Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Lord Bryce's Curse: The Costs of Presidential Heroism and the Hope of Deliberative Incrementalism

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Lord Bryce's Curse: The Costs of Presidential Heroism and the Hope of Deliberative Incrementalism

Article excerpt

Presidents yearn for greatness. They take heroic decisions against long odds to earn the reverence of later generations and cement their "standing in history."

The modern presidential compulsion to demonstrate heroic mastery stems, in part, from Lord Bryce's adulation of "great men" in his 1888 masterpiece, The American Commonwealth (Bryce 1906), and his lament that so few of America's most talented rise to its highest office. Lord Bryce is credited not only with spotlighting a string of unimpressive nineteenth-century presidents during his time but also with anticipating (with exceptions) a half century "roll call of incompetence"--as Alan Wolfe (2002) put it--in which "mediocre ... [presidential] political leadership" by "undistinguished men" plummeted the country into costly, ill-advised adventures abroad and a bubble of financial speculation that set the conditions for an historic economic depression. Lord Bryce continues to cast a curse on modern presidents to prove him wrong and to dispel the suspicion that it was only their election that saved them from the deep recesses of historical obscurity.

Lord Bryce's challenge to presidents to prove their personal greatness reinforces the power conundrum in contemporary American politics: presidents enter office with enormous expectations among voters to take responsibility for the economy, U.S. interests abroad, and American politics, and, yet, they reside in a constitutional system that hamstrings them. Most presidents and political observers focus on meeting expectations by augmenting the authority the U.S. Constitution bestows on them or by circumventing its checks.

We disagree. Attempting to live up to inflated expectations by transcending entrenched constraints in an era of limits amounts to a kind of presidential Quixotism. The result is an abysmal track record as constitutional and political constraints grind through the conveyor belt of presidential aspirations.

But is there a feasible alternative governing model? Without the intercession of presidential greatness, how can America avoid the ungovernability that pundits warn will result from Madison's system of deadlock in an era of partisan polarization?

We argue for reverse-engineering America's power conundrum by seeking to moderate expectations and to work within constitutional boundaries. This approach drops the false and damaging standards of presidential greatness and properly values meaningful--if conflictual and incomplete--incremental progress on pressing challenges.

This article approaches America's power conundrum by initially focusing on the customary approach of modern presidents--routine, extravagant public promotions of policy and person (Kernell 1993). Instead of cooing over the scope and means of White House efforts to court public support, we tally the costs of public promotions on presidential power as it manifests itself in the countermobilization of the opposition, the media's lavishing of attention on presidential rivals, and the public's exposure to potent messages that undercut White House communications.

We begin by sketching the White House's reliance on public promotions to boost presidential power and satisfy voter expectations and then catalogue the limits and risks of White House efforts to "go public." To flesh out the downsides of public marketing, we analyze the responses of the opposition and the media since 1950 to the premier presidential promotion--the nationally televised State of the Union Address. We conclude by suggesting a more moderate--yet sustainable form of presidential public leadership that sheds the curse of Bryce and instead seeks to form sustainable coalitions that latch onto shared objectives.

Presidential Exuberance and Its Costs

How to augment the president's restricted constitutional powers to satisfy the high expectations of voters is the power puzzle that preoccupies modern presidents. …

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