Presidents, the Presidency, and the Political Environment.

Author:Daynes, Byron W.
Position:Book Review

By John H. Kessel. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 2001. 292 pp.

This book was not what I expected, given its title. In fact, had it been alliteratively more appealing, The Presidency, the Political Environment, and Presidents would have been a better title since the core of the book (chaps. 2-6) deals with the institutional presidency. Chapter 2 looks at the president's relationship to the Congress, focusing on the White House legislative liaison staff and structure; chapter 3 assesses the president's relations with the media, examining the sharing and gathering of information. The three following chapters look at the institutional presidency as a producer of foreign, economic, and domestic policy. Advisers and institutional structures in each of the modern administrations since Eisenhower's are examined.

Yet, it is chapters 7 and 8 that I find the most creative and thought provoking. In chapter 7, Kessel asks the reader this intriguing question: how can a president "be an utter failure by one criterion and a considerable success by another" (p. 195)? In exploring possible answers, the author examines the efforts of presidents beginning with Eisenhower by choosing a single policy to illustrate each president's success, one instance of failure, and one situation that yielded a mixed result. For Bill Clinton, for instance, Kessel selected the 1993 deficit reduction act as an example of Clinton's successes, the health care bill as one of Clinton's failures, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion as a policy that netted mixed results. In classifying these presidential actions, Kessel admitted that he was very selective in focusing on certain policy actions while ignoring others.

Such successes and failures, Kessel argues, are largely the results of a president's expertise and attitude strength. The author shows this by using these variables in a 2 x 2 table, placing Gerald Ford's balanced budget and Eisenhower's modified containment strategy in the quadrant labeled strong attitudes/expertise; the weak attitudes/expertise quadrant includes George H. W. Bush's efforts at international system maintenance. Meanwhile, in the strong attitudes/expertise absent quadrant, Lyndon Johnson's federal aid to education and Ronald Reagan's tax cut are the examples; and in the final quadrant, weak attitudes/expertise absent, Kessel puts Jimmy Carter's economic policies along with Clinton's Haitian policies (p. 244). Based on 161 cases...

To continue reading