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.
(Page 2 of 2)
"There is a long history of presidents talking about being humble in foreign policy and then getting the US intensely involved in world affairs," says Mr. Lichtman.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But unforeseen domestic circumstances have also caused many presidents to take actions that at the time seemed at odds with their professed ideology.
Republican Richard Nixon professed disdain for wage and price controls on the economy, for instance. Yet – stuck in an unpopular and expensive war, and fearful of inflation – he imposed them in 1971.
For the market-oriented Bush administration, its promise of support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac might rank as an about-face. Given the current turbulence in the mortgage market, the administration might not have much choice but to prop up institutions that together own or guarantee half of the home loans in the US.
So what happened? In a campaign, notes presidential historian George C. Edwards III of Texas A&M University in College Station, candidates try to present a clear narrative of themselves. Ideology can be a crucial part of this story arc.
"Then, in the Oval Office, ideology meets reality. Hopefully, reality wins," says Mr. Edwards.
That doesn't mean ideology is unimportant. It is still the best indicator of an administration's general thrust, says Edwards. The Bush administration generally has been free market, whatever the implications of its Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac intervention.
It's slavish devotion to ideology that perhaps can cause the most trouble.
"The president in general has to have the ability to be nuanced," says Edwards.
So what's a voter to do? They can't judge how candidates will react to unforeseen crises any more than they can pick next week's direction of the stock market.
One thing they can do is look at a candidate's experience, says Mr. Hess of Brookings. That's relevant experience – not years in office, per se.
This is easier to do if a candidate has had executive experience, according to Hess. Governors, university presidents, business leaders – all have had to react to sudden developments at one time or another.
Legislators generally haven't. And this year, the two candidates, of course, are senators. Washington legislators sometimes have difficulty adjusting to the pace of executive authority, says Hess – making clear that in this case he is not necessarily referring to Sen. John McCain, whose legislative career as a self-professed maverick has been somewhat unusual.