With the start of President Obama’s second term and an increased interest in all things related to the presidency, Tom Fox spoke with scholar George Edwards about presidential leadership. A distinguished professor of political science at Texas A&M University and the Winant Professor of American Government at Oxford, Edwards is the author of 25 books on American politics. Fox is a contributor for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
What do you believe is the key to presidential leadership?
Years ago, the notion of leadership was that you get in front of potential followers and shout “follow me.” If you were a good leader, people would follow you, even in the face of enemy fire. This notion of leadership is misleading, however. The public almost never moves in the president’s direction if there is division in the country. It is difficult to reach most citizens, overcome their predispositions and combat a vocal opposition. We also know that members of Congress are rarely persuaded to change their minds on an issue. They have strong policy commitments, and their constituents reinforce these inclinations. Presidents cannot create opportunity for change by changing minds. Instead, effective presidents recognize and exploit opportunities for change.
How should we assess a president’s effectiveness?
The heart of presidential leadership and a president’s legacy is usually getting legislation passed. The most famous period of presidential success in Congress was Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days. It’s commonly thought that Roosevelt’s skill at convincing people to support his New Deal legislation was at the heart of his success. What actually happened was that his initial agenda was to open the banks, cut the budget and repeal Prohibition. Then he was going to send Congress home and figure out what to do. When he found Congress extraordinarily responsive in the crisis, he effectively exploited this opportunity and rapidly passed the original New Deal. He did not try to create an opportunity; instead, he brilliantly exploited one. This is presidential effectiveness.
How can a president successfully facilitate change?
First, presidents have to understand their political environment, make strategic assessments of what they can and cannot do, and have the discipline to avoid overreaching. Then they need the resolution, commitment and strength to exploit opportunities. There is always going to be some push back. There is going to be criticism and mistakes, but you have to overcome them. Finally, presidents need to maintain their core coalitions. Because they are unlikely to expand their bases significantly in any short period of time, they are highly dependent on core supporters.
Can you provide an example of how a president exploited an opportunity for change?
After the 1980 election, Ronald Regan knew there had been a shift in American politics and he exploited it. He pursued a course of large tax cuts and large increases in defense spending. Reagan and his aides were aware they had a small window of opportunity, and they knew it wouldn’t last. They established a narrow agenda and kept a tight focus on it. They wouldn’t let administration officials go on TV to talk about any other kinds of issues that might alienate potential supporters. They knew this moment wouldn’t last, and they were right. Similarly, Lyndon Johnson recognized, and brilliantly and relentlessly exploited, the large Democratic majorities resulting from the 1964 elections to push through the Great Society.
When did presidents try to create change and fail?
It is common for presidents to overreach. Bill Clinton is a talented politician, and he declared that the cornerstone of his administration was health-care reform. He made a nationally televised address on his proposal, and the first response was quite positive. Then the opposition organized, he lost support and the bill never came to a vote. The following midterm elections were a disaster for the Democrats. We can go back to FDR and the court-packing bill to see a president at the height of his powers overreaching and effectively ending the New Deal. So there is plenty of evidence that the traditional view of a persuasive presidency is wrong. It just doesn’t happen that way.