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With the inauguration of a new president just weeks away, it seems a fitting time for the release of Glen Sussman's latest work, "The American Presidency and the Social Agenda" (Prentice-Hall, 2001).

Co-written with Byron W. Daynes of Brigham Young University, the book looks at the work of recent presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through Bill Clinton's first term. Sussman, associate professor of political science, said he and Daynes chose to focus on six social issues: abortion, pornography, gun control, homosexuality, affirmative action and environmental policy.

The book also includes a look at the myriad roles each president must play, such as commander in chief, chief executive, legislative leader and opinion/party leader, and how those roles shaped their work in social policy.

"We wanted to see when presidents took action on some of these issues," Sussman said, noting they were looking for patterns among the leaders. "The rationale was that all of these issues are very conflictual. They divide citizens; they divide families. … It can be difficult for a president to get involved."

Through analysis of speeches given and policies adopted, Sussman and Daynes were able to determine that Clinton and Ronald Reagan were the most activist presidents in recent times, but in ways contrary to what was expected or perceived of them. For example, Clinton was elected in part because he appeared to be environmentally minded, however, in office his work on other issues is much more visible.

In fact, Sussman noted, it was Richard Nixon, a Republican, who was perhaps one of the strongest environmentalist presidents. That was a surprise to the researchers but, as Sussman explained, activism by a president can result sometimes from political pressure, and at other times from societal pressure.

"In many ways it's risky for presidents to get involved in these issues, but sometimes they do so because they believe it's the right thing to do," he said.

Another surprising find in the research relates to what the public perceives compared with what the data illustrate. "Of all the presidents, Ronald Reagan was identified most closely with social issues and if you look at all the speeches he made, he talked a lot about it," Sussman said. "But the surprise is not that much got done. In ways [his activism] ended up being more symbolic."

Sussman said he expects the book will be used in classes relating to the American presidency and public policy. He and Daynes are already at work on a book about environmental politics that will be their third collaboration. Their first book, "Starr Gazing: The Politics and Analysis of the Starr Report," was published in 1999.

This article was posted on: December 6, 2000

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