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Grover's book urges new way of thinking on presidency

03.05.15
By: Mark Tarnacki
Bill Grover in office

Professor William Grover in his office at Saint Michael's with his new book.

William Grover, a longtime Saint Michael's College professor of political science, has a new book titled The Unsustainable Presidency: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Beyond, published in December by Palgrave Macmillan.

One chapter in the book hypothesizes, under the heading "President Sanders?" about what would happen if the popular Vermont socialist senator became president -- how markets would react and how social movements would have to play into the equation for meaningful change to take place.

Grover co-authored the book with Joseph Peschek of Hamline University, an old graduate school friend and longtime collaborator with Grover.

"The book is challenging because it asks people to do more than just focus on who's the next savior in the White House" whether Democrat or Republican, Grover said. "If our definitions don't change, we'll continue to focus  on spectacle and charade and sound and fury," yet fail to address the matters that really need addressing -- such as a need to more inextricably link economic growth to pressing environmental issues, or to view national security under a new definition, he said.  Grover cited other Vermont examples to flesh out his point: Making the presidency "sustainable" again, he says, might mean having "a Bill McKibben type definition of economic growth," for instance, or a figure like Ben Cohen in the cabinet instead of the usual suspects from the recent administrations of both parties.

With an election year fast approaching, the book has stirred wider interest already, Grover said. The co-authors had a piece based on the book's ideas appear on the national political web site Common Dreams, and they did an interview with CounterPunch about the book. The first printing of several hundred copies sold out.

Grover says the new book "is me getting back to my intellectual roots studying the presidency" after decades spent mostly writing and continually updating his more general American politics textbook Voices of Dissent (when he hasn't been teaching or being an activist for the environmental or labor-related causes he is passionate about). Grover's first book on the presidency in 1989 was The President as Prisoner. He says a lot has changed in the presidency and America since then.

His new book identifies a "remarkable continuity of policy during the Bush 1, Clinton, Bush II and Obama administrations, focusing our attention on ‘deep structure' of policy-formation located in the relationships between government and business," one fellow scholar wrote of the book. Basically, Grover explains, he and Peschek argue that business leaders, just by logically pursuing their natural best interests in our present system – and not through any sinister conspiracy -- still have a privileged capacity to influence policies and political fortunes through their power to affect markets. No other groups in society have comparable power, important though their causes or issues might be.

Grover and his co-author suggest that a modern-day president would need powerful social movements behind them in their push for systemic change, in the way that Franklin Roosevelt had in the 1930s, if he or she ever hoped to shift "the way we define the basics" to make the presidency "sustainable" again. "It's kind of a radical book in the sense that Joe and I wanted to change the conversation around the presidency – we wanted to write a book that challenges the way we think about the office now, with all the focus on personality, management style, parties and the balance of power between Congress and the presidency – all the things that dominate the news."

To the authors, those things are simply an "argument about means to the same ends" – namely national security and economic growth, which always become the chief motivating priorities for presidents from either party in recent decades. This explains why their essential policies and cabinets so resemble one another's, even if they differ on important social issues, he says.

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