The Qualities of Effective Presidents: An Overview from FDR to Bill Clinton

By Greenstein, Fred I. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Qualities of Effective Presidents: An Overview from FDR to Bill Clinton


Greenstein, Fred I., Presidential Studies Quarterly


In some political systems, it does not much matter who serves as the nation's top political leader. In Great Britain, with its tradition of collective leadership, for example, the rare Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, or Tony Blair is far outnumbered by the many Stanley Baldwins, Harold Wilsons, and John Majors, whose individual impact on governmental actions is modest. For the leaders of such political systems, personal effectiveness tends to be beside the point.

If a higher power had set out to design a democracy in which the person at the peak of the political system made a difference, the result might well resemble the United States. American chief executives have taken advantage of the separation of powers and the constitutional grant of independent powers to the president to place their imprint on the nation's policies since the founding of the Republic, but until the 1930s, Congress typically took the lead in policy making, and the activities of the federal government had little impact on the nation and world.

Then came the emergence of what is commonly called the modern presidency.(1) Spurred by the New Deft, World War II, and the entrepreneurial leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt, there was a quantum increase in the scope and influence of the federal government. Meanwhile, the United States became a world and then a nuclear power. In the same period, the chief executive became the principal source of policy initiative, proposing much of the legislation considered by Congress. Presidents began to make an increasing amount of policy independent of the legislature, drawing on their sweeping administrative powers, and the Executive Office of the President was created, providing presidents with the organizational support needed to carry out their expanded obligations.

The power of the modern American president manifests itself in its purest form in decisions of war and peace, but the occupant of the Oval Office is also of critical domestic importance. Not only does the president have the power of the veto and wide discretion over the implementation of laws and allocation of expenditures, his (and someday her) ability to command public attention and shape the national policy agenda also makes him politically potent, even when his opponents control Capitol Hill. Indeed, President Clinton scored significant political victories in 1998 on the very brink of the vote by the House of Representatives to impeach him.

Qualities that Shape Presidential Performance

In what follows, I present a series of observations about the qualities that have contributed to the effectiveness of modern American presidents. My remarks are distilled from an interpretative study of the modern presidents that I embarked on in the final months of the Nixon presidency and concluded in the seventh year of the Clinton presidency (Greenstein 2000). My initial stimulus was an interest in understanding why Richard Nixon, who in his first term had been responsible for such leadership feats as the opening to China and detente with the Soviet Union, was succumbing to a self-inflicted political disaster. Rather than only study Nixon, I decided to explore the full array of post-Herbert Hoover chief executives in the hope of identifying qualities that have served well and poorly in the modern Oval Office. In the years that followed, I immersed myself in the literature on my subjects, mined their unpublished papers, and interviewed large numbers of past and current presidential associates.(2)

My observations fall under six broad headings, each of which pertains to a personal attribute that affects presidential job performance. The first, which relates to the outer face of presidential leadership, is the president's proficiency as a public communicator. The second, which bears on the inner workings of the presidency, is the president's organizational capacity: that is, his ability to rally his colleagues and structure their activities effectively.

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