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Overreach: Leadership in the Obama Presidency

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    When Barack Obama became president, many Americans embraced him as a transformational leader who would fundamentally change the politics and policy of the country. Yet, two years into his administration, the public resisted his calls for support and Congress was deadlocked over many of his major policy proposals. How could this capable new president have difficulty attaining his goals? Did he lack tactical skills?

    InOverreach, respected presidential scholar George Edwards argues that the problem was strategic, not tactical. He finds that in President Obama's first two years in office, Obama governed on the premise that he could create opportunities for change by persuading the public and some congressional Republicans to support his major initiatives. As a result, he proposed a large, expensive, and polarizing agenda in the middle of a severe economic crisis. The president's proposals alienated many Americans and led to a severe electoral defeat for the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, undermining his ability to govern in the remainder of his term.

    Edwards shows that the president's frustrations were predictable and the inevitable result of misunderstanding the nature of presidential power. The author demonstrates that the essence of successful presidential leadership is recognizing and exploiting existing opportunities, not in creating them through persuasion. When Obama succeeded in passing important policies, it was by mobilizing Democrats who were already predisposed to back him. Thus, to avoid overreaching, presidents should be alert to the limitations of their power to persuade and rigorously assess the possibilities for obtaining public and congressional support in their environments.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4196-7
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In 2008, America suffered from war and economic crisis. Partisan polarization was extraordinarily high while faith in government was exceptionally low. In such times, the reflexive call is for new—and better—leadership, especially in the White House. Barack Obama answered the call, presenting himself as a transformational leader who would fundamentally change the policy and the politics of America.

    Even though both the public and commentators are frequently disillusioned with the performance of individual presidents and recognize that stalemate is common in the political system, Americans eagerly accept what appears to be the promise of presidential leadership to renew...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Assessing Opportunities: PUBLIC SUPPORT
    (pp. 9-35)

    Public support is a key political resource, and modern presidents have typically sought public support for themselves and their policies that they could leverage to obtain backing for their proposals in Congress. It is natural for a new president, basking in the glow of an electoral victory, to focus on creating, rather than exploiting, opportunities for change. After all, if he convinced voters and party leaders to support his candidacy—and just won the biggest prize in American politics by doing so—why should he not be able to convince the public or members of Congress to support his policies?...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Creating Opportunities? GOING PUBLIC
    (pp. 36-79)

    Barack Obama entered the presidency with an impressive record of political success, at the center of which were his rhetorical skills. In college, he concluded that words had the power to transform: “with the right words everything could change—South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.”¹ It is no surprise, then, that Obama followed the pattern of presidents seeking public support for themselves and their policies that they can leverage to obtain backing for their proposals in Congress.

    Moreover, it was commonplace at the beginning of his term...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Evaluating Strategic Choices: LEADING THE PUBLIC
    (pp. 80-115)

    The Obama White House believes in the power of the presidential pulpit. More importantly, it believes that the president is an irresistible persuader. According to the president’s top counselor, David Axelrod, “I don’t think there’s been a President since Kennedy whose ability to move issues and people through a speech has been comparable.”¹ This faith in presidential persuasion underlies the administration’s decision to try to move a large agenda simultaneously and explains its response to political problems.

    It also underlies the president’s views of party leadership. He wants to transcend partisan distinctions, rather than make them permanent. As one of...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Assessing Opportunities: CONGRESSIONAL SUPPORT
    (pp. 116-134)

    Every president needs support in Congress to pass his legislative proposals. Barack Obama began his presidency with what appeared to be a highly favorable strategic position in Congress. Democrats held 257 seats in the House, and after the resolution of the protracted recount in Minnesota, 60 seats in the Senate (including the two Independents who caucused with the Democrats). Recapturing the presidency in the historic election of 2008 was exhilarating for Democrats, and it is reasonable to infer that most of them felt they had a stake in their leader’s success.

    We saw in chapter 1 that it is natural...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Creating Opportunities? LEADING CONGRESS
    (pp. 135-156)

    Barack Obama came to office with a large agenda. His most important proposals required congressional approval, and the White House moved aggressively to obtain it. In this chapter, I examine the Obama White House’s efforts to lead Congress, focusing especially on its efforts to obtain bipartisan support and the president’s leadership of his own party.

    These two approaches represent different strategies for governing. We saw in chapter 4 that the prospects for Republican support were quite limited. Nevertheless, the president pursued bipartisanship in an energetic effort to create opportunities for major changes in public policy by persuading some in the...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Evaluating Strategic Choices: PASSING LEGISLATION
    (pp. 157-178)

    Barack Obama came to office with an ambitious agenda for policy change. Most of these changes required congressional approval. To obtain congressional support, he employed a variety of strategies for governing. One strategy centered on creating opportunities for change by taking his case to the public in an effort to leverage public support to win backing in Congress. We saw in chapter 3 that this effort did not succeed. The president found it difficult to move the public.

    A second approach to creating opportunities for change is reaching across the congressional aisle and convincing the opposition party to lend support...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership
    (pp. 179-188)

    More than a half century ago, Richard Neustadt voiced what became the best-known maxim regarding the American presidency, that “presidential power is the power to persuade.”¹ He was half right.

    One of Neustadt’s primary goals in writingPresidential Powerwas to show what wasnota source of presidential power. Presidents could not command others to support their initiatives. In his words, “‘powers’ are no guarantee of power”²and “[t]he probabilities of power do not derive from the literary theory of the Constitution.”³

    Although presidents do have important unilateral powers,⁴ there is no question that the negative side of Neustadt’s...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 189-224)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 225-231)