This Washington Post interview is a must-read on the power — and especially, the limitations — of the U.S. president. The interviewee, Professor George Edwards of Texas A&M University and Oxford University, argues that “the traditional view of the persuasive presidency is wrong.”
Here’s the opening, which also serves as summary:
Years ago, the notion of leadership was that you get in front of potential followers and shout “follow me.” If you were a good leader, people would follow you, even in the face of enemy fire. This notion of leadership is misleading, however. The public almost never moves in the president’s direction if there is division in the country. It is difficult to reach most citizens, overcome their predispositions and combat a vocal opposition. We also know that members of Congress are rarely persuaded to change their minds on an issue. They have strong policy commitments, and their constituents reinforce these inclinations. Presidents cannot create opportunity for change by changing minds. Instead, effective presidents recognize and exploit opportunities for change.
This argument parallels the framework for political change that Ed and I lay out in Madmen. We claim that political leaders, what we call Madmen in Authority, for the most part must take commonly held political beliefs as a given. What they can do is determined by the political ideas at a given time and place.
Of course, a political leader can attempt to push on the limits to change by appealing to the masses, and by seizing on opportunities as they arise. This explains the title of the interview: “Why presidents need to be exploiters.”
But as Professor Edwards puts it, presidents cannot “create opportunity for change by changing minds.” Rather, as Ed and I describe it, the business of changing minds is handled by traders in ideas, also known as Intellectuals, and those who come up with ideas about the best political arrangements, who we call Academic Scribblers.