Wednesday, March 11, 2009

George C. Edwards' "The Strategic President"

George C. Edwards III is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. His many books include On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit. He is the editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership, and reported the following:
Presidential leadership is at the core of American government, but an intriguing paradox has bedeviled our efforts to understand it. On the one hand is the widespread view that “presidential power is the power to persuade.” Conversely, there is a dearth of evidence of the persuasive power of the presidency, and presidents frequently fail to persuade others to support their policies, often undermining their ability to govern in the process. I decided to use this contradiction as a springboard to examine—and ultimately challenge—the dominant paradigm of presidential leadership.

Focusing on best test cases of presidential leadership of the public (Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan) and Congress (FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan), I sought to determine the source of their success. I found that despite their considerable rhetorical skills, the public was unresponsive to their appeals for support. To achieve change, these leaders capitalized on existing public opinion. Similarly, in dealing with Congress they recognized especially favorable conditions for passing their agendas and effectively exploited these circumstances while they lasted.

I also looked at presidents governing in less auspicious circumstances, and found that whatever successes these presidents enjoyed also resulted from the interplay of conditions, and the presidents’ skills at understanding and exploiting them.

Explaining these results requires analyzing the many obstacles to successful leadership. Page 99 is part of a discussion of the difficulties presidents have in setting the country’s agenda and the stern competition they face in attempting to do so.

Presidential power, then, is not the power to persuade. Presidents cannot reshape the contours of the political landscape to pave the way for change by establishing an agenda and persuading the public, Congress, and others to support their policies. Instead, successful presidents facilitate change by recognizing opportunities in their environments and fashioning strategies and tactics to exploit them. Presidents who base their strategies of governing on the premise of the persuasive presidency are destined to fail.
Read an excerpt from The Strategic President, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

Learn more about the author and his work at George C. Edwards III's Texas A& M webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue