Successful Presidents Conjure 'Luck,' 'Vision'

By Robbins, Richard | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 18, 2008 | Go to article overview

Successful Presidents Conjure 'Luck,' 'Vision'


Robbins, Richard, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


A successful president needs luck.

Political skill, a winning personality, persistence, a vision for the country's future, intelligence, the right temperament and good judgment don't hurt.

Good judgment is especially important for foreign policy decisions, because nothing hurts a president like getting the country into an unpopular war. Just ask Harry Truman. Or George W. Bush.

With the election of a new chief executive on the horizon and a holiday honoring presidents today, the Tribune-Review asked Western Pennsylvania historians and political scientists to list the qualities for a successful commander in chief.

"Maybe the best thing a president can have is luck," said Michael Coulter, political science professor at Grove City College in Mercer County.

Coulter said the economy is largely beyond the control of presidents but presidential good fortune is most evident when the economy is on the upswing. The dot-com boom of the 1990s not only created thousands of jobs and boosted stock market prices but strengthened Bill Clinton's hand against Republicans who wanted to toss him from office.

Likewise, a downturn in the economy can sink a president's approval ratings.

Brian Calfano of Chatham University in Shadyside cited luck in the area of foreign policy. Calfano, an assistant professor of political science, pointed to the growth of the military during the Reagan administration and the eventual end of the Cold War.

Reagan supporters contend the build-up was part of a plan to bankrupt the Soviet Union and force its submission.

"While the scheme part may be true," Calfano argued, "Reagan, and the world, are lucky that the Soviets didn't respond to our massive military build-up by getting desperate and risking everything on a first strike."

Listening skills

Presidential biographer Robert Dallek, speaking by phone from Washington, said that "in a nutshell," successful presidents provide Americans with a "shared vision" of the country -- a vision both compelling and doable. …

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