The powers of the presidency have changed almost beyond recognition since the infancy of the office, when foreign relations were handled by a dozen clerks and diplomats, the armed forces consisted of several thousand soldiers and sailors, and the President himself took months-long summer vacations from the yellow-fever-ravaged capital of Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.
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One pattern of presidential decision-making was established early on, however. The process is determined not by the office but by who holds it. The first President, George Washington, a veteran officer and a lifelong performer, led from the front; his decisions, clear and direct, were announced—if not made—in public. Thomas Jefferson, the third President, had a different style; a century and a half before the political scientist Fred I. Greenstein coined the phrase "hidden-hand presidency" to describe Dwight D. Eisenhower's time in office, Jefferson operated behind a screen of reticence, dinner-table charm, and the feints of congressional front men. The first Presidents also pioneered different ways of taking advice before making decisions. Washington weighed the counsel of often quarrelsome advisers, chiefly Jefferson, his Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, his Treasury Secretary; John Adams, the second President, dealt with a Cabinet that was positively mutinous by firing half its members in his last year in office. In this area, too, Jefferson introduced a new model: the men around him all sang from the same page. His most important advisers—James Madison, at the State Department, and Albert Gallatin, at the Treasury—had worked with him and each other for years, and harmonized in ideology and temperament.
Presidents do not choose from a number of complete decision-making models but gravitate toward one pole or the other on a variety of axes. The axis of presenting decisions gives us extroverts (Truman—"the buck stops here") or hidden hands (Van Buren, who "rowed to his object with muffled oars"). The axis of advice-taking gives us ringmasters presiding over an endless circus (FDR) or unifiers who deplore or even hate conflict (Nixon). There are Presidents who take in information and assign tasks through an orderly, hierarchical structure (Eisenhower named the first chief of staff), and those who position themselves at the center of converging spokes of counsel (Clinton). There is an axis of learning, which runs from Presidents who seek frankly for guidance to Presidents who know everything to begin with. (Jefferson was considered a polymath—though some weren't so sure. John Quincy Adams, then a senator, heard Jefferson tell White House dinner guests that he had learned Spanish in only nineteen days, using a grammar and a copy of Don Quixote. "But," Adams wrote in his diary, "Mr. Jefferson tells large stories.") No extreme on any axis guarantees success; there are heroes and dogs at either end of each one. The axis of mental health, along which are ranged the serene (Ford) and the tormented (Nixon again), might seem to be an exception—until we remember the deep depressions of Abraham Lincoln. The possible permutations have yielded almost as many kinds of decision-makers as we have had Presidents.