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Presidential Leadership: Time for Less Talking, More Governing?

There is an increasing cognitive distance between presidents and the federal bureaucracy they oversee, a distance that has made it harder for them to govern effectively, a specialist on the executive branch told the incoming class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows recently.

Too often, recent presidents have spent more time trying to persuade voters they are on top of a problem than learning to marshal the considerable resources of the executive branch to solve the problem, said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management.

Presidents get elected for their ability to communicate, Kamarck said, noting that presidents have steadily increased their amount of travel and public speaking. It may be time for them to "stop talking so much and start governing a little bit more," she said.

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News, Policy Fellowship Orientation, September 22, 2014, Cronin, Teaser
Thomas E. Cronin | Earl Lane/ AAAS

Thomas E. Cronin, professor of American institutions and leadership at Colorado College, said recent presidents have tended to rely more on staffs in and around the White House than on their cabinets. "Earlier presidents used their cabinet very closely and integrated it with the White House staff," he said. Presidents increasingly are preoccupied with issues of the day arising from a few "inner" cabinet departments such as State, Defense, Treasury, and, on occasion, Justice, according to Cronin. In some cases, he added, cabinet officers are seen by the White House as too closely aligned with their constituencies and are viewed as advocates more than counselors to the president.

Americans want a strong presidency, Cronin said, but the Founding Fathers designed one that is only "medium in strength" and mostly in times of crisis. Presidents have much more visibility than they have the authority or power to single-handedly institute major policy changes, he said. They must learn how to find what is acceptable to as many constituencies as possible.

While Americans want a president who can "bring us together" and help unify the country, Cronin said, they believe in competing and sometimes contradictory goals. "We don't have one singular American dream," he said.

Cronin and Kamarck spoke on 8 September during an orientation session for the 2014-2015 class of AAAS S&T Policy Fellows. The program, now in its 42nd year, provides the opportunity for accomplished scientists and engineers to participate in and contribute to the federal policymaking process while learning firsthand about the intersection of science and policy. The fellowships in congressional offices are funded by approximately 30 partner scientific and engineering societies. The fellowships in executive branch agencies are funded by the hosting offices.

In the modern presidency, Kamarck told the fellows, success depends ultimately on a president's ability to figure out how to manage the government and understand its strengths and weaknesses. That takes effort and focus, she said, and failures have consequences that can hobble a presidency. Kamarck cited cases in which presidents failed to properly assess and manage a situation, even when there were resources and expertise within the government that might have prevented missteps.

President Jimmy Carter went ahead with a botched mission to rescue U.S. hostages being held in Iran, she said, even though there had been warning signs within the defense establishment that the military services were not then adequately prepared to carry out complicated joint operations.

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News, Policy Fellowship Orientation, September 22, 2014, Kamarck, Teaser
Elaine Kamarck | Earl Lane/ AAAS

President George W. Bush failed to quickly respond to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans even though a National Response Plan — crafted in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks — provided authority for a rapid federal response to national emergencies, including use of military assets. It was more than a week after the hurricane's landfall on 29 August until a top Coast Guard official assumed control of the emergency response effort.

President Barack Obama failed to pay sufficient attention to problems with the rollout of the Obamacare website, Kamarck said, and continued to do extensive travel for fundraising events and other purposes. During the initial weeks when the website was crashing, she said, Obama visited New York City, Boston, Dallas, New Orleans, Miami, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.

"Modern presidents think they can talk their way out of anything," Kamarck said. "Yet history keeps telling them, 'No you can't.'" Once policy implementation problems arise, it can be difficult for presidents to recover, she said, noting that Obama has "never really recovered, popularity-wise, from the healthcare disaster."

Complicating matters is the sheer size of the federal government — some 2.7 million civilian employees in 2013 — which can make a president feel overwhelmed, Kamarck said. The emphasis in presidential campaigns on message and spin also tends to widen the disconnect between running for office and governing once elected, she said.

"Presidents have lost the balance that is required for good leadership," Kamarck said. "They spend so much time talking that they mistake talking for doing. The closest advisers of our recent presidents have tended to be people who were skilled in the art of communicating — people who came out of the campaign with them — and not people who are skilled in the art of governing."

What should be done? Kamarck does not suggest that presidents bury themselves in the details of government. "Presidents should not write computer code," she joked. But presidents do need to communicate regularly with their government. (Obama had just 19 cabinet meetings during his first term, she noted.) Kamarck recommended beefing up the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs to provide better liaison with the bureaucracy and fewer surprises (such as allegations of long wait times and false record keeping at Veterans Affairs hospitals that blossomed into a scandal).

While Cronin noted that the "filtering lens of partisanship is much sharper than it was 50 years ago," Americans do want a strong presidency with ample power to protect and advance the nation. At the same time, they yearn for presidents who can somehow transcend politics — something Cronin said is not possible. "You can't take the politics out of politics," he said. "Politics needs to be embraced and recognized as a valuable process."