Election 2008

presidential style, president decision making, president decision making process
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Presidential Candidates’ Style: Shoot from the Hip vs. Mull it Over

October 08, 2008 07:57 AM
by Liz Colville
Should a president make decisions on instinct, or consult with a team of advisers? McCain and Obama each have historical precedents among the presidents.

Impulse vs. Deliberation

Jonah Lehrer’s analysis of impulse thinking in The Boston Globe shows that each of the 2008 presidential candidates exemplifies two styles: Ariz. Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, has promoted himself as a maverick who shoots from the hip. By contrast, Ill. Sen. Barack Obama is reputed to be more deliberate and has hired a large staff of advisers to help him parse his decisions. Both styles have their benefits and their defenders, and have been embodied by past presidents to varying degrees of success.

President George W. Bush, Lehrer notes, has been known for adopting the first style, and his presidency has “coincided with a growing body of scientific research demonstrating the power of human instincts, at least in certain circumstances.”

As a counterpoint, Lehrer offers the research of psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, who suggests that “people making complex decisions should analyze their options, but then stop: ‘go on holiday while your unconscious digests the problem.’” But this can be a challenging procedure for presidents and presidential candidates, Lehrer notes, as “the act of running for president discourages politicians from developing these metacognitive skills. On the campaign trail, a confession of doubt or admission of error is often instant fodder for an attack ad; equivocation has become a faux pas.”

The candidates have illustrated similarities to past presidents and their leadership styles. Sen. McCain has been vocal about his admiration of President Theodore Roosevelt, identifying with Roosevelt’s “reputation for reform, environmentalism and tough foreign policy,” according to a July article in The New York Times. Newsweek columnist George Will added that McCain is “a kindred spirit” of Roosevelt, “the impulsive Rough Rider,” but that the similarities end there.

Sen. Obama has been likened, mostly by supporters and pundits, to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, both relatively inexperienced before they took office in the White House, and both known for their rhetorical skills. Lincoln was also known for assembling a large team of experienced advisers to help him flesh out policy decisions, Lehrer noted, citing Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Amid the country’s current economic hardships, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is often cited as an example of a new president taking office during a financial crisis, as he resuscitated the country following a credit crisis and economic depression. To do this, Roosevelt distanced himself from the “flailing rescue measures of the lame-duck Hoover administration,” writes David Ignatius in Real Clear Politics. Roosevelt came up with a tangible action plan and quickly turned ideas into legislation.

But Sean Wilentz, who authored “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” contended in a January Los Angeles Times editorial that many of these associations, including several of the then-Republican presidential candidates’ self-comparisons to President Ronald Reagan, are exaggerated at best.

At the very least, Obama and McCain can learn from a varied roster of presidents who include independent straight-talkers, masters of rhetoric, wartime ideologues and measured collaborators.

Background: Notable presidents and how they led

President George Washington, who served from 1789 to 1797, has been described as a straight talker and a leader who always put the country first, attributes that have also been ascribed to McCain. Mark McNeilly, author of “George Washington and the Art of Business: The Leadership Principles of America’s First Commander-in-Chief” (2008), remarked in BusinessWeek that Washington also had the ability to “get people together across parties,” which he cites as another strength of McCain’s. McNeilly attributes Washington’s ambitious vision for the country and his innovative side to Obama.

President Andrew Jackson’s two terms (1829–1837) left him with a reputation as a “forceful” personality who expanded the power of the executive government using his veto power liberally, and stood his ground against opponents, writes the Encyclopedia Americana. Yet he was also supported by an infamous “kitchen cabinet” of “trusted unofficial advisers.” Together the Jacksonians created a “prototype” for the modern Democratic Party, even if the merits of their policies continue to be debated by Republicans and Democrats alike.

President Woodrow Wilson, in office from 1913 to 1921, has come to be characterized as a “stubborn” wartime president, writes Joseph S. Nye Jr. in the Los Angeles Times. “One of Wilson’s advisors said: ‘Once a decision is made, it is final. There is no moving him after that.’” Nye compares President Bush to Wilson, noting the idealism of both in a time of war—Bush and Iraq, Wilson and World War I—as they each responded with a “bold, moralistic vision” for the country.

President Harry Truman’s two terms (1945–1953) saw him close out U.S. involvement in World War II, followed by successful civil rights work like the Marshall Plan. But Truman ended his presidency with the lowest approval rating in modern U.S. history, attributed to corruption scandals in Washington and a stalemate in the Korean War. However, Truman is credited with assembling the “first modern campaign team,” according to Zachary Karabell, author of “The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election." The team allowed Truman to “react to developments, produce a speech, or take a stand on an issue with the benefit of intensive prior research and information,” Karabell writes.

President Ronald Reagan, who led from 1981 to 1989, may be the most often mentioned president in this election season. His ability to charm the press, attributed to his experience acting in Hollywood and as a public speaker, is a quality that some believe has also been bestowed on McCain since his first run for the presidency in 2000. Reagan “never made a speech that didn’t invoke America’s greatness,” states PBS’s “American Experience.” His rhetoric was uplifting and ideological, yet could also be “anecdotal” and range widely in topic.

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