BookReviews

Presidential in name

Once elected, American presidents discover the impotence of office

Reviewed by Jacob Heilbrunn

The presidency has progressively assumed a greater importance in American politics. An individual president may enter office promising to curb the size of government, but the temptation to aggrandise his—so far, America has not had any female presidents, unless you wish to count the temerarious Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, who effectively ran government as her enfeebled husband Woodrow Wilson convalesced in the White House during his final years as president—power is almost always overwhelming. In recent decades, presidents have been issuing so-called ‘signing’ statements alongside bills passed by Congress, allowing them to override its intent, substituting their own better judgment for that of legislators. More legitimately, presidents have the bully pulpit, which Congress lacks—the ability to address the nation whenever and wherever they please, to rouse it to action, to decry gridlock, and to demand that legislators heed the will of the people.

Yet for all the powers of the presidency, it remains a rather fragile institution. The number of truly successful presidents in recent decades, it must be said, has been rather slender. Richard M. Nixon’s reputation may be on the rise, but he was driven from the White House for criminal activities. Gerald Ford, widely derided as a cipher, failed to win reelection. His successor, Jimmy Carter, is a byword for ineptitude. Bill Clinton presided over peace and prosperity, but failed to get any significant programs passed. Most recently, Barack Obama, who barely managed to get healthcare approved, has found the experience of being president rather vexing, attacked by the right for doing too much and by the left for not doing enough. Only Ronald Reagan, once reviled by Democrats as an addled former movie actor, is now seen as a transformative president who restored the economy and won the Cold War. What is it about the presidency that makes it such a tempting but difficult office to master?

In Overreach, George C. Edwards III, a professor at Texas A & M who has written extensively on the modern presidency, pours cold water on the notion that presidents can singlehandedly sway debate. Not only that. Edwards suggests that the belief that a president can move from election to enacting a bold program is largely bogus. Instead, the power of presidents is limited. The difficulties that Obama has encountered are no aberration, but symptomatic of the impediments that any American leader would face.

How can it be, Edwards asks, that Obama, treated as a demigod on the eve of ascension to the presidency, was quickly humbled? “How,” he writes, “could this bright, articulate, decent, and knowledgeable new president have such a difficult time attaining his goals? Did the president fumble the ball, making tactical errors in his attempt to govern?” Not a bit of it, says Edwards. “The problem was in the strategies themselves—in the belief that they could succeed.” In essence, Edwards is debunking the great man theory of politics — the conviction that presidents can radically alter public debate. They cannot. And they are better off recognising that truth sooner than later.

This arresting thesis is relentlessly prosecuted by Edwards. As Edwards sees it, Bill Clinton made the romantic mistake of believing he could influence the public when he first introduced healthcare reform in November 1993, or what quickly became known as Hillarycare. According to Edwards, “the president and his aides had greatly overestimated their ability to persuade the public to support their proposal.” The more they appealed to the public, the faster any support they had for the measure dwindled.

Then there is George W. Bush’s push for social security reform. Bush was convinced that he had earned capital with his reelection in 2004 and boasted that he was going to spend it. But the money was never in the bank. The idea was that workers would invest Social Security taxes in private accounts. But Democrats successfully suggested that Bush’s privatisation scheme would gut Social Security and render workers vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the stock market—a warning that seemed to acquire even more potency after Wall Street’s crash in 2008.

It was Obama’s supporters—more than Obama himself—who attached an exaggerated importance to his victory. Edwards notes that in a press conference on 25 November 2008 Obama was careful to note what while he had enjoyed a “decisive win”, it was also the case that “46 or 47 per cent” of the country had voted for John McCain. So Obama said he would enter office with a “sense of humility and a recognition that wisdom is not the monopoly of any one party.” Edwards says that, “the president-elect had it about right.” But by the time of his inauguration Obama had begun to take a more expansive view of his victory: “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long,” he said, “no longer prevail.” He was wrong. Edwards notes that conservative sentiments continued to predominate in polls. The US appeared to remain a centre-right country, no matter what Obama might hope or his supporters believe.

Edwards provides a dose of realism when it comes to assessing the presidency. But his gelid approach is rather depressing and all but rules out the impact of contingency and personality. The presidents that are considered great—Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—ushered in fundamental change. Edwards would suggest that they personified rather than drove change. But can the two be so neatly separated? After all, Ronald Reagan, to the shock of many of his supporters, reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War. Reagan wasn’t a captive of his base, but an audacious old fellow. And for all his emphasis on the futility of trying to persuade voters, might Edwards himself underestimate the impact that extravagant Republican claims about the dire effects of the abortive Clinton healthcare bill would possess for the average American? Perhaps the real problem was tactical—the bill was drawn up in secret without the participation of leading Democrats such as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who denounced Hillary Clinton’s efforts publicly.

And what about Obama? Is it possible that if he wins a second term he might go down as a major president beyond his feat as the first African-American to win the presidency? Already a counter-narrative is beginning to emerge in which Obama’s accomplishments are more substantial than his critics have been willing to grant. In The New New Deal, for example, Michael Grunwald, a correspondent for Time magazine, argues that Obama’s record is much more important than is commonly acknowledged. Grunwald believes that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is a great legislative victory. Ditto for the Affordable Care Act—or Obamacare, as it is known. Some of Obama’s other accomplishments include the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and avoiding a major new war.

Still, Edwards provides a useful corrective to the popular misconception that a president can, with a wave of the wand, or, to put it more precisely, presidential pen, dictate the course of domestic and foreign events. He has no patience with the supporters of Obama who have cudgelled him for not being more bellicose in attacking Republicans and in preaching compromise. Edwards concludes with an admonition that Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Edward Thayer Mahan on 12 March 1901: “While something can be done by public men in leading the people, they cannot lead them further than public opinion has prepared the way.” It is a sentiment whose wisdom Obama would surely endorse even as he seeks to overcome it.