Media Criticism

Schlesinger v. Cillizza

By Jack Goldsmith
Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 7:34 AM

Chris Cillizza has a piece in the WP that argues that the world is too splintered and partisan and complex, and communication and persuasion too difficult, for the president of the United States to succeed.  This is an old claim.  John Steinbeck said of the presidency under Johnson: “We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear.... We wear him out, use him up, eat him up.... He is ours and we exercise the right to destroy him.”  In a 1981 book subtitled Why Presidents Fail and What Can Be Done about It, Robert Shogan maintained that the combined experience of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter maintained that the “the chronic failings of the presidency” were attributable to “the political and governing system to which presidents must respond.”   Writing in 1986, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. summarized the view of journalists and political scientists seeking to understand and explain the troubles of the presidency in the 1960s and 1970s:

They advanced ‘profound’ explanations—unprecedentedly intractable problems, excessive personalization of the office, excessive expectations in the country, the constitutional separation of powers, the post-Watergate resurgence of Congress, the rise of single-issue movements, the power of lobbies; and they reached a ‘profound’ conclusion— that the fault lay not in the men who occupied the Presidency but in the institution itself and the system to which it responded.

Adjusted to 2014, this is essentially Cillizza’s claim.

Schlesinger argued that this view was wrong.  The supposedly debilitating problems in the presidency, he argued, “were far from new; they were indeed recurrent conditions of American politics, and less causes of the presidential dilemma than alibis for it.”  He continued:

The commentators got their order wrong. They argued that these conditions accounted for the supposed failure of the Presidency. On closer examination, perhaps the failure of particular Presidents accounted for the salience of the conditions. The absence of effective presidential leadership created a vacuum in the center of the political system. It was this vacuum that Congress, lobbies and single-issue movements rushed to fill.

Schlesinger had no great affection for Ronald Reagan, but he argued that the Reagan administration showed how the many, many powers of the presidency, in the hands of a gifted leader, could overcome the many acknowledged challenges to the presidency.  Leadership is an ineffable quality, of course, but there is no doubt that strong presidential leadership is an indispensable prerequisite to political success in a system of constitutional separation of powers.  For more details, many of which are relevant to the current presidency, I recommend Schlesinger’s great essay, “Democracy and Leadership.”