Paradoxes of the American Presidency(1)

Paradox #1. Americans demand powerful, popular presidential leadership that solves the nation's problems. Yet we are inherently suspicious of strong centralized leadership and the abuse of power. Thus we place significant limits on the president's powers.

Paradox #2. We yearn for the democratic "common person" and simultaneously a leader who is uncommon, charismatic, heroic, and visionary.

Paradox #3. We want a decent, just, caring, and compassionate president, yet we also admire a cunning, guileful, and, on occasions that warrant it, even a ruthless, manipulative president.

Paradox #4. We admire the "above politics" nonpartisan or bipartisan approach, and yet the presidency is perhaps the most political office in the American system, which requires a creative entrepreneurial master politician.

Paradox #5. We want a president who can unify diverse people and interests; however, the job requires taking firm stands, making unpopular or controversial decisions that necessarily upset and divide.

Paradox #6. We expect our presidents to provide bold, visionary, innovative, programmatic leadership, and at the same time to respond pragmatically to the will of public opinion majorities. That is to say, we expect presidents to lead and to follow, and to exercise "democratic leadership."

Paradox #7 Americans want powerful, self-confident presidential leadership. Yet we are inherently suspicious of leaders who view themselves as infallible and above criticism.

Paradox #8. What it takes to become president may not be what is needed to govern the nation.

Paradox #9. The presidency is sometimes too strong yet at other times too weak.

To govern successfully, presidents must manage these paradoxes, and must balance a variety of competing demands and expectations.

1. Thomas Cronin and Eugene Genovese, The Paradoxes of the American Presidency Oxford, 1998, p. 4