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Moe: The politicized presidency

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Moe. 1985. The politicized presidency. In The New Direction in American Politics, eds Chubb and Peterson.

In Brief


How can we explain the centralization and politicization of the presidency, beginning with FDR and ending with Reagan?


Politicization and centralization are means by which presidents increase and solidify their power in relationship to other institutions, allowing them to create a reputation as a good leader.

Place in the Literature:

Moe comes down on the side of those that recognize the incentives and recourses that Presidents have for shaping institutions in their favor (Lowi 1985, Wildavsky 1975, Neustadt 1980). Implicitly, I think Moe is arguing against the congressional dominance literature that ignores the President completely in assessing control of the Bureaucracy (Weingast and Moran 1983, McCubbins and Schwartz 1984).


Institutional development, in general (and the Presidency is not exception), is driven by the degree of congruence between existing structures on the one hand and individual preferences on the other. The institutional presidency refers to the structure of the executive office of the President and patterns of behavior that link the presidency with other parts of the political system. Changes in the presidency reflect the degree of underlying congruence with the incentives and resources of the President.

Because the President's reelection hopes, standing with opinion leaders, and historical legacy depend on his perceived success as a generalized leader of government, each President wants an institutional system (Congress, bureaucracy, etc.) that is responsive to his needs as a political leader.

However, since FDR, there has been a tension between agency competence and agency responsiveness. While Presidents value competence, they thrive on responsiveness. However, it is difficult or impossible for Presidents to restructure (non-White House) institutions to be more responsive to them. Hence, they look to the areas of highest flexibility: centralization of policy making at the White House and politicization through presidential appointments.

We can see a pattern of more aggressive centralization and politicization, beginning with FDR and ending with Reagan (remember, this is written in 1985). Moe concludes by dismissing the traditional view that portrays centralization and politicization as destabilizing for the government. Instead, he argues that we must consider the consequences of a neutral bureaucracy, namely, a weak president.