Fred I. Greenstein, the Presidential Difference: Leadership Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Fred I. Greenstein, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama, Third Edition. Princeton University Press, 2009.

Fred I. Greenstein's central point The Presidential Difference is that in the modern U.S. political system since the Great Depression and Second World War, the presidents are now they key actors, far more so than the pre-1933 period when Congress was the most important branch of government. Because the role of the executive expanded exponentially in both foreign and domestic affairs, the leadership style of the presidents became a crucial factor in policymaking and policy failures. He analyzes the leadership style of the thirteen presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, including their communication abilities (or lack thereof), personality and emotional makeup, cognitive/intellectual abilities, and organizational talents. If Roosevelt set the pattern and served as the template for the modern chief executive -- and there seems to be little doubt that this is the case -- then most of his successors have fallen short of the mark in comparison. Indeed, certain presidents like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon fell drastically short, which is especially ironic in the case of Johnson since he was FDR's young protege in the 1930s and 1940s. In emotional and mental health as well as policy failures, Nixon and Johnson turned out to be disastrous presidents, and opened the door to revived conservative criticism about the honesty and effectiveness of the federal government over the next thirty years. This skepticism about government was best typified with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, who famously asserted that government was not the solution but the problem. Despite his excellent communications skills, however, Reagan's limited intellectual skills and lack of knowledge about the details of policy and organization also damaged his administration and the country as a whole. This was also the case with George W. Bush in 2001-09, who was probably the worst president of the last 100 years and left his successor Barack Obama a total catastrophe in both domestic and foreign affairs.

In comparing and contrasting the modern 'imperial' presidents, Greenstein finds that FDR set a standard that turned out to be impossible for any of his successors to equal. Beyond question, he was a political genius and master of communications on a level that only Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln could match. He came to power in 1933, in the worst crisis that the country had faced since the Civil War. With the economy on the verge of collapse, he radically altered the role of the federal government in every area of life, including Social Security, agriculture, labor relations, energy policy and regulation of Wall Street. Although the New Deal was deficient in dealing with problems like national health care and civil rights, FDR's Democratic successors like Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all attempted to complete the tasks that Roosevelt had set, albeit with mixed success. Even Republican presidents like Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower did not seriously challenge the New Deal and the expanded role of the federal government in the domestic economy and society. Indeed, Eisenhower created the department of Health, Education and Welfare, built the interstate highway system and expanded Social Security, while Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, proclaimed himself a Keynesian and even considered a scheme for guaranteed annual incomes. Despite a strong conservative counter-narrative demanding limited government and balanced budgets, at no time since the 1930s has the size of the federal government actually decreased -- just the opposite. This was also true in foreign policy, in which Roosevelt led the country to victory against the gravest threat to its survival that it had ever faced, although the large military-industrial-scientific establishment created during the Second World War also became a permanent facet of American life and government during the Cold War. Before Roosevelt, the United States had never been a global superpower, while since his time it has never been anything else. Whether it can afford to continue this indefinitely remains to be seen, only most likely it will not be able to do so.

None of Roosevelt's successors had the same level of political skills or communication abilities, and none had his breadth of vision in foreign and domestic policy. Harry Truman was an accidental president, for example, chosen not because of his abilities but in order to mediate between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party in the upcoming election -- and these wings finally did break apart after the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He knew that FDR was in poor health in 1944 and not likely to survive his fourth term, but he definitely did not want to be on the ticket and only did so on the direct orders of FDR. By his own admission, Truman was not an intellectual giant or a great communicator, but he has earned high marks for his considerable honesty, courage and determination. In domestic policy, he continued the New Deal and even attempted to expand it with national health insurance and new civil rights protections, but with only limited success. In foreign policy, with the Marshall Plan, NATO and the Korean War, his administration put in place the containment policy against the Soviet Union that became the center of U.S. foreign policy for the next forty years. Even the self-described 'realism' of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger was well in line with this basic policy, although they did manage to make a de facto alliance with China to balance against the Soviet Union.

After Roosevelt and Truman, there were no fundamental changes in domestic and foreign policy, at least until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Most of the presidents after that time tinkered at the margins with the system that was already in place, although there was considerable variation in their leadership style, emotional and personality makeups and intellectual and organizational abilities. Eisenhower was strong in written communications, organization and strategic vision, and like FDR and Kennedy, he listened to a wide variety of opinions and encouraged debate before making a decision. His public communication abilities were limited at best, but as a personality he was far healthier a better balanced than Nixon or Lyndon Johnson. In fact, because of their great personal insecurities -- and perhaps even paranoia -- Nixon and Johnson showed no tolerance for debate and discussion. They were often highly secretive and dishonest, even with their most loyal supporters, and this defective style of leadership led them into the disasters of Vietnam and Watergate. Both men were politically adept, of course, and Nixon had a strong strategic vision, but their emotional and personality flaws severely damaged their presidencies and public faith in governmental institutions.

Kennedy was an excellent communicator and also very gifted intellectually, while his emotional and personality flaws did not damage his administration as they did with his successors. Indeed, he had great misgivings about Lyndon Johnson, who was only on the ticket in order to bolster Southern support for the Democratic Party. In the case of his accidental presidency, however, the results were far worse than with Truman's in 1945. Even so, with the Great Society programs like civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid and federal aid to education, Johnson could rightfully claim to have been the most successful domestic reformer since FDR. Vietnam destroyed his presidency, though, and permanently tarnished his legacy. Jimmy Carter was elected in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate by promising to bring honesty, trust and Christian morality back into government. He was also intellectually gifted with an engineer's mind that dwelled on the details of policy rather than the broad outlines, as Ronald Reagan did. In fact, with his detached management and organizational style and indifference to detail, Reagan was the opposite…

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