The essence of presidential leadership


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The challenges of governance have rarely been greater. The distance between parties in Congress and between party identifiers in the public is the greatest in a century. The public gives Congress the lowest approval ratings in modern history, but activists give members little room to compromise. The inability of Congress and the President to resolve critical issues leads to constant crises in government funding, endless debates over immigration, healthcare, environmental protection and other critical issues, and a failure to plan effectively for the future.

Given the challenges of governing, it’s no surprise that presidents typically choose a governance strategy based on the principle of overcoming obstacles to policy change by creating new opportunities through persuasion. As they enter the White House with vigor and drive, they are eager to create a legacy. Unfortunately, they also start their terms with the arrogance of ignorance and thus deduce from their success in reaching the highest office in the country that citizens and elected officials will react positively to themselves and their initiatives. As a result, modern presidents invest heavily in leading the public in the hope of leveraging public support to gain the support of Congress.

It’s no surprise that the new presidents, bathed in the glow of their electoral victories, are focused on creating, rather than exploiting, opportunities for change. It may seem entirely reasonable that leaders who have just won the biggest prize in American politics by convincing voters and party leaders to support their candidacies, conclude that they should be able to convince members of the public. and Congress to support their policy. Thus, they do not need to focus on evaluating existing possibilities when they think they can create their own.

However, campaigning is different from governing. Campaigns focus on short-term victory and candidates lead them in either term. To win an election, a candidate need only convince voters that he is a better choice than the few alternatives available. Moreover, someone always wins, whether the voters support the political positions of the winner or not.

Governing, on the other hand, involves deliberation, negotiation and often compromise over a long period of time. Moreover, in governing, the president’s policy is only one alternative among a wide range. In addition, delay is a common objective, and a common result, in matters of public order. Neither the public nor elected officials have to choose. While deadlock can sometimes be the president’s goal, the White House usually wants to convince people to support affirmative action.

In summary, we shouldn’t infer from election success that the White House can persuade members of the public and Congress to change their minds and support policies they would otherwise oppose. The American political system is not fertile ground for the exercise of presidential leadership. Most political actors, from the average citizen to members of Congress, are free to choose whether or not to follow the chief executive’s lead; the president cannot force them to act. At the same time, the division of powers established by the checks and balances of the Constitution not only prevents the president from acting unilaterally on the most important issues, but also gives other power-holders different perspectives on the problems and issues. policy proposals.

While it may be interesting to explain major political changes in terms of persuasive personalities and effective leadership style, public opinion is too biased, the political system is too complicated, power is too decentralized, and interests are too diverse for a person, no matter how extraordinary, to dominate. Neither the public nor Congress is likely to respond to the White House’s persuasion efforts. Presidents cannot create opportunities for change. There is overwhelming evidence that presidents, even “great communicators”, seldom point the public in their direction. Indeed, the public often opposes the position privileged by the president. Likewise, there is no systematic evidence that presidents can reliably influence members of Congress to support them through persuasion.

The context in which the president operates is the key element of presidential leadership. Successful leadership is therefore not the result of the chief executive dominating in political folklore reshaping the contours of the political landscape, altering its strategic position to pave the way for change. Rather than creating the conditions for significant changes in public policy, effective leaders are facilitators who work on the sidelines of building coalitions to recognize and exploit opportunities in their environment. When the various political resource streams converge to create opportunities for major change, presidents can be essential enablers in bringing about significant changes in public policy.

Recognizing and exploiting opportunities for change, rather than creating opportunities through persuasion, are essential presidential leadership skills. As Edgar stated in King Lear, “Maturity is everything.” To be successful, presidents must carefully assess opportunities for change in their environment and skillfully orchestrate existing and potential support. Successful leadership requires that the president have the commitment, resolve, resilience, and adaptability necessary to take full advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Featured Image Credit: Washington DC by retzer_c. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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Kevin E. Boling

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