Political Science 308                                                         

The American Chief Executive                                                 

Spring 2010

Professor Mikel Wyckoff

Office:  Zulauf 403

Hours:  T/Th 10:50-12:20 & by appt.

mwyckoff@niu.edu   (815) 753-7056



(Note:  If you are enrolled in POLS 308 this semester please consult the official course syllabus that is available on Blackboard.  From time to time, minor adjustments must be made to the syllabus and I have no access to this document once it is placed online at my department’s web site.)





This course provides a broad introduction to the American Presidency.  We begin by examining the processes through which Presidents are selected and the historical evolution of the office.  The second part of the course considers the emergence of the modern Presidency with its emphases on the President as legislative leader and national security leader.





The following books are required for the course and are available for purchase at the campus bookstores:


            Sidney M. Milkis and Michael Nelson, The American Presidency: Origins and Development

  (5th Edition, 2008, CQ Press).


James P. Pfiffner, The Modern Presidency (5th Edition, 2008, Thomson-Wadsworth Press).


Additional required readings (specified in the course outline below) must be located online at Blackboard, NIU e-reserves, and at other locations on the Internet.  I also encourage you to keep track of President Obama’s ongoing efforts to maintain congressional and popular support for his various policies as he enters his second year in the White House and as we move closer to the midterm congressional election of 2012. 





Exams.  One midterm and a final exam will be given.  Each exam will contribute 50% toward your final grade.  Both will have a significant long essay component plus some multiple choice, identification, and/or matching questions.


Optional Paper.  If you would rather not base your course grade entirely on the midterm and final exams, you may choose to read an additional book (from a list provided by the instructor) and write a 5-10 page summary and critique of the major ideas contained therein.  For those choosing this option the two exams and paper will be weighted equally (33.3%) in the computation of final grades.  Due April 27.  Late papers not accepted. 


Attendance.  Attendance is not formally computed into your grade but like most professors I expect you to come to class regularly, to be on time when possible, and to do the assigned readings on schedule.  To encourage you in this regard I reserve the right to increase a final grade by up to one-third of a letter for good class participation.  To help me learn your names I will set up a seating chart next week and keep a daily record of attendance.


Cell Phones and Classroom Decorum.  Please silence your cell phones and refrain from using them during class except in the event of an emergency (or other exceptional circumstances).  Other electronic entertainment devices should be turned off.  Otherwise, simply use common sense in respecting the needs of your fellow students, and of your rapidly aging professor (“Get off my lawn!”) who is doing his best to give you a good lecture each week.


Makeup exams and grades of incomplete will be provided cheerfully when needed, but only for reasons of significant illness, personal tragedy, or other similarly extraordinary circumstances, and documentary evidence of the extraordinary circumstances normally must be provided by the student.


Students with Disabilities. NIU abides by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which mandates reasonable accommodations for qualified students with disabilities.  If you have a disability and may require some type of accommodation, please let me know.  If you have not already done so, you will need to register with NIU’s Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR).  The CAAR office is located on the 4th floor of the University Health Services building (753-1303).  I look forward to working with you.






Part I:  The Traditional Presidency:  Origins and Evolution



Jan. 26 – Introduction and Overview


               Pfiffner, Ch. 1, pp. 1-11.

               Milkis and Nelson, Ch. 1, read pp. 1-7, skim the rest



Feb. 2 – The Presidency in the Constitution; Implementing the Presidency (Washington and Adams)


               Milkis and Nelson, Ch. 2 and pp. 68-87 in Ch. 3.  Also read Articles I and II of the Constitution (pp. 481-

                   485).  Think about the Constitutional powers of the Congress and the President as you do so.

               Federalist Papers #48 (paragraphs 1-3),  #51 (paragraphs 1-5), and #70 (Fed 70 is sometimes cited as

                   a basis for claiming that the founders wanted the president to have “near dictatorial powers” in the

                   realms of foreign policy and defense. Do you agree?).  Locate the Federalist Papers at:


               Pfiffner, pp. 25-35 (electoral college).

               Jack Rakove, “The Accidental Electors,” NY Times, 2000.  (Blackboard)

   Elizabeth Drew, “Power Grab,” NY Review of Books, June 22, 2006.  (Blackboard)



Feb. 9 – The Partisan Context of Presidential Leadership    


  Bibby, "The Party Battle in America," Ch. 2 in John Bibby, Politics, Parties and Elections

                  in America (Wadsworth, 4th Edition, 2000).  (e-reserves)

              Pfiffner, pp. 43-45 (presidential elections in the post-WWII period).  

              V.O. Key, “A Theory of Critical Elections,” Journal of Politics (1955), pp. 3-11 only. 

                 (Blackboard or e-reserves)

              Campbell, "A Classification of the Presidential Elections."  (e-reserves)

  Skowronek, “Presidential Leadership in Political Time.” (e-reserves)  This is a difficult but

      important reading.  We will revisit its analyses of specific presidents in coming weeks, so

      don’t  worry if you can’t digest it all the first time through.  At the moment, focus on

      Skowronek’s general theory and how it relates to the ideas in the V.O. Key and Campbell




Feb. 16 – John Adams, the Jeffersonians and the Jacksonians


                Milkis and Nelson, pp. 87-93 and Ch. 4-5.

                Skowronek, review pp. 127-133 (Jackson) and pp. 137-144 (Polk).  (e-reserves)



Feb. 23 – The Lincoln Republicans and the Rise and Fall of Presidential Power


              Milkis and Nelson, Ch. 6-7. 

              Skowronek, review pp. 151-157 (Pierce).  (e-reserves)






Week of March 8:  Spring Break



Part II:  Rise of The Modern Presidency in the 20th Century 


Mar. 16 – The Re-emergence of Strong Presidential Leadership in the Progressive Era; Last Gasps of the

                Deferential Presidency (McKinley through Hoover) 


    Milkis and Nelson, Ch. 8-10.



Mar. 23 – The New Deal and the Institutionalization of the Modern Presidency


                Milkis and Nelson, Ch. 11, pp. 280-298.

                Skowronek, review pp. 127-129, 134-137 (FDR).  (e-reserves)

                Pfiffner, Ch. 3.

                Dorning, “Rahm Emanuel: President’s Chief of Staff …”  (Blackboard)


Mar. 30 – The President and National Security I:  Emergence of the Cold War


                Pfiffner, Ch. 7, pp. 203-232.

                Milkis and Nelson, Ch. 11, pp. 298-317 (HST and Eisenhower); and Ch. 12, pp. 323-340.

       (JFK and LBJ).

                Youngstown Co. v. Sawyer (1952).  Locate at www.oyez.org by typing “Youngstown” into the

       search box on the first page.  Read the opinion of the Court by Justice Black and give a close

       reading to the concurring opinion by Justice Jackson (scroll down to find it).

     Skowronek, review pp. 137-139, 145-151 (JFK).  (e-reserves)



Apr. 6 – Organizing the Modern Presidency


                Pfiffner, Ch. 4-5.

    Milkis and Nelson, Ch. 12, pp. 340-end (RMN, Ford, Carter).

                Skowronek, review pp. 151-153, 157-163 (Carter).  (e-reserves)

                MacGillis, “For Obama Cabinet, A Team of Moderates.”  (Blackboard)

                Baker, “Obama’s Team is Lacking Most of its Top Players.”  (Blackboard)



Apr. 13 – The President as Legislative Leader; Going Public


    Pfiffner, Ch. 6 and pp. 45-54.

    Milkis and Nelson, Ch. 13 (Reagan and GHWB).

    Barnes, “In Approval Ratings, Obama’s Like Ike.”  (Blackboard)

    Brownstein, “Obama’s White-Out.”  (Blackboard)   

                Victor, “Is Obama Tough Enough?”  (Blackboard)


Apr. 20 – The President and National Security II:  G.W. Bush and The War on Terror


                Milkis and Nelson, Ch. 15, pp. 423-437.

                Pfiffner, Ch. 7, pp. 232-248.

                George F. Will, “No Checks, Many Imbalances.”  (Blackboard)

                David Cole, “What Bush Wants to Hear,” NY Review of Books, 2005.  (Blackboard)

                Review Justice Jackson’s dissent in Youngstown.



Apr. 27  – Abuse of Power and Reputation


    Pfiffner, Ch. 8.

    Milkis and Nelson, Ch. 14.