Presidents Can't Lead

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A particularly insightful analysis of Obama's leadership style comes from political scientist George C. Edwards III of Texas A and M University, a leading presidential scholar. Edwards presented this in a paper at the 2010 meetings of the American Political Science Association in Washington, DC.

First, the paper establishes that presidents have a limited ability to direct the nation's agenda: 

Presidents cannot reshape the contours of the political landscape to pave the way for change by establishing an agenda and persuading the public. Instead, successful presidents facilitate change by recognizing opportunities in their environments and fashioning strategies and tactics to exploit them.

Second, even with a supportive Congress, presidents can't consistently direct change:

There is not a single systematic study that demonstrates that presidents can reliably move members of Congress, especially members of the opposition party, to support them. The best evidence is that presidential persuasion is at the margins of congressional decisionmaking.  Even presidents who appeared to dominate Congress were actually facilitators rather than directors of change ... Working at the margins, they successfully guided legislation through Congress.

Third, presidents can't reliably change public opinion through their rhetorical efforts: 

It is a mistake for presidents to assume they can lead the public. There is nothing in the historical record to support such a belief. In earlier research ... I found that public opinion rarely moved in a president's direction.

Edwards argues that Obama has conducted his presidency as if none of the above is true, by assuming he could lead public opinion and direct Congress. Neither has proven possible. The administration assumed early successes with the stimulus and health care would pave the way for greater presidential popularity and political clout. Instead, both the stimulus and health care have proven unpopular and their great cost and big scale has turned the public against other policy initiatives of Obama's presidency.

Edwards concludes:

Barack Obama is only the latest in a long line of presidents who have not been able to transform the political landscape through their efforts of persuasion. When he succeeded in achieving major change, it was by mobilizing those predisposed to support him and driving legislation through Congress on a party-line vote. Moreover, it is entirely possible that the president's failure to understand the nature of presidential power has undermined his ability to govern in the remainder of his term.
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Steven Schier

Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here .

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