one political party to another. He was struck by how important the peaceful transfer of power is to a government.

“Legitimate authority is transferred to the new president, but power to run the government has to be grasped,” Pfiffner notes.

His interviews and analysis of how new presidents take control of the executive branch resulted in his book, “The Strategic Presidency: Hitting the Ground Running” (1988; second edition revised, 1996).

A “Natural Teacher”

Pfiffner’s scholarship has had a major impact at Mason, where he has researched, written, lectured and taught about American government, public administration and the presidency since 1984.

“When Jim Pfiffner speaks, people listen,” says School of Public Policy Dean Kingsley Haynes. “Students and faculty benefit from Pfiffner. He raises the awareness and level of analysis of everyone. You can’t help but learn something when you’re in his presence. He’s a natural teacher.”

In 1990, Pfiffner received the George Mason Distinguished Faculty Award, and in 1999 he was tapped for the College of Arts and Sciences Scholarly Award.

His scholarship continues to focus on evolving issues that affect the U.S. government at the highest levels. A new book edited by Pfiffner with British colleague Mark Phythian is due out in September. To be published by Manchester University Press, the book is titled “Intelligence and National Security Policymaking on Iraq: British and American Perspectives.” The two scholars did the research and editing when Pfiffner was a professorial fellow at the University of London in 2007.

Pfiffner is currently working on another book that examines torture policy and executive power. The book came about because the chapter on torture in “Power Play” was becoming so long that Pfiffner and his publisher realized it warranted a book of its own. In this upcoming book, Pfiffner writes about the Bush administration’s suspension of the Geneva Conventions and how that led to the cases of torture and abuse at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

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