The scope of the job a president confronts is far larger than anything in the private sector. The risk of failure is great and the consequences enormous. Presidents have tight limits on deciding which markets to enter or which products to develop. If a war in Bosnia or a battle against inflation goes badly, the president can’t simply decide to abandon a product line. Presidents can’t easily reorganize their operations to increase efficiency or focus on a new strategy.
Bush’s protracted struggle with Congress over the Department of Homeland Security, which was eventually approved, showed how hard it can be to shuffle the organizational boxes. In the private sector, boards of directors support corporate leaders—or they fire them. In government, Congress is the president’s board of directors, and Congress has a vested interest in many of the existing work patterns. And just as the president can’t fire them, members of Congress can’t fire him (only impeach him, and the odds of that are slim). At any given time, half of them might be working against him, trying to make him fail politically.
In other words, presidents can’t simply give orders to make things work. In 1952, Harry S. Truman suggested what would happen if the voters elected Dwight Eisenhower president. “He’ll sit here,” Truman said, “and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” Indeed, Truman quipped, “All the president is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing, and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.” Truman, as it turned out, underestimated Eisenhower, just as many observers underestimated Bush. Author Fred Greenstein found that Eisenhower proved remarkably effective as an executive, with a “hidden hand” style that wasn’t obvious on the surface but which, behind the scenes, galvanized his staff behind effective policy.
That is why style is so important to the president. In the absence of many of the resources private managers depend upon, presidents must cajole, threaten, stroke, bellow, coo, smile, and scowl. Most of all, they must persuade, as Richard E. Neustadt concluded in his celebrated book, Presidential Power. Their ability to persuade depends on their style—so it’s essential that the style fits them and the job they have to do.
Franklin Roosevelt soothed a worried nation as a fatherly figure who delivered fireside chats. Truman was sharp, blunt, but funny. Eisenhower imposed a style as much corporate as military on the White House. Kennedy brought youthful vigor, new intellectual curiosity, and hard-headed McNamara-style analysis. Johnson was famous for “the treatment.” He could be bellicose and warm, threatening and reassuring, charming and gruff, all within the same conversation. He would mix the approaches, keeping people on edge as he searched for the right weapon to get his way. Johnson staffers often told tales of reluctant members of Congress who set out with Johnson on a one-on-one stroll around the White House grounds, only to return as the president’s supporters.
Nixon’s boldness opened the door to China, but his paranoia undermined his presidency. Ford sought to be a healing figure. Carter tried to bring a common touch by walking down Pennsylvania Avenue following his inauguration and sporting a cardigan sweater in his own fireside chat. Reagan proved a populist “great communicator” on television, while Bush (number 41) was more patrician. Clinton felt voters’ pain.
The president’s style matters because, more than anything else, it determines whether he can be the master of events—or whether they will master him. The style is the prism through which presidents sort through competing ideas to frame their agenda. It is the tool they use to pursue the agenda, both in the political arena and with the public. It is the template that presidents employ in sorting through the new, unpredictable crises that predictably pop up in every administration. It is the pattern that shapes work with the president’s staff and in the end determines how the president weathers the oppressive stress of the presidency itself.