Monday, 23 March 2009

“The Strategic President”, by George C. Edwards III (Princeton)


What does it take to be a successful President?

In The Strategic President, George C Edwards III (editor of the excellent Presidential Studies Quarterly journal) approaches the presidency with some tough questions: How exactly do presidents lead? If presidential power is the power to persuade, why is there a considerable lack of visible result of presidential persuasion? If there is lack of evidence in support of the power of presidential persuasion, why does it still persist, and what is the actual reason for presidential success and/or failure?

“Commentators on the presidency in both the press and the academy often assume that the White House can move public opinion if the president has the skill and will to effectively exploit the ‘bully pulpit’.”

Edwards challenges this widespread assumption about presidential leadership, believing it to be false. The aim of this book is to discover whether presidents who led the fights for the most significant changes in public policy succeeded through persuading others or because they successful exploited existing sentiment and opportunities for change. His main conclusion:

“Presidents, even skilled presidents, rarely are able to lead the public and thus reshape the contours of the political landscape to pave the way for change. Instead, even the most able communicators are facilitators who depend upon the public moving at its own pace to provide opportunities to accomplish their goals.”

Edwards lays out his argument very well, following reviews of existing literature with his own analysis of certain presidents and their ability to persuade and move public opinion on their own. In chapter two, he looks at three presidents long believed to be rhetorical geniuses and highly persuasive, who governed in extraordinary circumstances: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. His findings are surprising, as he argues that all three presidents were not able to shift public opinion the way once believed.

For Lincoln, this is especially surprising, when you consider the sheer amount of literature produced focusing on just his speeches and writings (even though, as Edwards mentions, there is nothing in any of these books that shows the impact of Lincoln’s eloquence). But, Edwards lays out his case in detail (especially for Reagan, for whom there is a wealth of polling data to assess the impact of speeches), and argues convincingly that these three presidents fall into the category of talented readers of public opinion and facilitators of public sentiment. An interesting inclusion in the book is the short comparative study with two British Prime Ministers to see if what Edwards believes is the same in Britain. Looking at Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, the author shows that a similar situation exists in the UK.

The truth about shifting policy preferences is not as tied to sitting presidents as one expects: “the public’s collective policy preferences generally are stable and change by large margins only in response to world events.” To support this, Edwards explains how these supposedly highly-persuasive presidents often failed to achieve their intended goals – be it FDR’s Supreme Court-packing scheme, or Reagan’s many resisted budgets.

In the next section, Edwards looks at the ability of presidents to read the Congressional mood, in more normal circumstances, and how they capitalised on the sentiments of the times to pass their ambitious agendas. To keep the continuity with the previous section, he looks again at FDR and Reagan, but also takes a look at Lyndon Johnson’s Congressional relations.

Challenging the conventional approach to presidential studies, Edwards has written a very important, lucid and rather accessible book on presidential leadership. Drawing on polling data to look beyond immediate reactions to presidential addresses or speeches, he is able to show how the supposed reaction to important (in hindsight) speeches was not always as we might have presumed.

The book is especially useful in today’s climate, as we see a gifted orator newly elected to the presidency, struggling to get approval and support for his ambitious economic programs. The Strategic Presidency will offer a great deal to those who are starting to study the presidency of Barack Obama, and it will be very interesting to see if Edwards’ thesis holds up as the Obama Presidency progresses. My guess is that it will.

An excellent book, it is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the American Presidency.

By the same author: On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit (2003)

Further Reading: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2009); John Arquilla’s The Reagan Imprint (2006); Michael Beschloss’s Presidential Courage (2008); Lou & Carl M. Cannon’s Reagan’s Disciple (2008)

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