President Lyndon Johnson in a meeting with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr.
The following is a commentary on President Obama’s reaction to the Ferguson situation by Ryan Barilleaux and Jewerl Maxwell, authors of Tough Times for the President, who discuss the lessons which can be gleaned from past presidents.
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The current civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, has led many to recall the racial animosity that spread throughout the United States in 1967. In his text Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, political scientist Irving Berstein argued, “Not since the 1850s had a chief executive confronted domestic turmoil on this scale” (p. 410). As explained in Tough Times for the President, twenty-four racially motivated riots spread throughout twenty-three cities in 1967. In July 1967, President Johnson responded with Executive Order 11364, which resulted in 4,700 federal troops being sent to Detroit and Executive Order 11365, which established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (commonly referred to as the Kerner Commission) to investigate race riots across the country.
Not to diminish the current situation in Ferguson, but the numbers referenced above alone illustrate how President Johnson encountered a significantly greater adverse set of circumstances than President Obama presently faces. As such, it should come as no surprise that President Obama’s response has been much more subdued. Thus far, President Obama’s response has largely been rhetorical, but he now must choose if direct federal action is necessary. As we have argued, “Presidents must decide when and how to apply their power resources to gain leverage in specific contexts, and those decisions are made by weighing the risks, obstacles, and opportunities of action or inaction” (p. 275). As the nation’s first African American president, President Obama no doubt feels the pressure to respond appropriately in the wake of racial unrest, but he also must realize the need for “situational leverage” as we outlined in Tough Times for the President. The current situation is one in which violence has not spread throughout the country, and at a time when immigration reform, violence in the Middle East, and a major midterm election is about to take place. Consequently, the present political and social climate illustrates that presidential power is indeed a matter of situational leverage. President Obama’s leverage is a function of constitutional/legal, institutional, political, and personal resources that can be applied to his goals, but he continues to weigh the risks, obstacles, and opportunities presented to him in the current context.
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This book is in the Cambria Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy in America (PIPPA) Series by Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly.
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