Exploring the ongoing impact of a profoundly disruptive political climate.

By Sarah Fister Gale

‘Separation of powers’ is the theme that has shaped nearly 20 years of research for Will Howell, chair of the Department of Political Science and the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. “My most enduring interests have to do with how and when presidents can advance a policy agenda given opportunities for Congress and the courts to stand in the way,” he says. The current administration is giving him ample material to explore.

Howell has always been interested in how presidents innovate within the context of current political structures as a way to bend the environment to their advantage. Much of his current work is a reflection of the rapidly shifting political landscape, and the stark contrasts between the eight years President Barack Obama was in office and the current administration.

As an example of presidential entrepreneurship, he points to Obama’s issuance of waivers under No Child Left Behind to alter the state policy landscape in education, and his efforts to encourage state governments to adopt education policies that he stood little chance of getting through Congress. “These are things I hadn't seen previous presidents do,” he says.

Studying Trump’s approach to innovation within government structures has been a markedly different experience. “Trump represents something of a stress test of our political institutions,” he says. “He's profoundly disruptive and profoundly anti-institutional, more so than any president in the modern era.” Howell argues that Trump is taking all manner of actions that erode democratic norms and U.S. political institutions. Howell’s challenge is to make sense of that.

His approach is two-pronged. “I want to speak to contemporary American politics in ways that are immediate and direct, but I also want to pull back and avoid getting lost in the Twitter storm.”

Celebrated body of work

Some projects tackle these issues head-on by focusing explicitly on executive power in an age of populism. “That work is directly engaged with this particular moment and what it means for our democratic politics,” he says. In other work he is exploring things like the limitations and vulnerabilities of judicial limits on presidential power through a theoretical lens.  “On these projects, I've teamed up with some formal theorists who are helping me investigate, at a really basic level, how presidents can advance claims to authority in ways that steadily corrode constitutional limits on executive power.”

This has resulted in several recent collaborative works, including “Political Scandal: A Theory,” with UChicago assistant professor Wioletta Dziudal, which explores the underlying politics that support the production of political scandal. “It is motivated by contemporary concerns but the work requires us to step outside of a particular political moment and think theoretically in a deep way,” he says.

Other  recent collaborative work include “Political Conflict over Time,” a paper with Stefan Krasa from the University of Illinois, and Mattias Polborn from Vanderbilt University; and “Rethinking Presidential Appeals: Performance, Public Opinion, and Donald J. Trump” with his former students Ethan Porter at George Washington University and  Thomas J. Wood at The Ohio State University. “These are all efforts to speak to the defining characteristics of this political moment,” he says.

Juggling multiple research projects is typical of Howell, who has been a prolific writer throughout his career. Over the past 16 years, he’s written dozens of op-eds, articles, and essays for major media outlets, and authored and co-authored six books, including Power without Persuation: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action (2003); While Dangers Gather: Congressional Checks on Presidential War Powers (2007); The Wartime President: Executive Influence and the Nationalizing Politics of Threat (2013), and most recently Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government—and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency (2016). He is currently completing a follow-up to Relic, called Reckoning, The Presidency, Populism and the Future of American Democracy, which is set to publish next year.

Howell’s work has been widely celebrated, garnering such academic awards as the Legacy Award for enduring research on executive politics, the William Riker award for the best book in political economy, the Richard Neustadt Award for the best book on the American presidency, and the E.E. Schattschneider Award for the best dissertation in American Politics. 

Moving forward

When he’s not writing, Howell helps his students to unpack the political environment and explore enduring questions like “How does Congress constrain presidential powers during war?” and “How do presidents shape deliberations within Congress?”

He makes a point of focusing students on the big picture when exploring these topics. “We find lots of ways to tie those enduring questions and examinations to the Trump Administration, but the president himself sits in the background,” he says. “He is rarely brought forward as a centerpiece of our inquiry.”

As Howell looks to the future, he’s not sure what direction his research will take. “Some scholars operate via five- or 10-year plans, but I've never organized my research agenda that way,” he says. Instead he uses each project, and the conversations he’s having with peers and students, as catalysts for future work. “I’m not sure where it’s all heading.  But this much I’m sure. I have lots more to learn. ”