The First Postmodern Presidency

The office Bill Clinton has assumed is smaller than it has ever before been in the modern era.

By Steven Sark

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.

For example, Ross foresees that Clinton might announce a new initiative dealing with educational standards after holding a public meeting with education experts, much like the December economic summit in Little Rock. Or he might give a speech to discuss the issue, using videotapes to provide viewers with a clear picture of the problem. Interested voters would be encouraged to respond to questionnaires; they might then be put on a list to receive an audio tape or a series of mailings, or to attend a town meeting. Afterward the Secretary of Education might announce a series of pilot projects to test new ideas. The eventual goal, Ross says, would be to provide local school districts with good information that they could apply individually, consistent with a national approach. It's a vision of customer-driven government which appears strangely similar to Ross Perot's concept of an electronic town hall.

Related ideas have been outlined by other corporate theorists, among them Peter Block, the author of The Empowered Manager (1987). "There's a new model for corporate leadership now," Block says. "The whole patriarchal concept of a charismatic leader to whose authority you submit so he will take care of you is disappearing, in favor of a model in which partnership and service are dominant ideas." If Clinton can redefine the presidency to be more consistent with that model, Block says, he won't have to worry much about his TV ratings. "You don't turn up the volume in response to the new age," he says. "You change the station."

If this all sounds a bit ethereal and imbued with New Age spirituality, it is. Moreover, even if the goals of advisers like Ross and Osborne can be reduced to a blueprint, enormous problems would arise in trying to implement such a vision of the presidency in other than peripheral ways. Using an innovative communication strategy to deal with a few creative aspects of education policy is one thing; using the same method to come up with defense or trade proposals is quite another. Some question the relevance of "CEO models" to the presidency at all--with respect to communication or anything else. A CEO typically has the power to move workers around and even lay them off; a President has very little control over the federal work force. "What's the incentive for anyone who's not on the White House staff to do anything?" asks James Pinkerton, who was a counselor to President Bush and was known for trying to get his boss to think about the "new paradigm." Jeffrey Tulis, the acting chair of the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, sees another problem. "Political leadership and business leadership are not the same," he says. "In business, the bottom line is money. In politics, the whole point is to figure out what the bottom line even is." In other words, without an initial firm agreement on the chord changes, the jazz is likely to turn into nothing more than loud noise.

Others find fault with a model that has the President continually on the road, or running from studio to studio. Sixteen years ago Jimmy Carter developed a communication strategy similar to the one proposed for Clinton, albeit on a smaller scale, when he scheduled town meetings in distant places and joined Walter Cronkite in order to take questions by phone. This approach hardly helped him. Moreover, for a President--as for any public figure--there is a danger of overexposure. "If the Carter administration were a television show," Russell Baker wrote in December of 1977, "it would have been cancelled months ago." Franklin Roosevelt never averaged more than two Fireside Chats a year until the war. In contrast, even Bush--who was hardly known for a concerted communication strategy--made fifty-six television appearances of various sorts during his first nineteen months in office.

Tulis is one of several presidential scholars who maintain that what Clinton needs to do with the presidency is something quite different from running a perpetual campaign, as he apparently intends to do. "Teledemocracy has weakened the presidency," Tulis says. "A President needs some distance from the people to reflect, to slow down passionate ideas, and to protect minority rights against the tyranny of the majority." If Presidents have often been more successful in the international arena than in the domestic one, he says, it is because the conduct of foreign policy doesn't lend itself to public campaigning.

Theodore Lowi, a professor of government at Cornell, says that Presidents inevitably create other problems for themselves when they establish a close relationship with the electorate by means of television. Such a "personal presidency" helps to set expectations so high that they cannot but be dashed when the President and the public find, inevitably, that the chief executive's powers to change the nation's domestic life are limited. "As visibility goes up," Lowi says, "so do expectations and vulnerability. There's more of a chance to make really big mistakes. It's a treadmill to oblivion. It's why modern history is filled with so many failed presidencies."

For that reason Lowi recommends that Clinton try to avoid a personal presidency. With the rise of "narrowcasting" and a diminishing media role for the President, Lowi sees a historic opportunity for Clinton to reduce the heroic expectations that have encumbered the office. He thinks that Clinton should reduce his visibility and resist efforts to accumulate presidential influence--getting rid of regulatory reforms that increase executive power and vetoing bills that impose conditions he can't meet.

Lowi's views have a correlate in the private sector. Many CEOs have successfully reformed their businesses by decentralizing power, giving far more authority and visibility to people who are closer to customers. The problem is that a CEO disperses power to other employees in his organization, whereas a President who gives up power along the lines Lowi suggests often gives it to another branch of government, Congress, which is considered more a competitor than part of the team.

Another problem, of course, is that Clinton probably didn't spend his life planning a run for the presidency so that he could diminish its importance. In the popular mind, and most likely in Clinton's own, the great Presidents were the strong and visible ones who accumulated power--the Abraham Lincolns, not the Calvin Coolidges. And in the end there is only so much that Clinton himself can do, even if he were to agree with Lowi and like-minded scholars. News coverage revolves around strong personas: in the Weltanschauung of the Washington press corps, the President must be the focus of events. The press would likely rebel against any moves that dictated otherwise. Moreover, if the rise of the Cold War and the age of broadcasting contributed to the growth of the executive branch, they were hardly the only factors. The rise of the regulatory and social-welfare state which began in the Roosevelt Administration has played a major role too.

Still, the presidency seems headed toward a different role in American life, though it may take years for that progress to be affected and assessed. Horace W. Busby, once an aide to Lyndon Johnson and now the publisher of a Washington newsletter, foresees an era in which the President will be a kind of "governor of the fifty states." "The President will become more of an irrelevancy," he says. "The old image of the powerful President wasn't due only to the Cold War. It was the product of a more primitive era. People today have far more education and exposure to the outside world. They don't need to attach that importance and responsibility to the office anymore." Indeed, in the new age of fragmentation, when it's tougher to assemble a mass following, virtually all colossal entities and authority figures of the old age have seen their prestige and power recede. There are no centers of the universe anymore: if Dan Rather is no Walter Cronkite, and Jay Leno is no Johnny Carson, it's not necessarily because the people got smaller; it's because, metaphorically speaking, the pictures did too. It's no coincidence that George Bush was no Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton is no Jack Kennedy. Their successors won't be either.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1993/04/the-first-postmodern-presidency/307261/