The Strategic President: Persuasion & Opportunity in Presidential Leadership

  • Published

The Strategic President: Persuasion & Opportunity in Presidential Leadership by George C. Edwards III. Princeton University Press, 2009, 256 pp.

The Strategic President analyzes the popular and persistent assumption that US presidents have the capability to win over the American public to their agendas utilizing their persuasive talents. Ultimately, Edwards, the Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University, convincingly debunks this myth, boldly declaring, Presidential power is not the power to persuade.” The book clearly illustrates that it is the context in which a president finds him or herself that defines the boundaries of what is possible during that administration. Rather than persuasion, presidents can facilitate change by recognizing opportunities and exploiting them; some did this well, while others struggled, either because they lacked the necessary facilitator aptitude or because they were utterly convinced of their own persuasive powers, to the detriment of their policy initiatives.

If one accepts his thesis—that presidents cannot really use persuasion to create opportunities for change—it fundamentally alters a prevalent assumption in US political discourse: that the “bully pulpit” can be used to great effect by “effective” leaders. Edwards delivers a solid defense of his thesis, providing a trove of illuminating facts and statistical evidence that lend credence to his proposition.

The work provides valuable insights not just for aspiring presidential candidates, but also the public at large in terms of reasonable expectations about what can or cannot be accomplished. Edwards is correct to point out that a better understanding of the potential of leadership can give one a renewed appreciation for compromise and democratic constraints. Given the pronounced partisanship evident in national politics these days, accompanied by an increasing lack of civility, the message he offers is an antidote to the brimming overconfidence of many politicians and the pervasive cynicism infecting the electorate.

Moreover, it stands to reason that if persuasion is not the lubricant to get things done, as so widely believed, then we must look elsewhere for the reasons why a given president was successful (or not). In short, though many may desire to explain policy shifts primarily in terms of personalities and persuasion, the reality is “the political system is too complicated, power too decentralized, and interests too diverse for one person, no matter how extraordinary, to dominate.” Edwards cautions against underestimating the talent of those who may lack great oratory skills but nevertheless are effective at recognizing and exploiting opportunities for change through facilitation, which is essentially reading the winds, tacking your sail in the direction the public already wants to go (whether they realize it or not), and then maintaining a general course through compromises.

Edwards contends that if we are to better understand the presidency and what actually drives most policy changes, we should lessen our focus on the person and widen our aperture, gaining a greater appreciation for the context in which a president seeks to lead. That is not to say presidents cannot help guide the national discussion and structure choices for voters and legislators, only to moderate unrestrained expectations. Underscoring the point, fellow presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek half-jokingly concludes, “All presidents change American politics, but rarely do they change it even roughly in the manner they intended.” His useful—albeit underappreciated—lens by which to evaluate the efficacy of a given president reminds us that success or failure is largely determined by the context confronting them while in office rather than any gift of persuasion they may bring (or believe they bring) to the Oval Office. “Personalizing politics can distract our attention from factors that play a larger role in explaining presidential success in Congress [or elsewhere] and greatly oversimplify our understanding of executive-legislative relations.”

Timing, not getting too far ahead of public opinion, and not being too enamored with one’s ability to personally sway others to one’s message are all important factors, too. For example, Lincoln, “always move[d] in conjunction with propitious circumstances, not waiting to be dragged by the force of events or wasting strength in premature struggles with them.” It was not that Lincoln did not suffer setbacks, but more often than not, he recognized maturing windows of opportunity by “tak[ing] a stethoscope to Union opinion and read[ing] it with such skill.” By contrast, consider President Clinton’s inability to get comprehensive health care reform passed. “The White House’s unquestioned faith that the president could rally Americans produced a rigid insistence on comprehensive reforms,” even though the country was not prepared to move that far that fast. Clinton and his staff seriously overestimated their ability to persuade the public. And yet, as the book highlights, Clinton did not take away the lesson that persuasion was of very limited value. Instead, he surmised that health care reform failed because he did not get more involved in selling his message. If he had invested more time using persuasion he could have convinced the public that reform was worthy of their support. “In other words, his strategy was not inappropriate, only his implementation of it.”

Clearly, if successive generations of politicians believe persuasion is such a powerful tool for change, then it stands to reason the public would as well. But the author makes a compelling argument that encourages us to question that logic.

At times, Edwards seemed to repeat his message maybe a bit too much, delving into minutia that did not directly contribute to his overarching message. Nevertheless, those interested in presidential history, policy formation and advocacy, and counterintuitive thinking would find this work interesting and informative.

Lt Col John H. Modinger, PhD, USAF

United States Air Force Academy

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."