The overestimation of the presidency

You don’t see political scientists featured in The New Yorker very often. We’re generally not considered that important. However, the research of Texas A&M’s George Edwards III is the focus of a New Yorker story (“The Unpersuaded: Who listens to a President?“). The article makes a good quick introduction to some of the current research on the presidency.

Cover of On Deaf EarsEdwards is getting all this attention because he has been making the case for the idea that presidents have little ability to move public opinion and that presidential persuasion is more myth than reality.

The evidence is spelled out in detail in Edwards’ two books on the subject On Deaf Ears and The Strategic Presidency. Edwards tracks public opinion on a number of issues considered important to presidents like Reagan and Clinton and finds almost no movement of public opinion.

In his memoirs, Reagan conceded this failure and expressed his frustration at the inability to move public opinion on issues he considered vital:

Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans who would apply the same kind of heat on Congress that helped pass the economic recovery package.
But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America—in fact, a surprisingly large proportion didn’t even know where Nicaragua and El Salvador were located—and, among whose who did care, too few cared enough about a Communist penetration of the Americas to apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress.

The idea that the bully pulpit has little impact is surprising. We expect the impact of a charismatic president to be dramatic. Sometimes we fear this power falling into the wrong hands.

Edwards describes two kinds of leaders. A director is a leader who transforms the political landscape by leading citizens to positions they would not go on their own. In contrast, a facilitator creates strategies to opportunities that already exist. Facilitators do not create constituencies for change, they simply recognize them and help intensify and channel support for change.

Edwards does not argue that presidents are unimportant. Instead, he argues that change doesn’t just happen and that facilitators play important roles by understanding the opportunities that exist and making the most of those opportunities.

It does not make for the dramatic moments of leadership that we sometimes expect. However, Edwards’ evidence is compelling we need to accept that the truth is less interesting than the myth of the bully pulpit.


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