There are a number of different situations presidents face upon taking office that afford him the ability to exercise more or less power. All presidents will encounter different cycles during their stay in office, these cycles may come in a variety of forms: foreign policy shifts from isolationism to international involvement; the business cycle of economic growth followed by recession; the mood swing of public confidence in government followed by a retreat into private interests and cynicism. These cycles for the most part are beyond the control of the president; but do however; have an impact on presidential power. In short, there are times when conditions afford presidents considerable leverage and power. And there are also times when presidents are not afforded much power.
In times of change and social disruption, leadership skills will be different than in times of normality. For example in the years following the Vietnam Conflict and Watergate Scandal, the public turned against the government and presidential power. They were very skeptical and questioned everything the government did. Due to this existing condition, President Ford; and President Carter; had limited ability to exercise presidential power. In contrast, FDR benefited from a level of opportunity that was unusually high. He came into power when there was a strong demand for public power, and when Congress was willing to grant power to the president. Thus, for a while, FDR was able to exercise a good amount of power.
Skill is also an important aspect, but skill alone is never enough. For even the most skilled of individuals are faced with difficult situations. Skill can be used to measure the extent to which a president takes advantage of or is buried by circumstances. President Regan spoke of a window of opportunity, a means of talking about how an open or closed situation was the basis for exercising leadership. When the window is closed, that is, the opposite party controls Congress during a period of economic trouble, and low presidential popularity. Even the most skilled of presidents will be limited to what they can accomplish. However, when the window is open; even presidents of limited skill will have great political leverage, even though their skill base is smaller. What it boils down to is the type of hand one is dealt. If a president is dealt a weak hand, there is only so much skill that he can contribute to what can be accomplished. Similarly, if a president is dealt a great hand, fortune may have more to do with what the president accomplishes.
The question of when in politics must also be examined. A sense of political timing helps a president know when to move, when to retreat, when to push, and when to compromise. Strong twentieth-century presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Regan began with clear goals and pushed Congress to approve their bold new programs. A look at Reagan s honeymoon can be used as an example of getting the most out of early opportunities. During his transition, his key advisors put together a narrow, focused agenda and initiated a public relations and legislative reaction that ended in the president gaining much of his early legislative agenda. Thus resulting in Reagan gaining power, making it easier for him to win subsequent contests, because Congress literally feared him. On the other hand, George Bush got of to a slow start and appeared more concerned with managing a response rather than shaping events. Bush s first one hundred days are described as him blending into the background, allowing Congress to set the national agenda.
Bruce Miroff discusses the president s leadership as a spectacle, which may be used as a way to overcome limitations. Miroff says that the greatest source of influence for the president is public approval, is the reason why so many presidents are going public. If popular backing is to be maintained, the public must believe in the president s leadership qualities.
The Reagan presidency was a triumphant spectacle. For the most part, his presidency had, floated above its flawed processes and failed policies, secure in the bright glow of its successful spectacles. To begin to assess this statement, let s first look at Reagan as a person. His previous career in television and movies made him comfortable with spectacles, as he moved from one kind to another. He presented the people with many different characters; funny yet powerful, ordinary yet heroic, individual yet representative. Coming into office after a president who was perceived as weak, Reagan projected potency. His administration featured his decisiveness, forcefulness, and will to prevail. Yet, his strength was nicely balanced by is amiability.
Reagan was soon named the Great Communicator a feat not achieved through eloquent rhetoric but through storytelling. The power of Reagan s character rested not only on its intrinsic attractiveness but also on its symbolic appeal. Coming into office at a time of considerable anxiety, with many Americans uncertain about the economy, as well as a number of other things, Reagan was the reassuring character. He assured Americans that the economy still offered the American dream to any aspiring individual.
The spectacle actually began with the president on a weekend golfing vacation in Augusta, Georgia. His trip was interrupted by the planning for an invasion of Grenada; and then by news that the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut had been bombed. As soon as the news of the Grenada landing replaced the Beirut bombings on the news and front pages, the golfing angle proved to be a beginning for the spectacle. It showed the ability of a relaxed and laid back president to rise to a grave challenge. Where Carter had been helpless to release the captive Americans, Reagan had swiftly come to the rescue. He had rescued not only the students, but the American people as well.
As this spectacle expanded, public approval increased. The president s standing in the polls went up. The polls showed that 63% of Americans approved of the way Reagan was handling the presidency the highest level in two years.
So, at what point do individuals matter? Do leaders make a difference or is it the existing conditions? The impact of individual presidents who made a difference in specific policy areas are unmistakable: LBJ and civil rights and the war on poverty, Nixon and China, Carter and human rights, Reagan and tax cuts, Bush and the Gulf War, Clinton and the Brady bill. The problem is determining what role skill played in these events. Could another president have opened doors to China? Could another president emphasize human rights in his foreign policy? Probably. So when does skill matter, how can we recognize or measure political skill? Unfortunately, it is too difficult to exactly measure political skill. This much is true though a culmination of high levels of skill, task congruency, and high opportunity usually lead to presidential success.