When crisis engulfs the nation, how should the federal government—especially the president—respond? Of course, when crisis strikes, the best response is for everyone—government and citizens alike—to have prepared in advance. But when “unknown knowns” suddenly appear and shake our sense of normalcy, we look to the President and his Administration to respond. This seminar will examine several case studies throughout American history to better understand presidential crisis management.

Image courtesy The White House | Flikr

Adam White discusses the proper constitutional role of government in the COVID-19 response


Adam J. White

Adam J. White is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on American constitutionalism. Concurrently, he codirects the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions:

  1. What did the Founders consider the greatest defects of the national and state governments under the Articles of Confederation? Why?
  2. Why were they so alarmed by Shays’ Rebellion and other uprisings in 1786–87? Weren’t the uprisings examples of democracy in action?
  3. What dire predictions did Publius make about the nation’s future if the Articles were not abandoned?
  4. What was at stake for the world if the U.S. failed so early in its existence?
  5. What were the weaknesses in the Articles regarding the role of the President?
  6. How did the original crises surrounding the creation of the Constitution shape the Founders’ understanding of executive power?
  7. What relationship does Federalist 70 & 76 anticipate between a President and members of his Administration?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Describe the crisis facing Lincoln when he took office in March 1861.
  2. What possible courses of action could Lincoln take in response to secession? How did Buchanan respond? What was the advice of the Committee of Thirteen? The Committee of Thirty-Three? Was there a peaceful way to avert disunion?
  3. How did Lincoln respond to this initial crisis? What were his chief aims? What constraints did he face?
  4. According to Lincoln, his duty under the Constitution is “that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States.” What, in practice, did this mean for secession?
  5. What actions were available to Lincoln during the bombardment of Fort Sumter? What action did he ultimately take?
  6. Why did Lincoln suspend the writ of habeas corpus? What authority does he claim to act on? Was he right to do so?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Describe the situation of the Bush Administration in the months preceding the 9/11 attacks. What initiatives and challenges were they focused on? What warnings did President Bush receive prior to the 9/11 attacks?
  2. What actions did the President and his Administration take in response to warnings from the intelligence community? How did it delegate responsibilities for countering terrorist attacks?
  3. What failures did the 9/11 Commission identify in the US response to the threats? In your view, what was the biggest failure?
  4. Could the 9/11 plot have been disrupted? If so, how?
  5. Describe the Bush Administration’s response to the attacks—both the immediate response and “Phase Two”.  What were the main goals? What constraints did they face? What alternative courses of action were available to them?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did the government underestimate the threat the 1918 influenza posed?
  2. How did the government balance the twin crises of war and public health?
  3. Given the demands of war and the state of medical science at the time, was there more the government could have done to fight the pandemic?
  4. How did the experiences of the 1918 pandemic and the 9/11 attacks affect the response to the 2009 influenza outbreak?
  5. What is the federal and state government’s proper role in health matters? Where would you have stood on the question of vaccination if you were in the government during the 2009 influenza?

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