Summary of Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again

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Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again book summary
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What do the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission, the lead-up to the September 11, 2001 attacks, the hapless response to Hurricane Katrina and the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov have in common? They exemplify failed presidential leadership. They all have roots in a president’s failure to “balance…policy, communication and implementation.” Brookings Institution senior fellow Elaine C. Kamarck relates the causes and details of various presidential failures. Most of these downfalls, she reports – drawing examples from both Republican and Democratic administrations – stem from chief executives’ overreliance on communicating with the public at the expense of policy and implementation, and from their unfamiliarity with the depth, history and power of the bureaucracy they head. While always politically neutral, getAbstract suggests this timely thesis to students, professors, policy makers, political campaigners and strategists, lobbyists, government employees, and readers who ponder the state of the US presidency.

About the Author

Elaine C. Kamarck, who holds her PhD in political science, is a veteran of several Democratic administrations. She is a Brookings Institution senior fellow and a faculty member at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

 

Summary

Presidencies Out of Balance

Recent US history presents many examples of presidential failure, enough to cause “a crisis of competence” in the office. To grasp the roots of this crisis, consider what successful presidents are good at: maintaining equilibrium among “policy, communication and implementation.”

Presidents who experienced major failures generally put too much emphasis on communication (“talking and messaging”) at the expense of policy and implementation. Political scientist James P. Pfiffner says the presidency should be “managerial,” meaning that the occupant of the Oval Office needs a firm understanding of the bureaucracy he or she heads. While scholars have debated and analyzed different aspects of the presidency for decades, including the process of reaching decisions, implementation is what counts – “what happens after a decision is made.”

Chief executives must understand not just the ramifications of the policies they support and enact, but the impact putting those policies into effect has on their office. This requires a keen grasp of the federal government’s “organizational culture.” It sounds less glamorous than the bully pulpit – but presidents...


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