The Paradoxes of the American Presidency

From the time the United States Constitution was drafted, the presidency has been recognized as being unique, necessary, and potentially dangerous. How it can be all of these things, and what more it has come to be, is the task of THE PARADOXES OF THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY to explain. It is a large task, accomplished well.

The book’s inescapable central thesis is that Americans want conflicting things in the office of the presidency. Above all, they want leadership “but we are notoriously lousy followers.” In fact, the only effective way to solicit acceptance (and possibly, at times, agreement) is through politics.

A fraud from the beginning, as Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese clearly demonstrate, before the end of George Washington’s first term the embryonic political parties had begun and by the Jeffersonian “revolution” of 1800 the modern Democratic Party had found its ancestor. In the two centuries which have followed, it has been when the political presidents were at their best that truly great things have been accomplished. In this sense, the essential “paradox” of the American presidency is that politics strengthens, rather than weakens it.

That is not likely to change. Presidential leadership—the electorate still responds to the “vision” idea—is the single most important aspect of the office. It is the one great, intangible power a successful president carries. Ironically, it is a political as much as an intellectual or even moral gift. That is one of the insights of THE PARADOXES OF THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY, and the perceptive reader will find many more, all worth thoughtful consideration.