When presidents fail they often have trouble getting all three things – policy, communication, and implementation— right at the same time. No wonder modern presidents fail so often; their job is harder and their governing skills are worse than those of their predecessors. Some modern presidents have come to the job with very thin or even nonexistent executive experience. Harvard scholar and Brookings Institution Fellow Elaine Kamarck analyses.
Most people think the government can’t organize a two-car funeral. Back in the 1990s that was one of President Bill Clinton’s favourite sayings, reflecting the deep and pervasive skepticism Americans feel about government. Today things are much worse.
As one alumnus of the Clinton administration put it, instead of worrying that the government can’t organize a two car funeral, “now they worry that one of the two cars should have been recalled and the other can’t go anywhere because Congress is still fighting over whether to fix the road.” For most of their lives, Americans have experienced a blizzard of governmental failure. This has not always been so.
The grandparents and great- grandparents of these same Americans knew a federal government that rescued the country from the Great Depression, defeated Germany and Japan in World War II, and transformed the United States into an economic and military superpower. Since then, Americans have experienced humiliation in Vietnam, setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, a disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, a ruinous financial crisis and economic meltdown, the botched rollout of Obamacare, and continuing impotence against terrorism. Little wonder there is a sentiment out there that the country is on an inevitable and precipitous downward slope that the government can’t do anything about. This sentiment is evident in the disenchantment among the citizens who voted for “hope and change” with President Barack Obama. At the beginning of the new century more than half of all Americans were satisfied with the way things were going in the United States. And then a long slow decline began, uninterrupted by changes in leadership and party or by events good and bad.
Today we face a crisis of competence in the American presidency. Although contemporary American politics has been categorized as the most polarized in decades, another theme is emerging— competence. This theme is so pervasive that questions about competence have joined arguments between the right and left as a driver in the political conversation. In a Pew Research poll in early 2015, citizens were asked, in a series of open- ended questions, to use one word to describe President Obama.
The most frequent responses? “Good” and “incompetent.”3 Citizens have lost faith in their leaders and in the government they are supposed to run. Why do presidents fail? This question deserves an explanation. Americans need to understand the background of presidential failure. This book will argue that successful presidential leadership occurs when the president is able to put together and balance three sets of skills: policy, communication, and implementation. When there is no balance, when the components of leadership are out of whack, failure follows. There is nothing new about this theory of leadership. As far back as the 1920s, Mary Parker Follett, one of the seminal figures in leadership studies, argued that the talent of a leader was the ability to think holistically.
POLICY COMMUNICATION IMPLEMENTATION
Think about it for a minute. Would we remember the famous line from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address— “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”— had it not been followed up by the “bank holiday” and other actions that halted the economic free fall of the Great Depression? Would Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” have stuck in our minds had the Soviet Union remained strong and intact? Would Bill Clinton’s considerable rhetorical skills have saved him from being convicted in the Senate after his impeachment by the House had unemployment been at 10 percent in the winter and spring of 1998 instead of at 4.5 percent? The answer to all of these is no. This same model of leadership applies to leaders of other large enterprises. As in politics, leaders in business fail when they cannot execute. In a well- known book on business leadership, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan put it this way: When companies fail to deliver on their promises, the most frequent explanation is that the CEO’s strategy was wrong. But the strategy by itself is not often the case. Strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well. Things that are supposed to happen don’t happen.” In politics as in business, the ability to deliver matters. Modern presidents may get elected because of their ability to inspire us and make us feel good. But they succeed, both in the short term and over the long term, by their actual ability to do good. When presidents fail they often have trouble getting all three things— policy, communication, and implementation— right at the same time. And it’s getting worse. In our highly specialized era, presidents have at their disposal all sorts of experts in policy, people who crunch numbers and build mathematical models. Presidents also employ scores of people who write memorable lines for their speeches and stage perfect backdrops for the television cameras. And they have at their beck and call an enormous workforce, the federal bureaucracy, which is supposedly dedicated to making those policy dreams come true. Yet despite having all this expertise at their disposal, modern presidents are failing to put it all together and, hence, are failing the leadership test.
Although the modern federal government is enormous and difficult to understand, we have evolved a system of picking presidents that values certain skills above others. And so, the modern presidential nominating system rewards communications skills over governing skills. No wonder modern presidents fail so often; their job is harder and their governing skills are worse than those of their predecessors. Some modern presidents have come to the job with very thin or even nonexistent executive experience. The argument is that there is nothing inevitable about presidential failure. It is not “baked in” to the modern presidency, and it is not always due to circumstances beyond their control. The modern presidency is not impossible, but it does require a reorientation of the presidency itself— toward the complex and boring business of government and away from the preoccupation with communicating.