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A president's test: not agenda but response

The most important things presidents do are often not preset items but reactive moves to events unforeseen.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2008


The US government's unprecedented efforts to rescue mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are a reminder that the most important things presidents do are often not action items from preset agendas but reactive moves to events unforeseen.

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Eight years ago, George W. Bush didn't campaign on a proposal to save the housing market – or what he'd do if terrorists attacked the US. In 1960, John F. Kennedy didn't run on his ability to respond to Soviet missiles in Cuba, either.

In this election year, the implication is obvious: It's not just about the four-point plans, or the "vision thing," as George H.W. Bush referred to over­arching agendas. Voters might best judge a candidate's flexibility, relevant experience, and habits of mind.

"Lots of times, you look back at the four or eight years a president served ... and see that [their] success or failure was determined by things they didn't necessarily talk about as a candidate," says Stephen Hess, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of the forthcoming book "What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect."

This phenomenon may be most prevalent in foreign policy. The world has a way of grabbing the attention of even the most domestic-oriented of Oval Office occupants.

Candidate George W. Bush famously promised a "humble" foreign policy and expressed aversion to nation-building. But the judgment of historians on his time in office may well rest on the final outcome of his invasion of Iraq, arguably America's most intense involvement in nation-building since the end of World War II.

But Woodrow Wilson promised as a candidate to keep the US out of World War I, and then joined the allies in 1917. Running in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt expressed aversion to involving American boys in foreign wars. Even Lyndon Johnson said he wouldn't send large numbers of US ground troops into Vietnam, and then reversed course, says Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington.