Good presidents have solid visions of public policy, communicate them effectively, reconcile conflicting data—and feel good about themselves.
Political scientist Greenstein (The Hidden-Hand Presidency, 1982), a student of what might be called leadership psychology, examines the lives and characters of the men who have served as president since the Great Depression (when the executive branch took the lead in policymaking away from Congress). He ranks these men according to six broad categories: proficiency in public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. By these measures, he writes, Franklin Roosevelt earns high marks for rhetorical and political skills, but low marks for “chaotic organizational skills” and an inability to conceptualize, so that he frequently set conflicting political programs into play. Jimmy Carter was petulant, incapable of communication, and so wedded to the engineer’s habit of breaking down problems into their component parts that he failed to see the big picture, shortcomings that cost him dearly. Richard Nixon battled many limitations, including unease in public speaking and “imperfect control of his emotions”; intellectually masterful, he fell victim all the same to his shortcomings. Ronald Reagan’s intellectual limitations “were worrisome,” Greenstein writes, and he never quite seemed comfortable inside his president’s role, but he was tremendous at selling his political vision. Surprisingly, in Greenstein’s account it is the generally underappreciated Gerald R. Ford who emerges with a restored reputation, for Ford had tremendous pragmatic skills, a fine intelligence, and a deep reserve of emotional strength. And Bill Clinton earns high marks for his conceptual abilities and powerful intellect, even though history may well remember him as “a politically talented underachiever.”
Greenstein offers a fascinating, if sometimes simplistic, way of considering presidential power—and a timely one in this election year.