Visions of the Presidency

VISIONS OF THE PRESIDENCY….Over on the left sidebar we have a new web-only piece by Sean Wilentz that takes a look at historical governing styles and proposes three different models of presidential leadership. First are the “strong presidents,” who usually have lots of Washington experience and act as hands-on executives. Second are “advisory presidents,” who generally rely on a circle of counselors for basic information and guidance on major policy decisions. Third are “engineer presidents,” who base their leadership on competence, technical skill, and moral purity. But not every president falls neatly into one category:

As Johnson and Reagan showed, individual presidents can, at different points in their administration, exhibit aspects of more than one of these presidential models. Some candidates, likewise, may promise to combine diverse elements of what they see as leadership, such as Obama’s blend of the aide-reliant advisory mode and the post-partisan purism of Hoover and Carter.

Wilentz’s examples of both the advisory mode and the engineer mode are uniformly disastrous, so this is a fairly unsubtle way of telling us that he’s pretty unenthused by Obama’s potential. And not for the first time, either.

But your mileage may vary. Wilentz, I think, engages in some sleight of hand by basically blaming every presidential failure of the past century on bad staff advice. But there’s a mighty big thumb on that scale. After all, FDR listened to his Brain Trust, Truman had Clark Clifford and George Kennan, and Reagan had Jim Baker and Donald Regan. Surely those count on the plus side?

But hey — give it a read and decide for yourself. Whether you agree with Wilentz’s specific examples or not, he provides an interesting framework for viewing presidential leadership. And especially on the Democratic side, where Obama and Hillary Clinton have largely similar substantive views, the race is all about models of leadership.