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How To Measure for a President 5


By John Dickerson|SLATE. Oct. 1, 2012

Entry 5: The hardest attribute to gauge is a candidate’s temperament. How can we peer inside?


President Obama edits his remarks in the Oval Office prior to making a televised statement detailing the mission against Osama bin Laden in May 2011.Official White House Photo by Pete Souza/AFP/Getty Images.


Barack Obama makes big decisions the same way George W. Bush did. He gathers his top advisers around the table, quizzes them, and then leaves to make the final call in solitude. This is how Bush invaded Iraq and how Obama killed Osama Bin Laden.

“The Loneliest Job” is the name of the iconic picture of John F. Kennedy standing alone staring out the south window of the Oval Office. It captured the presidency so perfectly Bill Clinton hung it in his private office. It depicts an essential truth: This job rests on one human body and one mind. In minutes, a president must switch from smiling with college volleyball champions in the East Room to deciding whether to risk the life of some mother’s child. No matter what he is feeling inside, he must appear confident and optimistic—whether the audience is the voting public or his own staff. He holds enormous secrets, and usually can’t talk about them. (Obama never told his wife about the planning for the Bin Laden raid.) A president must live in a world of constant uncertainty, where either a failure to act or hasty action can lead to catastrophe and political ruin.

A president’s temperament is his most important quality and it is the hardest to measure in the candidates who desire the office. It is at the heart of all the other key attributes. A president can’t ignore his critics unless he has a reliable sense of himself. He can’t make durable decisions unless he has strong values in which he roots them. The political game requires patience, and a willingness to ignore one’s emotions. He can’t adapt unless he has the emotional maturity to accept the fallout.

A president must maintain that delicate balance of mind in one of the world’s most distorted, artificial, and constraining environments. “There are blessed intervals when I forget by one means or another that I am President of the United States,” wrote Woodrow Wilson. Bill Clinton called the White House the nicest facility in the federal penal system. Your time is not your own. You have valets, butlers, aides, and bodyguards watching every lift of your finger, but the things you truly want—quick action in Congress, the agreement of a foreign leader, an ice cream on a summer night—are maddeningly out of your reach.

Under that kind of pressure, a president is also denied the normal tools of relaxation. He can’t take a stroll through Georgetown. He can’t drink too much or blow off Sunday in sweat pants watching football in his friend’s basement. If a president goes on vacation at the wrong time or in the wrong way, he catches hell. Golf must be in moderation. If you once enjoyed journaling, your lawyers will tell you to cut it out. Journals can be subpoenaed. If you are ever caught whining on a bad day, it will define you more than a hundred good days. “Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm,” said LBJ. “There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.”

No wonder Nixon wound up talking to the paintings in the hallways. It’s a surprise that more presidents aren’t found mumbling to themselves in their nightclothes. Perhaps that’s why Ann Romney mused recently about her husband being president: “I think my biggest concern obviously would just be for his mental well-being.”

What issues will test your temperament the most and why?

Nothing tests a president’s temperament like foreign affairs. Though this presidential campaign has only recently touched on the topic, the lack of focus points to another flaw in our election system. If we arranged our campaigns around what a president actually can control, we wouldn’t spend the majority of our time talking about the economy, where a president is a bit player.

Not so in foreign affairs. A president is the last word on decisions regarding military strikes, covert operations, or how to treat political prisoners. George W. Bush signed off on every prisoner that faced enhanced interrogation techniques. Barack Obama personally approves every drone strike of a high-value terrorist target. When the president serves as the country’s chief diplomat, he acts almost entirely alone.

To understand how a candidate would handle national security issues, we should ask some tough questions—what are the lessons of the Iraq war? Is Egypt an ally? At what moment would a military strike on Iran be justified? These national security questions are important on their face, but also because they keep us focused on temperament—the internal fortitude required for the office. A president will be largely alone when he makes these decisions. Does he have the stuff to handle the weight of these calls? Does he care about human rights? Civil liberties? On other issues, he may be buffeted by Congress and the public. But on the international stage he decides what the United States believes.

For this reason, Mitt Romney was right to question President Obama’s overheard remarks to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space,” the president said. “This is my last election. … After my election I have more flexibility.” He sure will, and if he’s going to be cutting deals on our behalf we should know about it.

Of course, there are plenty of foreign policy decisions we shouldn’t know about. For a president, foreign policy is also a test of one’s ability to compartmentalize—another key element of temperament.

President Obama delivers remarks at the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner held at the Washington Hilton in April in Washington, DC.Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images.


The night before the Bin Laden raid President Obama addressed the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. He told jokes and appeared to have a great time, a man at ease in a breezy world. But he was on the cusp of possibly the most defining moment of his presidency. It wasn’t just that night that Obama had to compartmentalize. He’d been doing it for weeks. During the lead up to the decision to storm Bin Laden’s compound, the president had been dealing with a government shutdown, a big speech on the budget, the start of his presidential campaign, the birth-certificate follies, and the bombing of Libya. If you look at his schedule on one of those days, you see that he ran a national-security meeting on the Bin Laden question in between a trip to a middle school and a visit from Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen of Denmark.

Obama was regularly accused of being too soft on Iran. But what we now know from David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal is that from the start of his administration Obama has been intimately involved in the covert operations against the Islamic Republic. “Perhaps not since Lyndon Johnson had sat in the same room, more than four decades before, picking bombing targets in North Vietnam, had a president of the United States been so intimately involved in the step-by-step escalation of an attack on a foreign nation’s infrastructure,” writes Sanger.

You know how satisfying that scene is in Annie Hall when Woody Allen dispatches the blowhard behind him in line at the movies? A president could do that almost any day with the secret information he has. Good ones never do.

Compartmentalization requires equanimity. A president must be able to handle a roller coaster of good and bad news in such succession that he can neither get too high nor too low. The private anguish LBJ felt at losing Vietnam ate away at his presidency. Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman’s journals show how Nixon’s obsessions led him to drink and bouts of insomnia that robbed him of his reasoning faculties. “I was concerned about his condition,” Haldeman wrote during the Vietnam protests in May of 1970. “The decision, the speech, the aftermath, killings, riots, press etc.; the press conference, the student confrontation have all taken their toll, and he has had very little sleep for a long time and his judgment, temper, and mood suffer badly as a result.”

President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger walk during a visit to Vienna, Austria in May 1972.Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

To relieve the pressure, all presidents try to create coping mechanisms. As President Obama told Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair, he has had to recognize that there is a public Barack Obama who bears no resemblance to himself. He must disassociate himself from himself. “One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you.”

A president must be able to live in constant uncertainty. George W. Bush was derided for calling himself the “decider,” but that’s what a president does: He makes decisions. No easy decision makes it to his desk, so at its most basic, the presidency is a place where a man has agreed to take on the responsibility for huge failures. As Obama explained to Michael Lewis, “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with at 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”

David Herbert Donald, the famous Lincoln biographer, attaches Keats’ phrase “negative capability” to the 16th president, which the poet described as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The mythical view of the president is of a bold planner who wills the country to his view of things. Lincoln, like FDR, preferred to respond to the actions of others, which meant a constant state of uncertainty, evaluation, and choice. Situations had to ripen; most notably, slavery.

What previous job presented you with the most decision-making moments?

James Fallows, in his sweeping assessment of Obama, talks about the “decision making muscle.” That is the particular challenge for presidential candidates with no executive experience, someone like Sen. Obama in 2008. The presidency is like no other job, but candidates with less experience offer less of a clue about how their decision-making muscle works and whether it can grow.

A president’s ability to make decisions is crucial and finite. President Bush understood that he needed to husband his energy for decision-making. He used to interrupt squabbling staffers and ask, “Is this something you want to waste the president of the United States’ time on?” It may sound arrogant, but as a senior Bush aide explained, it was a move of self-preservation. When you have to make so many decisions, you must preserve your energy for the important ones. Irritating disputes on nonessential matters can be adjudicated easily enough, but they eat into your battery power.

President Obama steels himself by intentionally limiting the number of decisions he makes in a day. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

A man who is as good at concealing his emotions as Barack Obama was on the eve of the Bin Laden raid is proof that he is fit for the presidency’s most challenging duties. But it’s also proof of exactly why campaigns tell us so little about temperament. We can be fooled by appearances, which is all we have to go on during campaign season.

How do we determine whether a candidate has the temperament necessary to withstand the presidential life? Candidates release their medical records, but a psychological evaluation is not part of the process. Good thing, too. The lack of clinical specificity gives those of us who cover campaigns a lot of room to put candidates on the couch. Tell me about your mother …

While the press is casing the house, trying to throw open one small window to get at a candidate’s personality, he and his team are building fences. There are no long free-flowing interviews; reporters are kept from the rope line so they don’t hear a stray honest remark; and before any fundraiser all cellphones are supposed to be turned off so no moment of serendipity is revealed.

In the place of authenticity comes a shrink-wrapped facsimile. Campaigns manufacture or embellish anecdotes to create a false intimacy that fits whatever the electorate seems to want at the time. This storytelling was on display at the recent Republican and Democratic Party conventions, which offered a parade of vignettes of character, perseverance, and determination. Ann Romney talked about bygone days, eating tuna fish with her young husband and using a living room ironing board to give insight into the impenetrable Romney. First lady Michelle Obama painted a picture of her husband at his desk, alone at night staring into the problems of the world.

For some candidates, their temperamental qualities may be obvious during a campaign. Kennedy was so physically frail he had to sneak into the Navy. But anyone who had the grit to rescue a man by swimming for six miles, dragging him by a belt he held in his teeth, probably could be trusted to not buckle at the first sign of adversity.

American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt on board an American warship around 1935.Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.

FDR’s polio gave us a hint that he would be able to endure the rude discipline of the office. His sunny response to adversity would have equipped him with the balance to know that all is not lost, even when it might first seem that way. The illness no doubt also gave him sympathy for those who had also suffered. “There had been a plowing up of his nature,” Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, said of his polio. “The man emerged completely warm-hearted, with new humility of spirit and a firmer understanding of philosophical concepts.”

But even Roosevelt hid a lot from the public. If there was ever a president confident in his abilities, it was FDR. I don’t even have to repeat the cliché about fear, as it is already engrained into your memory. Yet inside Roosevelt was terrified, according to Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment. “I’m just afraid that I may not have the strength to do this job,” Roosevelt said to his son in 1932 after defeating Herbert Hoover. “After you leave me tonight, Jimmy, I am going to pray. I am going to pray that God will help me, that he will give me the strength and the guidance to do this job and to do it right. I hope that you will pray for me, too, Jimmy.”

Despite those fears, Perkins said that she “came away from an interview with the president feeling better not because he had solved any problems,” but because he had somehow made her feel more cheerful, more determined, stronger than she had felt when she went into the room. George Bush described this role as being the “backbone” of his administration.

A president must constantly show a face to those around him of confidence, Eisenhower believed. Fred Greenstein writes that it was a lesson he learned as a military commander. “Optimism and pessimism are infectious and they spread more rapidly from the head down than in any direction,” Eisenhower wrote, and from then on he “firmly determined that my mannerisms and speech in public would always reflect the cheerful certainty of victory.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the day, “Full victory — nothing else” to paratroopers in England before they board their airplanes for the first assault in the invasion of Europe, June 6, 1944.Library of Congress.

What’s the biggest crisis you’ve faced in your life?

Character flaws in a president can end in tragedy. JFK didn’t live long enough for his infidelities to compromise him, but a variety of his chroniclers have argued that they ultimately would have. LBJ might not have clung to a self-defeating strategy in Vietnam were he not so concerned about what East Coast elites would say about him. Nixon’s lack of self-confidence and mounting paranoia drew a straight line to Watergate.

So how can you look for tell-tale signs of good temperament in a candidate? It’s very hard. One place to look could be a moment in a candidate’s past that reveals his true nature. Teddy Roosevelt ran for office having had horses shot out from underneath him. Voters knew he could handle a crisis. When he was shot in the chest while campaigning for office—and finished the speech before accepting any medical treatment—that certainly told voters everything they needed to know about his tenacity.

Of course, standing tall through one crisis doesn’t guarantee that one will succeed in the next. Kennedy’s toughness during the PT-109 episode didn’t help him with the Bay of Pigs. And just because someone didn’t have a searing experience in their youth doesn’t mean they can’t stand up to the pressures to come. Lincoln served in the Black Hawk War, but freely admitted that the toughest enemy he faced was the mosquitoes. He also faced at least half a dozen bouts of debilitating depression during his life. Today, if a candidate’s battle with depression became public, he would almost certainly never be elected. But it may have been Lincoln’s ability to endure this suffering that gave him his stamina for office.

Lyndon Johnson faced no great crisis—he claimed he’d been targeted on a bombing run over Japan, but there’s no evidence of it—yet he knew exactly what to do in the hours after Kennedy’s assassination. He knew he needed to establish immediate legitimacy as the new president, while creating a moment that showed that the grieving members of Kennedy’s family supported the transition of power. So he drew the first lady and Bobby Kennedy close in those early hours after the shooting. Johnson hadn’t learned this from a personal crisis. He knew what the country needed from having spent a career sensitive to the public mood.

Lyndon B. Johnson takes the oath of office as President of the United States, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy November 22, 1963.Photo by National Archives/Newsmakers.

There are moments when the challenge of a campaign tests a candidate’s ability to make decisions under pressure. In the fall of 2008, in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ bank collapse, John McCain suspended his campaign. Obama did not. For months, the Obama campaign had been pushing the idea that the 76-year-old former fighter pilot was unreliable. Now he seemed to be lurching, while the one-term senator looked cool and steady. “Before he said anything, he wanted to understand,” said Bill Clinton, describing Obama’s process of deliberation about the financial crisis. “If we have learned anything over the last eight years, it’s that we need a president who wants to understand—who can understand.”

When Romney chose to insert himself in the early hours after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, commentators drew an analogy to the McCain moment. Had Romney shown that he wasn’t ready to be commander in chief because he inserted himself too early in an international crisis?

Observers saw these two moments as core tests of temperament. Only to a point. In both of those instances the campaigns were trying to pantomime presidential action, but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking they were actual tests. No lives were on the line. No decisions made in secret could undermine the constitution. The stakes were relatively low, and the spotlight wasn’t nearly so bright.

The murder of an American ambassador and three of his colleagues created a crisis for Obama, but the challenge for Romney was purely political. He was trailing in the polls and thought the president was vulnerable for his leadership overseas. Romney read the landscape and thought he saw an opening to take a free shot. Polls suggest people think he made the wrong call. He failed the political test, not the commander-in-chief test. The best we can say is that if campaigns can’t make the right political call under pressure, they won’t be able to make the tougher calls of the presidency.

The closest equivalent for a candidate is when an unexpected disclosure threatens to destroy a campaign. In 1992, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Jennifer Flowers announced her longtime affair with Bill Clinton. For a campaign that is an existential test, a moment that carries a similar type of risk as a president staring down a crisis for his administration.

Have you ever been called arrogant? Do you take it as a compliment?

Making clean evaluations of temperament is also tricky because some qualities that can seem unappealing can actually be helpful in office. We don’t like arrogant candidates. “A self-made man, he was distressingly proud of his maker,” historian Thomas Bailey wrote of the hapless Andrew Johnson. (Johnson, who had apprenticed to a tailor, sometimes liked to remind audiences that Jesus, a carpenter, had also worked with his hands.) It was Obama’s sense of self-regard the Mitt Romney poked fun at during his convention speech. “He promised the oceans will rise and the earth would begin to heal,” Romney said. “I just want to help you and your family.”

For many of Obama’s critics, his excessive fondness for himself was an easily identifiable flaw. Voters should have rejected him when he took his celebritylike trip of Europe. But if you are a supporter you want a president to have that confidence. In Obama’s case, it was his own sense of his place in history that kept his focus on reforming health care. “There was a strain of messianism in Barack Obama, a determination to change the course of history,” writes Noam Scheiber in The Escape Artists. “And it was this determination that explained his reluctance to abandon his presidential vision. Recessions would come and go, even recessions as painful as this one. But the big achievements—like health care and climate change—were the accomplishments that posterity would recall.”

That confirms the Republican critique: He launched an expensive and distracting health care crusade out of personal grandiosity. But Obama’s sense of mission on health care was no different than the sense of mission that animated President George W. Bush, who promised “We write not footnotes but chapters in the American story.” In that case, Bush’s personal push to achieve big things like education reform and restructuring Social Security was considered a laudable attribute.

The only people who really know about whether a man running for president has the temperament for the job are those who have worked alongside him. This requires him to have had enough experience to actually accumulate tests of his temperament and to have people who aren’t just cronies make claims on his behalf, as was largely the case with Obama. (Kennedy also skipped to the top fairly quickly, but his military career was a pretty intense test of his temperament.)

President John F. Kennedy.Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.

This is one of the attractive qualities of the presidency, as it was first conceived by the Founders, where elites promoted candidates and the candidate didn’t sell themselves. The political class was in a position to have evaluated the temperament of a candidate like George Washington—someone they had closely observed over long careers. Mitt Romney, for example, has a well-earned reputation for the interchangeability of his public positions. But firsthand accounts of his character speak very well of him. Those who worked with him in the lead up to Winter Games in Salt Lake City testify not just to his focus and intelligent management, but his commitment to integrity and ethics.

Words like character and values get shapeless pretty fast. Like the word leadership, they are used by politicians to critique their opponent without having to explain exactly what they mean. But genuine examples of character in a candidate’s background give us some indication that he has ballast. Values, whether based in religious beliefs or personal ethics, are what stabilize a president in the swirl. His decisions are rooted in something larger than the moment. They keep him from foundering from pressure, whether from a near terrorist attack or the constant needling of a financial backer.

Though it would be helpful to have a better understanding of a candidate’s qualities from the elites who have observed him, no one would actually argue for going back to a selection system ruled only by party insiders. That is especially true now, when the elites that surround political figures are likely to be the people who raise money for them rather than men of national character like the Founders. George Washington and John Adams would have had nothing to do with Donald Trump.

Temperament, the most important quality, is the one we really can’t know. Voters are taking a gamble on what their presidents will do when they are alone. It’s a quality that can only be really measured once someone is in office. That would seem to favor incumbents, but proof that a president has the temperament to endure the challenges of the first four years is no guarantee that he could endure four more. The decision-making muscle may get in better shape, but it might also blow out after eight years of strain. For a challenger, experience and success are perhaps the only proxy for voters who want to know about a candidate’s temperament. If someone has been effective over a long career they must have some inner strength that allows them to make decisions, ride out disappointments, and endure uncertainty. This is essentially the Mitt Romney argument. (“You can’t argue with success.”) But voters aren’t buying that. How a candidate comes across on the stump, in television commercials, and in debates is what matters to voters. Though the office’s most important moments happen in private, we elect presidents based on who they are in public. In the end, voting for a president is like making decisions as a president. There’s no guarantee. The outcome is always uncertain, and there’s a 30 to 40 percent chance it won’t work out.

How To Measure for a President 4

By John Dickerson|SLATE.  Sept. 28, 2012,

Entry 4: Mitt Romney doesn’t give a great speech. No matter. A president’s ability to persuade has always been overrated.

President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 call for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!”.Photo by Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images.

On Election Night, after a winning presidential candidate enjoys his victory party, he should be given a bathrobe, slippers, and taken to a decompression chamber. Victory can give a president-elect a case of the bends. He is likely to think that since he has convinced the public to elect him, he will have power as president to convince the public to follow him. “It’s a malady and it’s a dangerous one,” says presidential historian George Edwards III. “They have been talking for two years and that’s all they’ve been doing and then they win and they say I can convince people of anything. The feedback is pretty strong.

We’re all conditioned to think presidents have a powerful ability to persuade the country. That’s why the press and public pour over every word of their speeches, press conferences, and Oval Office interviews. The president and his staff think speeches can change minds, too. If people are mistakenly thinking X, it’s just because the president hasn’t had a chance to explain Y. Once he does, polls are taken. If the people still don’t agree with the president, we see it as a sign that he is somehow flawed.

But we are giving the occupant of the White House too much credit. The evidence suggests that if people don’t agree with a president, his ability to persuade them otherwise is pretty limited. “The idea that presidents accomplish more if they give the right speech is magical thinking,” says political scientist John Sides. “It feels good for people to hear the president say things they want him to say, but they can’t mistake that warm feeling for what gets legislation on the president’s desk.”

In campaigns, you can draw a relatively straight line between the speeches and the outcome. To win an election, a candidate just has to convince voters he’s better than the alternative by a day in early November. But to win a complicated policy debate a president has to convince enough legislators and a distracted American public that the situation is urgent or at least matters a whole lot. For a president’s opponents, delay is always an option and it’s hard to focus the mind if people aren’t already on board. In that atmosphere, a presidential candidate’s ability to read public opinion is a better guide to their ability to persuade the public than their gift for delivering soaring rhetoric.

Admittedly, this view of oratory is not going to get your movie script green-lighted. Harrison Ford doesn’t want to be attached to a movie about a president with a knack for shaping existing public desires. The action-figure president we like to imagine rallies the nation with his words and dispatches foes with tart rejoinders.

The Framers weren’t interested in the Hollywood version, though. As Jeffrey Tulis, the author of The Rhetorical Presidency points out, they wanted a man who cooled public passions, not a president who got them all stirred up. Though we prize extemporaneous presidential speech today—and snicker at Barack Obama’s dependency on the Tele-prompter—there was a time when the presidency did not have a chat-show element. President Harry Truman was criticized when he went off script. “When the president speaks, something more than an off-the-cuff opinion or remark is expected,” wrote the Washington Post editorial page in May 1948, chastising him for delivering anything other than a “set speech which has been prepared and combed over carefully by presidential advisers.” Presidential policy was too important to make up on the fly. Speeches were the public culmination of an entire presidency—the tip of the iceberg. They weren’t the thing itself.

Technology has put a premium on communication, ushering in the rhetorical presidency. But the focus on presidential talk has also come from a change in how we see the office. As governing has become more like a permanent campaign, we’ve grown to thinking that an effective president is one who speaks in campaign mode—all the time. And if he could persuade people to join his side as a candidate, why wouldn’t he be able to do it as president?

How powerful is the bully pulpit?

As Ezra Klein wrote in The New Yorker, Texas A&M University’s George Edwards and a number of other political scientists have systematically dismantled the idea that presidents can cause significant shifts in public opinion. The starkest examples come from the presidents known for being our greatest communicators. In 1937, at the height of his power, Franklin Roosevelt tried to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court to receive more favorable rulings for his New Deal legislation. He went directly to the public, making the Judicial Procedure Reform Bill the subject of one of his famous fireside chats. Most of the other chats had not been used so pointedly—to make a pitch for a specific program—but this was a special issue for FDR. The public didn’t bite. They saw it as a power grab and the measure failed. One of our great rhetorical presidents, Roosevelt could not convince the country to join World War II before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

John F. Kennedy’s words are repeated as much as any other president, but his eloquence didn’t help him in the Oval Office. He was constantly frustrated with his inability to gather support to pass education and health care bills. When he made a televised address in Madison Square Garden for Medicare reform, he tried to rally the country to his cause. “In this free society of ours the consent and support of the citizens of this country is essential if this or any other piece is going to be passed,” he said to an estimated television audience of 20 million. The next night a family physician, Dr. Edward Annis, gave a televised rebuttal. More than 30 million people tuned in, according to one report, suggesting that Kennedy was perhaps less popular in this fight than the family doctor. The president did not sway his audience and the measure was defeated in Congress.

Ronald Reagan was unsuccessful in convincing the public to support increased defense spending. He made repeated appeals to give support to the Nicaraguan Contras against the threat of Communism, but to no avail. His pollster Richard Wirthlin wrote the president a memo suggesting he stop pushing the policy because it was likely to lower his approval rating and only harden people against helping the Contras.

The relationship between presidents and the partisan feelings they provoke by pushing a policy has only grown more acute since Reagan’s years. In our increasingly hyper-partisan era, presidential communication can actually diminish the chances that both parties can find common ground. Sometimes the best thing to know about the bully pulpit is when not to use it.

Each of these presidents—with the exception of Kennedy—also had a string of successful presidential campaigns. Still, they all—even Reagan—lamented at the end of their administrations that they wished they had been able to communicate better with the American people.

President Kennedy giving his inaugural address in January 1961.Photo by Frank Scherschel//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Barack Obama has been sounding this lament for several years. In interviews with Ron Suskind in 2010, Obama said, “The area in my presidency where I think my management and understanding of the presidency evolved most, and where I think we made the most mistakes, was less on the policy front and more on the communications front. … I think I was so consumed with the problems in front of me that I didn’t step back and remember, ‘What is the particular requirement of the president that no one else can do?’ And what the president can do, that nobody else can do, is tell a story to the American people about where we are and where we are going … going forward as president, the symbols and gestures—what people are seeing coming out of this office—are at least as important as the policies we put forward.”

In an interview with Charlie Rose two years later, the president said the same thing. Asked to name a mistake he’d made, Obama said it was not telling good enough stories to the American people.

But good yarns are not enough. In the more than two years since the president started saying he needed to tell better stories, he’s been trying, but on issues from health care to the economy, people aren’t any more persuaded. The more likely reason for the president’s low approval ratings is not that his words weren’t conjured properly or arranged in the right order, but that unemployment was high and the country’s economic plight wasn’t getting better fast enough. If the mechanic hasn’t fixed your car, you may understand the story he tells you and you may even be sympathetic to it, but you still want your car fixed.

Even when a president can take advantage of existing sentiment to move legislation, the economy can limit the power of his words. The country overwhelmingly supports the ending of the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy. You might think this would give President Obama the upper hand when Republicans took the position that they would support an extension of all tax cuts or none at all. But the president and his advisers calculated that if no deal was reached and taxes went up that would create greater economic pain that would—ultimately—be blamed on the White House. He couldn’t talk his way out of that with a good story.

Presidents can’t fight against an underlying feeling about the economy. But that doesn’t mean they can’t try. They have to appear to be doing something about the No. 1 issue of the day. Giving a speech is the most effective way to look like you’re taking charge when your other options are limited. Plus, while political scientists make a good case that presidential speechifying might not always swing voters in a positive direction, it’s still possible that speeches keep public opinion from falling into the well.

There may also be a political benefit to the endless speeches. Take the current president, who has been criticized for giving too many speeches. Today, the American public thinks the economy is lousy. They don’t trust that the country is headed in the right direction. And, generally speaking, they think the president’s stewardship of the economy is lackluster at best. So why aren’t Obama’s approval ratings lower? What keeps him afloat, Democratic strategists wonder? It may be that President Obama’s speeches over the years have contributed to the relatively warm feeling people have about him. As even Mitt Romney admits, people like the guy.

Of course, there are speeches that move people, and in so doing accrue important political points for a president and his administration. Oftentimes they come from moments of national tragedy or sadness. Bill Clinton’s speech after the Oklahoma City bombing broke what had been a series of bad months for him, aligning him once again with the nation. George W. Bush’s words on the rubble pile at Ground Zero rallied the nation to his leadership in a way that his initial response to the attack had not. Obama’s well-received speech in response to the shootings in Tucson, Ariz. that wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords interrupted what had been a dreary period for his administration after the 2010 losses in the House. It’s hard to imagine Mitt Romney, who is a workmanlike speaker, seizing one of these moments for his advantage. But the quality of his oratory probably wouldn’t hurt him too much. These are situations where the public is straining to embrace a leader; the president just needs to be there to accept the embrace.

How do you know what the public thinks?

The reason presidents can seize on public moments of tragedy is that presidential communication is most effective when it taps into the public’s mood. “When broader forces align—public opinion, the right number of legislators—presidential action is a useful addition of momentum to that change,” says Sides, the political scientist. “It’s not going to create that change by itself, but it can direct it.” In this case, then, the most powerful thing a president does when he communicates is topic selection. The public wants many things. Much of what it wants it shouldn’t have. Presidential speechmaking sets the agenda and draws the crowd to a topic, which a savvy president knows they are at least somewhat predisposed to supporting.

Presidents are not supposed to be motivated by polls. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie argued this point at the Republican National Convention: “You see, Mr. President—real leaders don’t follow polls. Real leaders change polls.” That’s not exactly true. Successful presidents all credit their ability to figure out where the country was headed and then rush to the front to organize the parade. Lincoln not only managed by wandering around, he used to take what he called “public opinion baths,” gauging the public’s attitude about a particular issue before he made a decision. FDR famously said “I cannot go any faster than the people will let me.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt during one of his fireside chats, on August 1933.National Park Service.

Reagan was a masterful communicator, in part because he didn’t try to force the country to go in a direction it didn’t want to go. He managed tax cuts and reductions in government spending that met the desires of a conservative wave in the country. Reagan’s talent was to give voice (and easily repeatable aphorisms) to the country’s mood. (They are still being repeated at GOP rallies today, where I’m with the government and I’m here to help you is a ready laugh line.) The economic success of Reagan’s term ratified the ideas behind it—smaller government and the belief that tax cuts lead to economic growth—but his ability to communicate branded those ideas to the times more than simple prosperity could.

Bill Clinton, whose skills connecting with the American people are legendary, nevertheless faced a series of stinging defeats early on. But he learned his lesson after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994. He immediately started supporting a number of small provisions—from encouraging school uniforms to V-chips that would block offensive programming on television—that had wide popular appeal. The triangulation he practiced in which he supported positions in the middle against the extremes of both parties gave him a series of victories that matched the public mood. By offering the public what they wanted, Clinton realigned his presidency with the majority. It wasn’t Clinton’s words that won people over. It was the policies, stupid.

If a president can’t sell a program, is it his fault?

Barack Obama had an opportunity to shape public opinion on health care reform. When he started his push, the idea of reform was broadly popular. In April 2009, 59 percent of respondents in a Kaiser health care poll believed health care reform was more important than ever—even amid an economic downturn. Only 37 percent said we couldn’t afford health reform because of economic problems. But the more Obama worked on the legislation, the more partisan the issue became. Soon the numbers began to turn against him. It became a game of beat the clock: Could he get the bill through Congress before opposition to it calcified? But Obama didn’t sprint. He thought he could keep the public on board while everyone waited for the Senate Finance Committee and its chairman Max Baccus to deliver a bipartisan agreement. During that time, the president allowed the health care bill to take a pounding each day, lowering its popularity. In February 2009, the president’s approval rating on the question of health care was a rosy 57 percent favorable to 41 percent unfavorable. By the time he signed the law in March 2010, those numbers had flipped. Even under a president with rhetorical gifts, the partisan and confusing nature of public-policy debates can overwhelm the oratory.

In the end, Obama had to jam the bill through. As health care reform came to a vote, Obama was no longer trying to win over Republicans or protect his brand. He supported the Senate use of reconciliation, a back-door procedural move that destroyed any chance of bringing along Republicans, and he turned his megaphone toward rallying his own troops. That’s a place where presidential rhetoric can be powerful. Obama’s speech to House Democrats on the eve of the vote appealed to the common bonds that brought them into politics as Democrats. Since then, public support for the legislation has not improved.

Describe a situation when you convinced an adversary of something.

If Obama wasn’t naive about the political reality, he may have had too much faith in the play he kept running: Look reasonable so people will see that Republicans are overstepping. It didn’t really work. It didn’t cow Republicans. Their approval ratings sank, but their positions didn’t change, and Obama’s status with voters didn’t improve as he’d hoped it would by using the GOP as a foil.

The president also probably had an outsize opinion of his own powers of persuasion. “One of the things I’m good at is getting people in a room with a bunch of different ideas who sometimes violently disagree with each other and finding common ground, and a sense of common direction,” Obama told 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft. “And that’s the kind of approach that I think prevents you from making some of the enormous mistakes that we’ve seen over the last eight years.”

This was a theory largely untested by reality. Obama had worked with Republicans in Illinois, but that was a much smaller playground and he’d only done it for eight years. In the United States Senate, there was virtually no evidence of his persuasive powers on any meaningful issue. In the early days of his presidency, Obama couldn’t even get his own economic advisers to agree, let alone Republicans.

Mitt Romney propagates a similar notion. It’s the myth of smart people in a room and the ability to wrangle a way forward from knowing how to conduct them. But what if the smart people in the room don’t want to agree with you? If they’re members of Congress, you can’t fire them. You can’t engage them in collective action for the good of the share price. They are trading on an entirely different market.

How do you know what the public wants?

If the political scientists are right, we should stop hanging on every president’s every word. That’s good news for Mitt Romney. He is not a memorable orator, but it turns out that he doesn’t need to be on many issues. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The average of polls shows 50 percent of the country wants the law repealed and only 40 percent does not. That’s more important than all the wordsmiths in the land.

President Obama’s rhetorical skills have already been downgraded in office. You could see it at his convention where he delivered a more earthbound speech. It seems like he knows that people may be a little skeptical this time around. When President Obama inevitably reinvigorates his base with rousing words during the campaign, no one should assume he will be any more effective in a second term as president.

Then Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting in July 2008 in Virginia/Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

If we want to measure a candidate’s potential in office, perhaps the more important thing to measure is their ability to read the public. It’s only with an understanding of what the public wants that they can shape public views. Candidates speak as if they can intuit the deepest wishes of the public, but where does this understanding come from? They attend rallies made up only of their supporters and they never admit to reading public-opinion polls. Democrats say they don’t watch Fox news and Republicans don’t wake up to the New York Times.

If voters aren’t with a president on a specific issue, all is not lost. Their general disposition toward their leader—whether they think he has their interests at heart—still offers something. If they do trust that he has their back, people might be more predisposed to hear him when, as president, he tries to argue that he has plans or ideas that may first strike them as unappealing. This is an area where Mitt Romney has lots of work to do. When pollsters ask voters which candidate they think cares more about average people, Obama beats Romney regularly by 20 percentage points or more.

That’s a tough position to start from when you are promising to transform the Medicare program, a proposal that does not have majority support. Romney’s plan to extend the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy also doesn’t have broad support.

Do the rules of presidential rhetoric suggest that there’s no way that Romney can accomplish what he’s proposing? Is he willing to go forward even though his Medicare reforms are likely to be unpopular, the way Barack Obama did with health care? Romney and Paul Ryan have suggested that they will receive a political benefit for taking on these hard tasks. But that’s just campaign talk. There is no evidence from the real world that this is true.

These were the questions Newt Gingrich was noodling when he raised doubts about Paul Ryan’s plan to transform Medicare. The country wasn’t ready for “right-wing social engineering” any more than it was ready for left-wing social engineering, Gingrich argued, because to make big changes you can’t change public opinion, you need to shape it. So what was the plan for getting the country in the right frame of mind to accept it?

The limits of Barack Obama’s communication skills have already been exposed. He is not going to be a more effective story-teller in his second term, but then again, his ambitions are less lofty than Mitt Romney’s. Obama’s agenda—to manage future budgets to reduce growing inequality through protection of investments and rearrangement of the tax code—is essentially in line with public opinion. Polls show that the public trusts him to handle issues of Medicare, taxes, and health care (despite disapproval of the Affordable Care Act). Without another election to worry about, Obama might feel emboldened to negotiate on behalf of those popular positions in the budget fight that will start the day after Election Day as he tries to avoid the fiscal cliff created by last year’s budget deal and the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. Whoever the next president is, when his term begins, he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do.

How To Measure for a President 3

By John Dickerson|SLATE. Sept. 27, 2012

Entry 3: It gets loud in the Oval Office. You better be able to tune out the noise.

President John Kennedy poses with members of his party before taking off on Sept. 11, 1962. From left, Budget Director David Bell, NASA administrator James Webb, Rep. Albert Thomas, Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.Photo by Bill Allen/AP Photo.

Ann Romney says that she and her husband call the rope line the “advice line.” Every time the candidate works the crowd, well-meaning supporters lean across the rope to offer tips about how he can improve his campaign. At fundraisers, donors give him advice on everything from sovereign debt to his speaking style (slow down!). Conservative pundits have been offering critiques by the wagonful for months.

Ignore or adapt? That is the question for the Romney campaign, which finds itself down in the polls, under siege, and with 40 days before the election. If Romney has a clear vision for righting the ship, then he must smile and ignore the chatter. This is a laudable attribute. Who wants a weathervane as president? When Hillary Clinton was ahead in the polls, Barack Obama resisted calls to panic. It was one of the first signs he might be ready to be president.

On the other hand, if circumstances have changed, Romney should take a gamble, scrap his plan, and adapt. Otherwise he’s going to blow his best chance to beat a weak incumbent.

Romney faces a management decision of presidential proportions right now. The decision over the direction of his campaign mirrors the constant tension a president faces—do I stick to my strategy or stop compounding the same mistakes? In the middle of a day swirling with other choices, a president must decide: ignore or adapt?

The way a presidential candidate manages his campaign tells us something about how he will govern. Vision, perseverance, risk-taking, and adaptation. These are all words from the corporate world where Mitt Romney made his fortune. Surely they’ve all been the subject of Harvard Business Review cover stories. But it’s much more than management-speak. A president can be the most gifted politician of his generation, but if he bungles this part of the equation his administration isn’t going anywhere. Just ask Jimmy Carter.

What is the most important management quality?

It can get very loud in the Oval Office. Congressional enemies and allies, the press, and the public all want to tell you what you are doing wrong. If there is one management quality for a president above all others, it’s the ability to ignore the noise. Make a decision and move on.

Nearly every chief of staff, top-level aide, and senior military officer I’ve asked says that decisiveness is a president’s most crucial attribute. Clarity from the top trickles down, which removes the possibility that the president will later get mired in some smaller skirmish to enforce his will.

In interviews with military officials intimately involved in the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, this decisiveness is the single quality they cite when asked open-ended questions about President Obama’s role: His ability to convey clarity both in the questions he asked and in his final decision. “Anyone who says that any other person could have made those calls doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says one who was involved.

“The essence of the ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer,” John Kennedy said of presidential decisions. This means a president, like a candidate, must be highly skeptical of the kibitzer. Lack of information does not, however, slow the critics. The critic is booked on all three cable networks and must say something.

Never mind the many ways the critic can be wrong. Sometimes they are blind to context. (The president isn’t criticizing Saudi Arabia because the country’s ruling family is helping him with a covert action against Iran.) Or, the critic is blind to the political reality. (The public option doesn’t have the votes to pass and nothing will change that.) Or, the critic doesn’t realize that the president hears the complaints but is arranging things to make it look like he came to the idea on his own so he doesn’t appear weak.

Can you lead by doing nothing?

Usually the advice a president gets amounts to this: Do something. But there are times when leading means not acting. No matter what your reputation, critics will complain if you don’t immediately start barking emergency orders into the telephone. “He will be remembered, I fear, as the unadventurous president who held on one term too long in the new age of adventure,” presidential historian Clinton Rossiter wrote of Eisenhower. Apparently, you can lead Allied Forces to victory and people are still going to question whether you’re too timid.

These critiques are often unjust. Mitt Romney was an enormous success in business, turned around the Winter Olympics, and won his party’s nomination, but is still called a wimp for being risk-averse—in an age when excessive risk-taking arguably led to the financial collapse and some of the worst decisions in 11 years of war. Obama sent a surge of troops to Afghanistan, passed once-in-a-generation health care reform, and ordered the operation that killed Bin Laden, and yet the call goes up that, “We need a leader not a reader!”

President Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama Bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House in May 2011, Washington, DC.Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images.

Eisenhower should serve as a cautionary tale to presidential critics. While in office, he was derided as a distracted fellow whose biggest mark was the divots his golf shoes left in the Oval Office floor. But his presidential papers revealed that Ike was deeply involved behind the scenes. He was criticized, for example, for allowing a “missile gap” to grow between the United States and the Soviet Union. He knew from U-2 spy planes that no such gap existed, but he chose not to answer his critics for fear of inciting an even greater arms race. (To resist laying your critics low is an act of presidential temperament that we’ll discuss in the final piece in this series.)

Conservatives criticize Barack Obama for “leading from behind.” That’s a term used by an anonymous staffer in a New Yorker profile about Obama’s strategy in Libya, but it has grown into a laugh line at Republican rallies. It is supposed to show just how clueless the incumbent is about leadership. Leaders are supposed to clatter to the front, sword in hand, and lungs full of hot breath.


“Leading from behind” shares similarities with the “hidden hand” that Eisenhower used so effectively. Eisenhower recognized that sometimes it was preferable for the president to work through others, as he did during the McCarthy episode of 1954. Publicly, Eisenhower said it was up to the Senate to discipline the reckless Wisconsin senator, but privately he guided the campaign that led to his censure. The task then, for those of us trying to evaluate leadership is not to immediately dismiss the style used, but to determine whether it is effective.

Whether a president chooses to act or not, strong leadership requires conviction and clarity. No presidential decision is easy, so all of them come with critics that must be ignored to keep an administration focused. Inside the administration, conviction and constancy (backed up by operational attentiveness) keep the bureaucracy from spinning out of control. In a possibly apocryphal story about Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president once called his advisers together to offer their opinions. When all disagreed with him, he said: “There are 12 against and one for and the ayes have it.” Lincoln’s team knew where he stood because he made it clear.

Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand, October 1862, at the Battle of Antietam.Photo by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

Lincoln didn’t direct his administration by force alone. His famous appointment of a “team of rivals” thrived because Lincoln tended to them. He clashed with his secretary of state, William Seward, a former political rival who thought he knew better than the president. But as Donald Phillips points out in Lincoln on Leadership, the president’s constant and regular attention to Seward eventually turned him into an ally. “Executive force and vigor are rare qualities,” Seward wrote to his wife in 1861. “The President is the best of us.”

Jimmy Carter presents the opposite case. Surrounded by a group of Georgia loyalists, he lost control of his Cabinet and the vast array of bureaucrats that make up the executive branch. This was in part by design. The notion of a “Cabinet government” was in vogue in the late 1970s. So Carter declared a hands-off organization, where each Cabinet head had the autonomy to pursue his own goals. As James Fallows outlined in his essay “The Passionless Presidency,” his famous deconstruction of Carter’s failures, the delegation led to predictable clashes as Cabinet heads followed their own ambitions, not the president’s.

If various factions in an administration believe they can game the president, they will never carry out his wishes. This was the downside of Bill Clinton’s long, rambling all-night meetings, which one staffer described to Elizabeth Drew as a “floating crap game about who runs what around here.”

Mitt Romney has a well-earned reputation for ideological malleability on issues from abortion to gun control, but he also has an accomplished manager’s ability to stick with the game plan. On some issues, like the full release of his tax returns, he is immovable. Those who worked with him on the Olympic Committee in Utah say that the defining characteristic of his success was his tenacious discipline and focus. And those who have served with him in his church describe the same quality, going back to his days as a missionary in France. After a car accident there that killed the wife of the head of the mission and nearly Romney himself, the 21-year-old put his injuries and feelings aside and stepped in to lead the entire enterprise.

Name a time when you reversed course and why?

Fortitude can be a liability. Some of the greatest presidential mistakes—from the Bay of Pigs to the strategic failures of the 2003 Iraq war—were the result of holding fast to decisions long after the facts on the ground had changed. Writing about Kennedy’s blindness during the Cuban invasion, James MacGregor Burns describes “CIA experts who played to JFK’s bias for action and eagerness to project strength. The White House had no process for registering dissent, or for bringing in independent voices from the outside.” Arthur Schlesinger described a “curious atmosphere of assumed consensus.”

George W. Bush was known for his lack of flexibility, but even he knew how to adapt. After months of pursuing a losing strategy in Iraq, Bush adopted Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy to turn around the course of the war. After heavy election losses for his party in 1994, Bill Clinton embraced Republican plans for welfare reform. Barack Obama dropped his opposition to the individual mandate to pass health care reform.

How a president determines to adapt to new circumstances is crucial to his management success. But in campaigns, we penalize adaptation. If a candidate changes positions, it’s called flip-flopping. The tolerance for mistakes and course-corrections is so low that the smallest verbal miscue becomes a “gaffe” that controls a news cycle. (Whenever you read this, I’m betting a “gaffe” story has either just broken or begun to die down.)

Campaigns not only obscure our efforts to measure a candidate’s ability to adapt, they actively weaken it. A candidate who survives a campaign has an overdeveloped “ignore muscle,” since he’s had to weather so much bad advice and silly non-controversies. For months, they have been coaxing campaign donors for cash, which puts them under a steady shower of advice from wealthy non-experts who are free to express their ideas any way they like.

When a candidate becomes president, they have to break out of that mode, because the plans they make for the next four years are going to be upended almost as soon as they take possession of the Oval Office bathroom key. As David Sanger reports, Barack Obama learned when he took over from George Bush that the United States was engaged in a secret cyber war against Iran. That reshaped his plans to engage the Islamic Republic. Bill Clinton’s early read of the economic conditions caused him to focus more on deficit reduction in his first term than the stimulus he had promised as a candidate. Obama also quickly learned that the financial crisis was much worse than he expected. If a president can’t plot midcourse corrections, it’s going to be a very long four years.

How do you think about failure?

As James Fallows writes, “The sobering realities of the modern White House are: All presidents are unsuited to the office, and therefore all presidents fail in crucial aspects of the job.” Given this truth, presidents would be wise to follow that maxim from Silicon Valley: fail fast. Otherwise, they’ll be stuck late in their administration with inevitably low approval ratings, the punishing requirements of getting re-elected, and the regret that they no longer have the room to maneuver that they once did. If they accept failures, they can learn from them and chart a new course while their administration is still young enough to act.

If we were really serious about looking for the best possible president during campaign season, we’d treat the candidates’ stumbles more intelligently. Rather than rushing to Twitter, we’d look to see how candidates recovered from their missteps and what they learned. Since we know that presidents will have to adapt to circumstances, sometimes fast (Reverend Wright! The 47 percent!), paying attention to these moments is one of our best opportunities to see if candidates can think on their feet. But by treating every slip-up like a hand-in-the-cookie-jar moment, we spook the candidates. There’s no upside for them to be candid with us about their mistakes, so they deny that they ever happened.

We obviously don’t want a chronic fumbler in office, but no one can be successful without having made some mistakes. If they’ve never made a mistake, it means they weren’t taking risks.  And every president must take risks. This was one of FDR’s great skills. “Bold, persistent experimentation,” he called it. He was willing to try lots of things. Some failed and when they did, he learned and moved on. “I experimented with gold and that was a flop,” he once told a group of senators. “Why shouldn’t I experiment a little with silver?” Roosevelt wasn’t afraid of failure.

FDR in conference with Gen. D. MacArthur, Adm. Chester Nimitz, Adm. W. D. Leahy, while on tour in the Hawaiian Islands in January 1944.National Archives/Wikimedia Commons.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have shown us very little about how they handle mistakes and adapt. Obama says that his biggest mistake is that he didn’t tell better stories to explain where he wanted to take the country. Mitt Romney copped to the fact that he didn’t think Jet Blue was a good investment. These non-admissions are nearly useless for the purpose of evaluating whether either man has what’s required for the job.

For starters, Mitt Romney could tell us about the internal decision making that led to the Paul Ryan pick. That was a risk, picking the man with a paper trail who Democrats had tried to turn into a lightning rod for two years. It was a big risk, especially for the risk-averse “wimp” Romney. But campaigns resist talking about the real process that led to a decision. The only thing they want to be detailed about is the way Ryan sneaked out the back of his house to secretly meet up with Romney on the big day. If there was a little more honest inquiry into Romney’s thought process, voters may get a window into the inner workings of the man. With 40 days before the election, voters have no such window.

Newt Gingrich talked about the need for quick adaptation during his candidacy. He said he would create a public comment system to help him identify mistakes quickly and fix them. Newt proposed a networked “feedback mechanism” where supporters “can go online and say that say, ‘That didn’t work,’ or a mechanism for you to say, ‘Try this’ if you find something smarter or if the world changes and there’s a new problem, the sooner we talk to each other the better.”

This may be too unwieldy or zany. (Imagine the White House comments section: spoonboy343 says, “Yr Fed pix suk!”) But at least Gingrich had a theory about how he would run his White House. Most presidential candidates end up in Kennedy’s dilemma: “I spent so much time getting to know people who could help me get elected president,” he said, “that I didn’t have any time to get to know people who could help me, after I was elected, to be a good president.”

What’s the most important quality in a staffer and why?

A president can build adaptation into his White House staff. President Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel says that the most important quality a staffer can have is candor. They’ve got to be able to tell the president he is wrong, because the president is entombed in flattery. The halls are filled with your picture. Movie stars blanch in your presence. People talk about you in whispers.

George W. Bush used to tell the story of what it was like to eavesdrop on staffers or members of Congress sitting outside the Oval Office. When they were on the outside, they’d talk about how they were going to give the president a piece of their mind, but once they crossed the threshold, they were only able to compliment the president on his tie and tennis game.

Knowing about the perils of sycophancy isn’t sufficient to insulate your presidency from groupthink. (Otherwise, George W. Bush would have short-circuited a few problems.) When President Obama came into office, he said he was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, about Lincoln’s Cabinet of tough competing personalities. It was meant to show that he understood there needed to be competing viewpoints in his administration to keep the thinking fresh. This is also what Michael Kranish and Scott Helman describe in The Real Romney as “the Bain way.” According to the authors, Romney always wanted as many smart minds in his inner circle as possible to ensure a competition of ideas. When there wasn’t sufficient argument, he would take up the role of devil’s advocate himself. Or, as Romney put it to a small group of Iowa businessmen during the primaries: “I am a capable enough business guy to know when people are blowing smoke and when they’re not.”

But the rivals can get out of hand. Obama had never run anything beside his campaign team. He had no experience managing an unruly group of egos who had not been with him in the campaign trenches and who lacked the deep personal loyalty that created. By several accounts, his inexperience contributed to the messy and backwards economic policy process. One of those accounts came in a memo from one of Obama’s top advisers, as reported in Ron Suskind’s book Confidence Men:

First there is deep dissatisfaction within the economic team with what is perceived to be [Larry Summers’] imperious and heavy-handed direction of the economic policy process. Second, when the economic team does not like a decision by the President, they have on occasion worked to re-litigate the overall policy. Third, when the policy direction is firmly decided, there can be consideration/reconsideration of the details until to [sic] the very last moments. Fourth, once a decision is made, implementation by the Department of the Treasury has at times been slow and uneven. These factors all adversely affect execution of the policy process.

The fact that this memo exists suggests Obama has someone on his staff who can give him bad news. Aides say that Joe Biden and David Plouffe play this role sometimes. It’s not entirely clear who can talk Mitt Romney down from a position. “He doesn’t listen very well,” said one GOP wise man who has spoken extensively with the candidate.

How do you know what you don’t know?

Mitt Romney may be the best-equipped candidate in history to enter the presidency. When a new president comes from the party out of power, it is always a turnaround operation. Romney has done that before. That was part of his job as a venture capitalist. He describes the analytical challenge of analyzing a new company, examining its component parts, and finding a solution to make it work better with the glee of a weekend tinkerer in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek interview. He put those skills to use in managing the Salt Lake Olympics, which he took on midstream. One ally likened his efforts to save the Winter Games to “putting together an airplane in midflight.”

Choosing the right staff for the moment is crucial, and a president is hampered by the hangover from his campaign. To pick his staff, a president starts with a long list of donors, party regulars, and campaign staffers expecting to go to the show, but those may not be the right people for the job. Noam Scheiber argues persuasively that President Obama’s initial staff choices for his economic team, picked in the crisis moments of his early presidency, circumscribed his ultimate policy options and led to a far more Wall Street-friendly economic policy. For an administration, your staff can be your destiny.

Mitt Romney has more experience than most other presidents in knowing how to pick and manage a team. He built management teams again and again with the companies in which Bain invested.

When he was a governor, Romney cast a wide net beyond his party. He turned to people like Robert Pozen, a former top executive at Fidelity Investments and Douglas Foy, the longtime president of the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation. He gave them autonomy, but never too far beyond his reach. His first presidential campaign was different. Riven by factions, it lacked an overall strategy—Romney switched from being a competent Mr. Fix-It to a conservative ideologue and back again. Advisers clashed with no clear direction from the candidate.

Romney also has something Obama lacked: networks. People joke that he knows the owners of NFL and NASCAR teams, but his age and experience give him access and association with people from a variety of backgrounds. He knows more people than Obama did, people who bring valuable experience. When Obama came to the Senate, he had a tight-knit group of close associates, but he lacked a wide group of talented friends like Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush.

Whether Romney listens to or seeks those outside voices is another matter. Neither Obama nor Romney are the most gregarious and approachable of politicians. They are, like many men of accomplishment, difficult to convince they are wrong.

The model again is Lincoln. Phillips describes how Lincoln managed to constantly fertilize his thinking by practicing the technique of “management by walking around.” He dropped in on Cabinet officials without warning, visited the troops and his generals, or simply talked with his fellow citizens. In 1861, he spent more time out of the White House than in it, and Lincoln’s personal secretaries reported that he spent 75 percent of his time meeting with people. When he relieved Gen. John Fremont of his command of the Department of the West, Lincoln wrote, “His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with.”

It would be hard for the modern president to collect outside views the way Lincoln did because presidents just don’t have much time. According to a senior Bush aide, when Barack Obama spoke to the outgoing president on the day of his inauguration, he asked if he could call on Bush for advice if needed. Bush said he would be happy to take the call, but that Obama would not lack for advice and probably wouldn’t want or have time to hear yet another voice.

Jimmy Carter took this quality too far. In July 1979, his administration adrift, he spent two days at Camp David interviewing a host of invited guests about what he was doing wrong as president. He took notes on a legal pad. It became the basis for his “malaise” speech which, along with the mass firing of his Cabinet several days later, was a political disaster that sapped his power and made his presidency look rudderless.


Jimmy Carter at Camp David with members of his cabinet.Photo by Keystone/CNP/Getty Images.

Carter was trying to reinvigorate his administration in midstream. Romney would face a different challenge. Having promised so much, if Romney wins, he will need to get up to speed fast. Obama will need to find a way to keep up the pace. How will he create innovation in an administration where people, including the president, are set in their ways? How will he avoid the scandal that often drags down a president’s second term? He’ll have to turn around his administration immediately to face a new set of challenges. Perhaps he’ll bring in fresh eyes to look at how he’s running things and suggest a new course. After beating Mitt Romney, he’ll need someone with his management experience.


How To Measure for a President 2


By John Dickerson|SLATE. Sept. 26, 2012,

Entry 2: Ethics and honesty are nice. But if a president is going to succeed, he must understand his moment.

 President Lyndon Johnson with Sen. Richard Russell at the White House on Dec. 7, 1963
Photo by Yoichi Okamoto/Lyndon Baines Johnson Library

In Gore Vidal’s movie The Best Man, presidential candidate William Russell, played by Henry Fonda, faces a dilemma. He’s going to lose the race unless he sacrifices his principles and smears his opponent, Joe Cantwell. The incumbent president lectures the timid Russell about the relationship between campaigning and governing:

Power is not a toy we give to good children. It is a weapon. And the strong man takes it and uses it. If you don’t go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor with this very dirty stick, then you’ve got no business in the big league. Because if you don’t fight, the job is not for you. And it never will be.

That’s not what Americans say they want in a president. When Gallup asked voters what they hoped for in a chief executive, they said honesty, consistency, and good morals. They put those qualities above experience and sound judgment. The darker political arts—deception, flip-flopping, fakery, hypocrisy, and acting out of ambition rather than the public good—weren’t on the list. If any of those labels ever stick to the candidate, they can disqualify him before he reaches Des Moines.

Voters claim to want someone like our second president. “Always vote for principle,” John Adams said, “though you may vote alone … you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” In a recent interview for 60 Minutes, Mitt Romney embraced the example Adams set when asked what presidential history has taught him. “We saw in [Adams] an individual who was less concerned about public opinion than he was about doing what he thought was right for the country,” Romney said. It’s a wonderful sentiment, but a politician following the “Adams model” will surely end up with plenty of time for sweet reflection—which is why Romney has probably found it necessary to change his public positions so often. Sweet reflection is nice—but not yet.

Elections confer bulky powers on a president—the ability to make war and treaties and nominate Supreme Court justices. To gain power in the day-to-day, a president must grab it and husband it. To do this, a president must occasionally let people believe things that they know will never be true. He must sometimes embrace what he once denounced. The job requires almost constant artifice. Even when a president shows his genuine self, it is usually based on a meeting where that “authenticity” was approved and sharpened in advance. This is why Ronald Reagan asked, “How can a president not be an actor?”


Of course, if you want to win the office, you can’t ever show that you are fluent in backstabbing and hypocrisy. So our presidential candidates run as outsiders, unsullied by having a phone number in the 202 area code. Herman Cain ignited a crowd by just saying, “I’m not a politician.” When you have had the misfortune of serving in Congress—as John McCain and Barack Obama did—you portray yourself as a maverick. “I’m an outsider trapped on the inside. But with a single election you can set me free!”

This is distracting and unproductive. Pretending that you are not political is itself a highly political act. Voters need to stop rewarding the charade. Let’s not deny the primacy of politics. We are underexamining whether they can actually perform the messy but necessary parts of the job. This may have happened with Obama. In 2008, voters thought he was a great politician. What if his only political skills are the ones that got him elected—appealing to people’s romantic notion of the presidency—and have nothing to do with what it takes to actually do the job?

What voters should be prospecting for is whether a candidate has political instincts. Can he read the landscape? Does he have a theory for how to gain political power? Does he know how to use it? What is his understanding of the public’s tolerance for change? Does he enjoy the relentless give-and-take required to get things done? Has he ever convinced someone who disagreed with him of anything?

A candidate may have great ideas, management skill, and a serene temperament, but that won’t help much if he can’t swim in these rough currents.

How much is politically possible in Washington today? Where are the openings for action and compromise, and why?

If politics is the art of the possible, as Otto von Bismarck said, how does a president know what’s possible? The conditions are not the same for every president. Each faces a different “political time”—a set of political challenges unique to his moment in history—as political scientist Stephen Skowronek explains in his wonderful book The Politics Presidents Make. Voters are either hoping for change or wary of it; the opposition is either in a fighting mood or in shambles; and the priorities a candidate championed on the campaign trail are either in sync with the coalitions in Congress or a pipedream.*

Some presidential proposals are already popular with the public and require little more than a push from the chief executive. Other programs may be possible if a president unlocks dormant public support. Some ideas will never get traction, no matter how much a president pushes. A president must recognize the limitations and opportunities of the political times he inhabits.

We are stuck in this debate at this very moment. Republicans—like all parties looking at the White House from the outside—argue that the president can redirect the country’s course in a snap. Romney is promising an economic turnaround almost immediately after he is elected. That was the mood music behind the GOP’s convention in Tampa, Fla. President Obama, who ran in 2008 promising the same kind of action-hero presidency, is much more realistic now. He’s so realistic, talking about the limitations of changing Washington from the inside, that Republicans are saying he’s already given up.

The idea of a limited presidency is at odds with the myth of the office. One of the most quoted presidential aphorisms is from Woodrow Wilson, who wrote that a president “is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can.” Wilson wrote that line, however, before he ever set foot in the Oval Office. Once he’d actually started serving, he quickly learned about the limits of his power. “A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own … have rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible,” he said when stymied by members of the Senate. Lyndon Johnson had a knack for minting earthy descriptions of presidential powerlessness. “The office is kinda like the little country boy found the hoochie-koochie show at the carnival,” said the 36th president. “Once he’d paid his dime and got inside the tent, ‘It ain’t exactly as it was advertised.’ ”

If a president misreads his moment, it can throw his presidency off course. Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the court is perhaps the most famous example of a serious political blunder. But many trip right out of the gate. Bill Clinton pushed to allow gays to serve in the military at the beginning of his first term, ending his political honeymoon about as soon as it started. In the first months of George W. Bush’s presidency, either due to a lack of attention or respect, Vermont Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords abandoned the Republican Party, handing control of the Senate to the Democrats. Obama continued to back the former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for a Cabinet post despite the controversy over his unpaid taxes. Later Obama admitted he was blind to the conflict between his promise to run a White House with no special-interest influence and the loophole he was creating for his friend Daschle.

A president who sees the possibilities of the moment can rack up achievements that seemed foreclosed. According to Robert Caro’s account in The Path to Power, Johnson knew instinctively after John F. Kennedy’s assassination that he could use the slain president’s memory to pile up successes in Congress. Caro quotes Johnson discussing the mechanics of his strategy: “I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.” When Johnson addressed Congress days after Kennedy’s death, he did just that: “[No] eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

Voters need to appreciate these currents almost as much as presidents in order to accurately assess a president’s political performance or a challenger’s promises. How steep was the opposition that a president faced? How boxed in was his agenda by the unexpected emergencies of the day? Did these fire alarms increase his political capital or drain it? Is the challenger offering pie-in-the-sky promises? Will his proposals face public fatigue, or are people hungry for sweeping change? 

Looking at a presidency this way has one other advantage: Moments of greatness can come into full view. You can identify those instances when a president faced great obstacles and plowed ahead despite the high political price he would pay. That’s the only way to describe Johnson’s decision on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, even though he knew it would permanently cost his party support in the South. When George H.W. Bush supported a budget deal in 1990 that broke with his “no new taxes” pledge, it may have cost him his re-election.

What conditions would require you to be as successful as Reagan and FDR?

One of the great questions of the Obama presidency is whether he understood his political time. He promised to transform politics by being above it. Was this naïve?

Early in his term, Time magazine depicted Obama on the cover looking like FDR. He should have denounced it as grossly unfair. The comparison set expectations he could never meet and which haunt him as he tries to get re-elected as a man who has not lived up to the hagiography.

When FDR came into office, the economic crisis had been dragging on for years. That meant his opponents had been fully discredited. The public had been suffering long enough and were hungry for bold action. Obama didn’t enjoy any of these conditions. The recession still felt fresh. Though Bush’s approval ratings were lousy, conservative ideas were hardly out of fashion. Indeed, during the 2008 campaign, Obama referred favorably to Reagan’s transformative politics. Without a discredited GOP, Obama was never going to easily build new coalitions.

From left, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Tip O’Neill Jr. Reagan showed that he was willing to work with Democrats like O’Neill when necessary.Photo by Zuma Press/Newscom.

Obama didn’t have an issues-based movement behind him of the kind Reagan and FDR had when they were elected. There was no conservative tax revolt or labor movement to propel his domestic policies. Anti-war supporters helped elect Obama, but that didn’t give him a sustained source of energy once in office. With a movement behind you, supporters tolerate most political means employed to reach the desired ends. But Obama was the movement. The means and the ends got muddled. When he had to take emergency measures—buying votes with back-room deals, negotiating in secret, compromising on Republican ideas—he was immediately in conflict with the “new kind of politics” he had promised.

Perhaps Obama never should have promised to “fundamentally transform the United States of America.” It set the expectations too high. The political system doesn’t move that fast. (In retrospect, it sounds like a promise to harness the energy of unicorns.) Recognizing the limitations such grand promises would put on governing would have represented a sophisticated understanding of his political moment. Maybe it never occurred to him that by running as a person who would be above politics he was inadvertently constricting his ability to do the job once in office? Of course, had Obama not successfully sold the idea that he was a rare figure who could unify the nation, he may never have won the election.

An alternative view is that Obama always knew that his post-partisan posture was a gambit. He knew what the politics of the office required, but by positioning himself as a transcendent figure he sought to create a political currency that he could then use in the morass of Washington.

Whichever view you take, we know that the president failed the political test he set for himself. His post-partisan age never materialized. He was not able to convince Republicans to join his health care push. He predicted it would help Democrats in his party in the 2010 elections. It did the opposite. He faced what he called a “shellacking.” In the period that followed, he was weakened politically. He was unable to reach a long-term budget deal and wound up agreeing to an extension of the Bush tax cuts he had long campaigned against. He now cites this failure as the greatest disappointment of his first term.

The challenge for those who argue that Obama was naïve is to explain the obviously political moves he took. On his first big fight over the stimulus plan, Obama tried a variety of gambits, buying off Republican votes, pressuring members of his own side, and in the end going back on a variety of promises about cooperation and transparency that he had made in the campaign in order to get things done.

As Michael Grunwald argues in his book The New New Deal, Obama’s stimulus is filled with pet projects the president squeezed in under the cloak of crisis. He started the transition to a low-carbon economy, pumping money into the largest wind farm, America’s first refineries to process biofuels, and half a dozen of the world’s largest solar arrays. He also slipped in his education agenda to promote data-driven reforms of public schools.

Obama heeded his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s advice to “never let a crisis go to waste” and used the political opening offered to him by events to do the things he wanted. Even when Obama backed down to Republicans on the Bush tax cuts in the waning days of 2010, he got an extension of unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut in return. As David Corn argues in Showdown, Obama was able to sneak in $238 billion in stimulus spending and another $200 billion in other economic priorities—including tax credits for the working poor, renewable energy, and education—by yielding on the issue of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. It was classic political horse trading.

Of course, not everyone was impressed. Sean Wilentz argues that if Obama was made of tougher stuff, he and his congressional colleagues would have altered the Senate filibuster rules when they had a 60-seat majority there, removing an obstacle that had thwarted so many of his legislative priorities. Perhaps, but the president would have had to pull off this controversial move while trying to sell the public on his auto bailout, his stimulus plan, and health care reform. Afghanistan and Iraq were presenting challenges, too. He would have faced opposition from Democratic senators—the late Sen. Robert Byrd would have objected strenuously—which would have eaten up valuable political capital as he wrestled in his own locker room. Having run on openness, transparency, and fair dealing, such a maneuver would have effectively dealt away the goodwill that had elected him president. Part of that goodwill may very well be what sustains him today, despite people’s feelings about his lousy stewardship of the economy.

What has been your greatest negotiating success, and why?

Presidents rarely get their way in a negotiation because of their sharp reasoning, though as historian Richard Neustadt writes, it is common for each president to think that he needs “no power other than the logic of his argument.” It takes a lot more than logic. The good ones have a talent for intimidation, flattery, and a willingness to disappoint their friends. At this point, we have to let LBJ shamble onto the stage.

Johnson is considered the master at working his will on other lawmakers, but he must be understood in his political time in order to see what qualities were unique to the man and the moment and which ones might be available to a president today.

Some of Johnson’s accomplishments, like the Civil Rights Act, were helped along by the momentum of being part of Kennedy’s legacy. Though Johnson helped pass Medicare, sweeping education reform, and a host of other Great Society programs, even his political powers were limited. By the end of his term, the weight of the Vietnam War made him virtually impotent.

Johnson also had unique experience, having served 24 years in Congress. (It’s easier to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when you helped pass the one in 1957.) Obama could never match his skill simply by putting on the presidential cuff links.

Still, Johnson had a love of politics that Obama and Romney lack. He approached other politicians like they were prey. He mixed psychoanalysis, cunning, and determination. “He had almost no hobby,” said Larry Temple, special counsel to President Johnson. “His avocation and his vocation were the same: government and politics.”

“I never trust a man unless I’ve got his pecker in my pocket,” was Johnson’s crudest articulation of political power. The famous picture of Johnson nearly rubbing chins with Rhode Island Sen. Theodore Green has solidified his reputation for intimidation. In December 1963 he fought conservatives in Congress over a bill regulating grain exports to the Soviet Union that he saw as a threat to his power in foreign affairs. He kept Congress in session until Christmas Eve to show them he had the power to do so and built a devastating majority against the conservatives. “He kept telephoning senator after senator, cajoling, bullying, threatening, charming, long after he had the majority, to make the vote overwhelming enough to ensure the lesson was clear,” writes Caro.

But Johnson wasn’t just about a finger to the breast plate. He was a flatterer. “You have to court members of Congress as much as your wife,” Johnson would say. That didn’t mean just calling members on the phone. It meant studying their needs, their fears, knowing how to flatter them, excite them, or buy them off. At his desk he kept a list of important members of Congress. Next to each name was a small annotation with a pet project they needed or note about what their weak spots were.

As a young politician, Johnson would literally sit at the knee of those he sought to ingratiate himself to. Once in power, he still buttered up those he needed. Once when walking out of the Oval Office with an executive from a steel company, Johnson told him, “It takes a powerful man to convince the president of the United States.” He used that same trick with Sen. Harry Byrd. “Now you can tell your friends that you forced the president of the United States to reduce the budget before you let him have his tax cut,” he told the powerful senator from Virginia. In a conversation with Sen. Albert Gore, he cooed: “There’s not anybody I’m more interested in than myself and you. … Any little thing that we can do here to add to your stature, we sure want to do it.” Presidential historian Fred Greenstein writes that Johnson “had an unerring sense of the preoccupations of his colleagues and a genius for linking the provisions of proposed laws to the interests of sufficient numbers of legislators to enact them.”

Johnson was successful because he liked to be in the company of politicians. All successful presidents have some share of this love for their own kind. Harry Truman sought out local pols when he hit the road, both to enjoy their company and to get a quick read of the place he was visiting. It’s clear that Obama—whose personality is far more insular and inward—doesn’t share that appetite, even for those in his own party. Sen. Chuck Schumer has told colleagues this is because Obama never really had to “climb the greasy poll” of politics to succeed. Obama disdains artifice of any kind, as he told Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair. “There are some things about being president that I still have difficulty doing,” Obama said. “For example, faking emotion … I’m at my best when I believe what I am saying.” Obama wouldn’t be able to hold down his soup if he had to flatter Eric Cantor.

Other politicians notice this. “I think one of the problems with the White House is that it’s been too set apart. It’s been too Chicago-centric, and it needs to get out,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the Hill newspaper. “Clinton didn’t just talk to four leaders, he picked up the phone and he kind of said, ‘I really need your vote on this.’ ” Emanuel tells the story of being woken in the middle of the night by Clinton who was asking for another list of names to lobby for votes on his crime bill.

Romney shares Obama’s aloof temperament. He was forced to overcome it a little more than Obama because, as the governor of Massachusetts, Romney needed the Democrats in the legislature to get anything done. But it was a synthetic interaction. In Texas, George W. Bush developed a lifelong friendship with his Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. Romney did not make those kinds of connections. He had little interest in the lawmakers themselves or the cosseting that was required to move legislation.

Massachusetts Democrats found his corporate style off-putting. In Michael Kranish and Scott Helman’s The Real Romney, the authors recount Romney’s first meeting with lawmakers. “My usual approach has been to set the strategic vision for the enterprise and then work with executive vice presidents to implement that strategy,” Romney said. He seemed to be suggesting state lawmakers worked for him. “My take on it was, here is a person who is well-intentioned and competent, but unclear on the basic concept,” Andrea F. Nuciforo, Jr., then a state senator from western Massachusetts, told the authors.

When asked how he is going to get anything done in Washington, Romney points to his work with Democrats in Massachusetts. But his crowning achievement, health care reform, illustrates how difficult it will be for him to match that record as president. Romney worked with Democrats to impose an individual mandate without much ideological opposition from his own party. He’ll have less room to move in Washington where conservatives are on guard for his first break with orthodoxy. To reach a budget deal in Massachusetts, Romney agreed to raise at least $331 million in new revenue through increased fees for permits, licenses, and services—about a 45 percent jump. He’s already signed a pledge never to do such a thing as president.

When did you disappoint an ally to make progress?

Romney does come to Washington with perhaps an unmatched ability to refashion himself and his positions. When he charts a new course, he proceeds with righteousness and resolve, as if the new path was his original conviction, and with no concern for the contradictions that are obvious to everyone else.

Of course, this malleability is a sin for most voters. It’s what they hate about Washington because it usually means that politicians are selling out their constituents for political gain. But presidents know that to accomplish something they have to finesse their previous convictions. Abraham Lincoln changed his mind on slavery, FDR flipped on a balanced budget and neutrality, George H.W. Bush raised taxes, and Obama supported a health care individual mandate.

Mitt Romney puts on a apron as Linda Hundt, owner of Sweetie-licious Bakery Café, prepares to help him make a pie shell at her store in June in DeWitt, Mich.Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.


Romney is malleable. This we know. But will he be able to triangulate his positions in a way that doesn’t anger his base? He must if he’s going to come to an agreement with Democrats. Knowing how to deceive your own backers—making them think you agree with them while giving their opponents the same impression—is sometimes required to get a deal. In his book about FDR, Jonathan Alter describes how the president’s “affable impenetrability” vexed Sen. Huey Long. “When I talk to him, he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ ” Long said. “But [Sen.] Joe Robinson goes to see him the next day and he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ Maybe he says, ‘Fine!’ to everybody.”

Liberal lawmakers complain that President Obama is a little too good at this. They point to Obama’s feigned interest in the public option during the health care debate, the deal he cut with Republican senators to extend the Bush tax cuts in 2010, and his willingness to agree to Medicare cuts as a part of a grand budget bargain in the summer of 2011. Obama appeared to be telling his Democratic allies he would protect entitlements while telling Republican negotiators he would raise the retirement age and subject benefits to a means test.

However, agreements with Democrats may not be what Romney wants in office. “The purpose of negotiation is to get agreement,” Reagan said, but the definition of what agreement means is up for grabs for each president. Does it mean accommodating the other side’s concerns, or is a president supposed to stand his ground until the other side caves? This is an abstract debate that’s hard to have until actual legislation is on the table, but in the current political climate, agreements based on Isaiah’s call “come now, let us reason together” seem quaint. A new Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation study shows that the political parties are as polarized and far apart as ever.

The new level of partisanship suggests that LBJ’s skills might not be that useful for the modern president. Who would a President Romney or Obama cajole, sweet talk, or strong arm? It’s true that Johnson faced a recalcitrant, conservative bloc of Southern Democrats and Midwesterners. But he could run around them by creating his own mix of liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans. Today’s presidents can’t mix and match their own coalitions so easily.

How much more could Obama have achieved if he had a larger share of Johnson’s ability to measure other politicians? Maybe he could have convinced Sen. Joe Lieberman to support a few more ventures. He might have pushed the three Republican senators to agree to make the Recovery Act larger than $800 billion. He could have convinced Sen. Ben Nelson to vote for health care by giving Nebraska 100 percent federal funding of the Medicaid expansion indefinitely into the future. Oh wait, he did that. Very LBJ of him, but it created such a political stink he had to withdraw the offer. Howls emerged from those who said Obama was acting like a greasy politician, not the change agent he promised to be. Another president might have been able pull it off, but not Obama. The argument he presented for why he should be president foreclosed some of the deals he could cut as president.

Romney is probably misjudging his political moment in a different way. Romney has promised that upon taking office he will repeal Obamacare, replace it with his own version, transform Medicare from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, and reduce the budget by $500 billion. Before he does that, he must reallocate the $1 trillion in deficit reduction that is scheduled to take place across the board as a result of the failed 2011 debt limit talks and make good on his promise to make the Bush tax cuts permanent.

That’s a heavy load. Even if Republicans miraculously control both houses of Congress, the majorities will be slim. Romney won’t have anything approaching a clear mandate to make those sweeping changes. In this reality, one of several things might happen: He’ll only get some of what he wants, his attempt to avoid the fiscal cliff while retaining ideological commitments on spending reductions and tax cuts will end in disaster, or a crisis atmosphere—surrounding a possible downgrade of the U.S. credit rating or a collapse in the bond market—will push through legislation that no one really understands. At best, Romney will be able to include some pet projects in the hurly burly just as Obama did with his 2009 stimulus bill.

Romney’s skill at quickly analyzing complex systems, plotting corrective action, and implementing a plan gives him skills no other president has had coming in to office. But, as Rick Santorum pointed out in the primaries, his experience as a businessman will be of limited use. “The experience Gov. Romney keeps touting out there is not the experience you need to be president,” he said. “A CEO directs people to do what the CEO thinks is right to do, and those people work in his chain of command. Senators and congressmen don’t work for the president. You’ve got to work with people, not order people.”

Romney admits he doesn’t really know how Washington works. That’s why he picked Paul Ryan, he says. But there is no evidence in Ryan’s background that he knows how to make a bipartisan deal. He has passed only two pieces of legislation, one naming a post office and another related to hunting arrows. It’s a thin resume, but it wouldn’t matter even if Ryan had Joe Biden’s three decades worth of experience. Obama and Romney should know that political instincts cannot be outsourced.