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The Qualities That Bear on Presidential Performance by Fred I. Greenstein

In considering the qualities of effective and ineffective U.S. presidents, Fred I. Greenstein focused on the twelve modern presidents from FDR to George W. Bush, and used six criteria: Public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. And there is one attribute on his list to which he gives special emphasis, noting that without it, "all else may turn to ashes." Greenstein is author or editor of eight books on the U.S. presidency and is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Princeton University.

This excerpted passage is from Greenstein's book, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. pp. 217-223. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.

Effectiveness as a Public Communicator
For an office that places so great a premium on the presidential pulpit, the modern presidency has been surprisingly lacking in effective public communicators. Most presidents have not addressed the public with anything approximating the professionalism of countless educators, members of the clergy, and radio and television broadcasters. Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan -- and Clinton at his best -- are the shining exceptions.

Chief executives who find the most able of the presidential communicators daunting should be relieved to learn that their eloquence was in part the product of effort and experience. Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan took part in drafting their speeches and rehearsed their presentations. In 1910, when Eleanor Roosevelt first heard her husband give a speech, she was taken aback by his long pauses and slow delivery. "I was worried for fear that he would never go on," she recalled.1 When Kennedy was a freshman congressman, he had a diffident, self-effacing public manner. And for all of Reagan's professionalism, he did not perfect the podium manner of his political years until the 1950s, when his film career drew to a close and he found employment on the speaking circuit.

One president who allowed himself to be fazed by an accomplished predecessor was George H. W. Bush, who seems to have concluded that since he could not compare with Reagan as a communicator, he should be his near antithesis. Bush used the White House briefing room for his public communications, only rarely addressing the nation from the Oval Office, and he instructed his speech writers to temper his prose. Bush's initial three years of high public approval provide a reminder that formal addresses are not the only way for a president to remain in the good graces of the public. His defeat highlights the costs of a leadership style that gives short shrift to the teaching and preaching side of presidential leadership.

Organizational Capacity
A president's capacity as an organizer includes his ability to forge a team and get the most out of it, minimizing the tendency of subordinates to tell their boss what they sense he wants to hear. It also includes a quite different matter: his proficiency at creating effective institutional arrangements. There is an illuminating postpresidential indicator of a president's success as a team builder -- the way that he is remembered by alumni of his administration. Veterans of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Ford, and George H. W. Bush presidencies have nothing but praise for their erstwhile chiefs. In contrast, few Johnson, Carter, and Clinton lieutenants emerged from their White House service with unmixed views of the president they served. Most ambivalent are the former aides of Richard Nixon, a number of whom went to prison for their actions in his service.

Presidents also differ in their ability to avail themselves of a rich and varied fare of advice and information. FDR encouraged diversity in the recommendations that reached him by pitting his assistants against one another. Kennedy's method was to charge his brother Robert and his alter ego Theodore Sorensen with scrutinizing the proposals of his other advisers for flaws and pitfalls. The modern president with by far the greatest and most demanding organizational experience was Eisenhower, who had a highly developed view of the matter. "I know of only one way in which you can be sure you have done your best to make a wise decision," he declared in a 1967 interview:

That is to get all of the [responsible policymakers] with their different viewpoints in front of you, and listen to them debate. I do not believe in bringing them in one at a time, and therefore being more impressed by the most recent one you hear than the earliest ones. You must get courageous men of strong views, and let them debate with each other. 2

Not all of the modern presidents have been open to vigorous give and take. Nixon and Reagan were uncomfortable in the presence of face-to-face disagreement. Johnson's Texas-sized personality had a chilling effect on some of his subordinates. His NSC staff member Chester Cooper recalled recurrent fantasies of facing down LBJ at NSC meetings when Johnson sought his concurrence on a matter relating to Vietnam by replying, "I most definitely do not agree." But when LBJ turned to him and asked, "Mr. Cooper, do you agree?" Cooper found himself replying, "Yes, Mr. President, I agree." 3

The capacity to design effective institutional arrangements has been in even scarcer supply than effective public communication in the modern presidency. In this department, Eisenhower was in a class of his own. The most emulation-worthy of his departures was the set of arrangements that framed his administration's national security deliberations. Each week the top planners in the bodies represented in the NSC hammered out option papers stating the policy recommendations of their agencies. The disagreements were clearly delineated and set before the NSC, where they were the object of sharp, focused debate. The result was as important for preparing Eisenhower's foreign policy team to work together as it was for grounding it in the issues bearing on unfolding global contingencies.

Political Skill
The classic statement of the centrality of political skill to presidential performance is Richard E. Neustadt's Presidential Power, which has been described as the closest approximation to Machiavelli's writings in the literature of American politics.4 The question Neustadt addresses is how the chief executive can put his stamp on public policy in the readily stalemated American political system. Neustadt's prescription is for the president to use the powers of his office assertively, build and maintain public support, and establish a reputation among fellow policymakers as a skilled, determined political operator. If there ever was reason to doubt Neustadt's diagnosis, it was eliminated by the presidential experience of Jimmy Carter.

Lyndon Johnson seemed almost to have taken his methods from the pages of Presidential Power. Within hours after Kennedy's assassination, Johnson had begun to muster support for major domestic policy departures. He exhibited will as well as skill, cultivating his political reputation by keeping Congress in session until Christmas 1963 in order to prevail in one of his administration's first legislative contests. His actions won him strong public support, making it apparent to his opposite numbers on Capitol Hill that it would be politically costly to ignore his demands.

"Vision" is a term with a variety of connotations. One is the capacity to inspire. In this the rhetorically gifted presidents -- Kennedy, Reagan, and above all FDR -- excelled. In the narrower meaning employed here, "vision" refers to preoccupation with the content of policies, an ability to assess their feasibility, and the possession of a set of overarching goals. Here the standouts are Eisenhower, Nixon, and to a lesser extent Ronald Reagan, whose views were poorly grounded in specifics. Vision also encompasses consistency of viewpoint. Presidents who stand firm are able to set the terms of policy discourse. In effect they serve as anchors for the rest of the political community.

George H. W. Bush was not alone in lacking "the vision thing." He falls in a class of presidential pragmatists that includes the bulk of the modern chief executives. The costs of vision-free leadership include internally inconsistent programs, policies that have unintended consequences, and sheer drift. When it comes to vision, the senior Bush could not have been more different from his son, George W. Bush, for whom having an explicit agenda is a watchword. Ironically, the younger Bush's vision led him in potentially problematic directions, most strikingly in the case of the war in Iraq, in which a short-run military victory was followed by a continuing pattern of guerilla warfare against the American occupying force. In short, the first Bush suffered for his lack of vision, and the second Bush may prove to suffer because of his policy vision.

Cognitive Style
Presidents vary widely in their cognitive styles. Jimmy Carter had an engineer's proclivity to reduce issues to what he perceived to be their component parts. That style served him well in the 1978 Camp David negotiations, but it was ill suited for providing his administration with a sense of direction. Carter's cognitive qualities contrast with the kind of strategic intelligence that cuts to the heart of a problem, as Eisenhower did when he introduced his administration's deliberations on Dien Bien Phu with the incisive observation that the jungles of Indochina would "absorb our divisions by the dozens."5

Another example of strategic intelligence is to be had from a chief executive who will never grace Mount Rushmore: Richard Nixon. Two years before entering the White House, Nixon laid down the goals of moving the United States beyond its military involvement in Vietnam, establishing a balance of power with the Soviet Union and an opening with China. By the final year of his first term, he had accomplished his purposes.

Nixon's first-term successes contrast with the paucity of major accomplishments in the two White House terms of the first presidential Rhodes scholar, Bill Clinton. Clinton possessed a formidable ability to absorb and process ideas and information, but his mind was more synthetic than analytic, and his political impulses sometimes led him to substitute mere rationalization for reasoned analysis.

Two presidents who were marked by cognitive limitations were Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. Truman's uncritical reading of works of popular history made him susceptible to false historical analogies. Reagan was notorious for his imperfect understanding of a number of his policy initiatives. That both presidents had major policy accomplishments shows that intelligence and information as measured by standardized tests is not the sole cause of presidential effectiveness.

Emotional Intelligence
Four of the twelve modern presidents stand out as fundamentally free of distracting emotional perturbations: Eisenhower, Ford, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Four others were marked by emotional undercurrents that did not significantly impair their leadership: Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan. That leaves Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton, all of whom were emotionally handicapped. The vesuvian LBJ was subject to mood swings of clinical proportions. Jimmy Carter's rigidity was a significant impediment to his White House performance. The defective impulse conrrol of Bill Clinton led him into actions that ensued in his impeachment.

Richard Nixon was the most emotionally flawed of the presidents considered here. His anger and suspiciousness were of Shakespearean proportions. He more than any other presidenr summons up the classic notion of a tragic hero who is defeated by the very qualities that brought him success. It has been argued that the tortured psyche of a Nixon is a precondition of political creativitsy. This was the view of Elliot Richardson, who held that if Nixon's "rather petty flaws" had been taken away, "you would probably have removed that very inner core of insecurity that led to his rise."6 Richardson's claim is a variant of the proposition that the inner torment of a Van Gogh is the price of his creativity, but other great painters were free of Van Gogh's self-destructiveness, and the healthy-minded Eisenhower was as gifted as Nixon in the positive aspects of leadership. Great political ability does sometimes derive from troubled emotions, but the former does not justify the latter in the custodian of the most destructive military arsenal in human experience.


In the world of imagination it is possible to envisage a cognitively and emotionally intelligent chief executive, who happens also to be an inspiring public communicator, a capable White House organizer, and the possessor of exceptional political skill and vision. In the real world, human imperfection is inevitable, but some imperfections are more disabling than others. Many of the modern presidents have performed adequately without being brilliant orators. Only a few chief executives have been organizationally competent. A minimal level of political skill is a precondition of presidential effectiveness, but political skill is widely present in the handful of individuals who rise to the political summit. Vision is rarer than skill, but only Lyndon Johnson was disastrously deficient in the realm of policy.

Finally there are thought and emotion. The importance of cognitive strength in the presidency should be self-evident. Still, Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton had impressive intellects and defective temperaments. They reversed Justice Holmes's characterization of FDR. Clinton's foibles made him an underachiever and national embarrassment. Carter's defective temperament contributed to making his time in office a period of lost opportunity. Johnson and Nixon presided over major policy breakthroughs, but also over two of the most unhappy episodes of the twentieth century. All four presidential experiences point to the following moral: Beware the presidential contender who lacks emotional intelligence. In its absence all else may turn to ashes.

1 Eleanor Roosevelt, This Is My Story (New York: Harper, 1937), 167.

2 Dwight D. Eisenhower, Columbia University Oral History Inerview, July 20, 1967, 103.

3 Chester L. Cooper, Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam (Greenwich, Conn.: Dodd, Mead, 1970), 223.

4 Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership (New York: Wiley, 1960).

5 See Chapter 4 and John P. Burke, Fred I. Greenstein, with Larry Berman and Richard Immerman, How Presidents Test Reality (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1988), chaps. 2-5, 32.

6 Richardson interview, Arts and Entertainment Network documentary: Biography: Richard Nixon: Man and President (New York, 1996).

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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