The First Postmodern Presidency

The office Bill Clinton has assumed is smaller than it has ever before been in the modern era.
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Everyone agrees that Bill Clinton faces Herculean tasks in trying to reduce the deficit and improve the nation's health-care system. According to several prominent presidential scholars and corporate theorists, however, the toughest job of all for Clinton--and the one that could determine to what degree his term is a success--will be to redefine the very office of the presidency. Because of the end of the Cold War and recent changes in mass communication, the role Clinton assumes in the government and culture is far different from that played by Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, or even Ronald Reagan. Though politicians, the media, and the public continue to treat the presidency as the cynosure of American life, in important ways Clinton has inherited a diminished office. Abroad, the President's role as a foreign-policy leader has receded. From the end of the Second World War until roughly the middle of the Bush presidency, the threat of communism and nuclear war created a sense of continuing crisis, fueling demand for a strong presidency. Just as other wars led to increases in executive power throughout our history, so did the Cold War.

Moreover, because foreign policy is the one area in which a President can act with relatively little interference from Congress and the press, chief executives have tended to be absorbed by it. Even Jimmy Carter, a candidate elected without much of an international agenda, found himself spending an increasing amount of his presidency on foreign-policy issues, where it was easier to get things done. This ease of action in foreign affairs was aided by the fact that the Cold War coincided with a period of almost total American dominance of the international scene. Since Franklin Roosevelt's third term our Presidents have been primarily foreign-policy Presidents.

Those days are now fading. The world may still be a dangerous place, and foreign policy remains a presidential dominion. But if the end of the Cold War did nothing else, it reduced the public's fear of nuclear annihilation and thus its interest in foreign policy. The recent presidential campaign was the first since 1936 in which foreign-policy issues played virtually no role. What's more, the President's ability to shape the world has been greatly curtailed by the rise of the global economy. Richard Rose, a presidential scholar at the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland, describes a postmodern chief executive as one who, among other things, not only can no longer dominate the world but also finds that what happens abroad, in trade or monetary policy, often dictates what happens in the United States. As Rose puts it in his book The Postmodern President (1988), Presidents used to face stalemate and interference only at home. Now, as part of a so-called new world order, they can look forward to them abroad as well.

At the same time that these shifts have occurred, Presidents have learned dramatic new ways of using their office as a bully pulpit. Since the Administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Presidents have increasingly used the media to "go over the heads" of Congress on domestic matters, creating a cult of presidential personality and power--a "rhetorical presidency," in the words of the presidential scholar Jeffrey Tulis. In The Decline of American Political Parties (1990), Martin Wattenberg documents how the role of political parties has diminished in the past few decades, in large part because Presidents and other politicians have learned to communicate directly with voters through the mass media. Candidates increasingly run campaigns stressing their personal qualities rather than their party ties. That development inevitably has given the President increased visibility as the most powerful individual on the national scene.

Meanwhile, the rise of national mass media--first network radio and then three-network television--has allowed the President to speak in unmediated fashion to virtually the whole nation at once. Many recent presidential scholars have been writing about a similar phenomenon, as Samuel Kernell's "going public" and Theodore Lowi's "the personal president" together suggest: from Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan the history of the past sixty years has often been the story of how Presidents used the mass media to become our prime political movers, appropriating roles once held by Congress or the parties.

That era may be drawing to a close. The ability of a President to draw the mass audience that broadcasting once afforded has been dramatically diminished by the rise of cable television. The political conventions draw roughly two thirds of the audience they did twelve years ago: many Presidential news conferences are no longer covered by the three major networks. As Samuel Kernell has documented, when the major networks do cover a presidential appearance it tends to get lower ratings than in the past because of cable competition. Sixty percent or more of all households with television watched the first televised addresses of Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan, in the days before cable's ascendancy. George Bush never even broke 40 percent except with one speech--during the Gulf War. In this environment it becomes far more difficult for a President to mobilize the nation. The once all-powerful national megaphone of the presidency competes with many amplified voices in a diverse, atomized culture.

So what's Bill Clinton to do? One idea Clinton seems likely to pursue, as he did in the campaign, is that of a cable-TV-style marketing strategy. Instead of appearing ten or fifteen times a year on prime-time network television, where he would give a traditional formal speech or hold a press conference, Clinton may well appear far more often in a variety of different forums before smaller audiences--on the morning shows, C-SPAN, local television, talk radio, and even MTV. Marketers have found that generic mass-market advertising no longer works as effectively as targeted communication--so President Clinton would deliver his message, to borrow a phrase from his predecessor, as a thousand points of light. Occasional Clinton advisers such as Doug Ross, the former Michigan secretary of commerce and David Osborne, a co-author of Reinventing Government, spent time between Election Day and the Inauguration designing a presidential communication strategy that, if adopted, could eventually include extensive use of such direct-marketing expedients as video and audio cassettes, direct mail, and 800 numbers.

Ross sees this "direct relationship" as the key part of a broader effort to redefine the presidency. "If Clinton acts like just another FDR or JFK," Ross says, "he will at best end up making only marginal improvements that are unable to transport America successfully into the future." Describing Clinton's new mission, Ross cites not the scholars whom Presidents have often sought out in the past but popular business theorists, such as Max De Pree, the author of two highly impressionistic books on corporate leadership, Leadership Jam and Leadership is an Art, and the management guru Tom Peters. According to Ross, the world has entered an era of decentralization, in which large bureaucracies--whether General Motors or the federal government--are increasingly incapable of dealing in broad, programmatic ways with individual customer or constituent demands. Ross describes, in almost evangelical terms, a "new paradigm"--as applicable to Clinton as it is to CEOs--in which consumers and voters are looking to leaders to provide them with "broad visions and values rather than top-down commands and elaborate rule books." Borrowing a metaphor from De Pree, Ross says that a President is no longer like an autocratic symphony conductor, leading everyone together. Instead, he's more like a jazz musician, setting the tempo for each player to do his own thing. Evidently there was more to that picture of Clinton the saxophone player than met the eye.

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