Monday, 8 February 2010

“The Presidential Difference (3rd Edition)”, by Fred I. Greenstein (Princeton)


The latest edition of Greenstein’s classic appraisal of presidential leadership style

For a quarter-century, Fred I. Greenstein has been one of our keenest observers of the modern presidency. Here, he provides an instructive account of the qualities that have served well and poorly in the Oval Office, beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt's first hundred days. Newly expanded, this edition now covers the momentous events of George W. Bush's administration – from his handling of the events of September 11 to the war with Iraq, and also a short chapter on President Barack Obama.

Throughout, Greenstein offers a series of bottom-line judgments on each of his subjects and a bold new explanation of why presidents succeed or fail. He surveys each president’s record in public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence – and argues that the last is the most important in predicting presidential success.

As a short introduction to the presidencies since FDR, this is an indispensible book. Each chapter is clearly laid out and structured, providing background for each President before delving into the analysis of their approach to leading.

“The United States is said to have a government of laws and institutions rather than individuals, but… it is one in which the matter of who occupies the nation’s highest office can have profound repercussions.”

For anyone familiar with the subjects of the book, you might not find too much original material, but Greenstein has managed to write a very accessible book, filled with key facts and events. His analysis of presidential style is always interesting and valuable, and the examples he uses to illustrate and support his positions are all very well selected and presented.

“A president’s effectiveness is a function of more than his political prowess and mental health… and there is much to be learned by considering the full sweep of the modern presidential experience.”

“a president’s actions are a function not only of the intensity of his passions, but also of his capacity to channel them and prevent them form confounding his official responsibilities”

The book’s not too long, and I think it would be interesting to read a longer, more substantial volume on this topic (Greenstein kindly offers a good “further reading” section), but this is certainly a good place to start. If any lecturer needed to set or recommend one short, single-volume introduction to the presidency, there are few better than this.


Further Reading: Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power & The Modern Presidency (1991); Peter W. Rodman, Presidential Command (2009); Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Imperial Presidency (2004)

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