What Makes a Leader?

Presidential Styles Judged

Posted October 19, 2009 at 4:13pm

What defines a presidency? Is it circumstance — the state of world affairs or the domestic situation left behind by the previous commander in chief?

The present administration has made reference to the economic and diplomatic messes left by George W. Bush, possibly as a buffer to criticism that President Barack Obama isn’t doing enough or hasn’t made good on certain promises. But if Princeton professor Fred I. Greenstein is correct, the success or failure of the Obama presidency will rest more on the man himself than on the current point in history.

In “Inventing the Job of President,— Greenstein examines the first seven American presidents, evaluating them not so much on the political and policy climates of their days as on their personal and professional conduct. He does this through the lens of six criteria: public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, policy vision, cognitive style and emotional intelligence.

Greenstein developed this system while writing his previous books, including his other 2009 release, “The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama.—

His six standards can be applied in evaluating any of the 44 presidents, but in “Inventing the Job of President,— Greenstein uses them to explain how each of the distinct characters who held the office in the early years of the country shaped the role of the presidency for their successors.

Greenstein gives high marks to George Washington for being a level-headed and effective leader. In fact, he credits Washington’s character as the reason that the office comes with such broad power in the first place. He opens the chapter about Washington by quoting one of the framers on the first president’s virtue.

“The powers accorded the presidency by the Constitution ‘would not have been so great,’ one of the framers recalled, if he and his colleagues had not ‘cast their eyes toward General Washington as president and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a president by their opinions of his virtue.’—

Greenstein then makes the interesting point that after the colonies’ fight against strong British rule, it would seem counterintuitive to give great power to one man, but the early Americans made an exception for Washington. It is worth considering how different the office might look even today had they not put so much faith in him.

The emotionally volatile John Adams, on the other hand, does not fare as well under Greenstein’s test. He gets points for his work with the Continental Congress and for having enough integrity to stick to his ideals rather than compromise for political gain, but he was, on the whole, less effective than might have been expected.

It seems Greenstein also approved of Thomas Jefferson’s governing style, although he notes Jefferson’s tumultuous second term among his failings.

Greenstein goes on, including a brief biography and an analysis of each presidency through Andrew Jackson.

“Inventing the Job of President— makes it clear that political games have not changed much since the early days of the nation.

They may have had smaller staffs and traveled to campaign less frequently, but the earliest commanders in chief understood the need to get their message across and of a good public persona.

“There were no Rahm Emanuels and the like, but presidents used their associates as extensions of themselves,— Greenstein said.

He acknowledged that for some political leaders, the very qualities that got them elected ended up being what hurt them when they finally got down to work.

“I can see why rectitude and being staunch in their beliefs— would be considered admirable qualities, he said. But some were “so rigid and unbending, their strength of character became their Achilles’ heel.—

“Inventing the Job of President— is a brief scholarly work, providing an overview of how each of the leaders interpreted their role. The work is interesting and informative but by no means exhaustive.

Greenstein, who once dreamed of becoming the next David Broder, gave up his journalistic aspirations for a life in academia. He had an interest in politics and psychology and decided to combine those to study individual presidents from a political and psychological perspective. He has written extensively about various aspects of the presidencies, and his books include “The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader— and “How Presidents Test Reality.—