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Neustadt, New Institutionalism, and Presidential Decision Making: A Theory and Test


  • AUTHOR's NOTE: Thanks to Bert Johnson for helpful statistical advice. All errors, however, are mine alone.

Matthew J. Dickinson is professor of political science at Middlebury College. He is the author of Bitter Harvest: FDR, Presidential Power and the Growth of the Presidential Branch, and has published numerous articles on the presidency, presidential decision making, and presidential advisers.


The institutionalization of a White House-centered presidential staff system is often described as a logical response by presidents to increasing leadership demands linked to the post-World War II growth in government size and complexity. In contrast, I take a supply-side perspective, using transaction-cost theory and insights from Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power to argue that staff growth reflects successive presidents’ search for information and expertise with which to reduce bargaining uncertainty. Once institutionalized, however, staff must be managed. Again building on Neustadt's and new institutionalist insights, I find evidence that presidents using redundant staff structures and competitive staff practices perform more effectively during foreign-policy crises. The findings suggest potential pitfalls with the “standard” staff model in use today.