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The Two Leadership Styles of William Jefferson Clinton Author(s): Fred I. Greenstein Source: Political Psychology, Vol.

15, No. 2 (Jun., 1994), pp. 351-361 Published by: International Society of Political Psychology Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3791744 Accessed: 27/05/2009 15:03
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Political Psychology, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1994

The Two Leadership Styles of William Jefferson Clinton

Fred I. Greenstein Princeton University

Readers of the governmentpublicationsthat record such official actions of the Americanpresidencyas executive ordersand signed legislation will be aware of two PresidentClintons-the chief executive namedWilliam J. Clinton, whose name appearson such documents, and the Bill Clintonwho is picturedregularly on television in a seemingly endless series of photo opportunities,informalpress interviews, and formal addresses. My argumentin this accountof the leadership style of PresidentClintonis thattherealso can be said to be two Bill Clintonsat a far more politically significant level-the level of day-to-dayexecutive leadership in the arena of governmentand politics. My furtherargumentis that it is necessary to take account of both Bill Clintons to explain the striking up-anddown performanceof the Clinton presidency. The leadershipstyles of some political leaderstend to be all of a piece. This appears to have been the case of PresidentJimmy Carter. As the declassified recordof the Carterpresidencybegins to emerge, one sees a presidentwho in his private counsels appearsto be very similar to the presidentwho was evident in such public displays as news conferences and addresses to the nation, in both contexts showing the same preoccupationwith the technical details of his policies and the same ratherstiff-necked insistence on the correctnessof his own positions. Otherleadershipstyles are layered, as in the case of PresidentDwight D. Eisenhower whose nonpartisanand homely outward persona concealed a cool, analyticallydetachedpolitical strategist,who typically obtainedresults by indirection(Greenstein, 1982). The leadership style of William Jefferson Clinton appears to be neither between two unitarynor layered, but ratherto change over time in an alternation basic modalities-a no-holds-barred of for numerous style striving policy outcomes with little attentionto establishingprioritiesor accommodating to political realities, and a more measured,pragmaticstyle of focusing on a limited number
0162-895X ? 1994 International Society of Political Psychology

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of goals and attendingclosely to the politics of selling his program.I speak of an alternationin Bill Clinton's leadership style ratherthan an evolution because there is a strikingsimilaritybetween the course of Mr. Clinton'spolitical actions in the state of Arkansasand his actions duringthe period that has so far elapsed of his first year in the White House. In Arkansas, after being elected in 1978 as the nation's youngest governor, Clinton moved too fast and too far for the political temper of his state and was defeatedtwo years later, but then spent the next two years stumpingthe state and promising to remedy his ways. He was returnedto office, and thereafterhis political comportmentwas by all accounts far more measuredand responsive to political realities, enabling him to remainas governorfor a furtherdecade (Ifill, 1982; Kolbert, 1992). Similarly,the first 100 days of the Clintonpresidencywere an exercise in political excess. Having promised to focus "like a laser" on the economy, Clintonconfrontedthe Washington political communitywith a scattergun of stimuli-gays in the military,a succession of problematicappointments, and a procession of other distractionswhich negated the positive effects of his occasional tour-de-forceperformances,such as the much-acclaimed,ad lib presentationof his economic programto a joint session of Congresson February17. By the 100-daysmarkClintonhad a record-lowapprovalratingin the polls. The press commentaryon his presidencywas suffusedwith the images of failure and whateverpolitical capital his periodic strong performanceshad earned him was squandered.Then, ratheras if the punditryoccasioned by the arbitrary100day markhad providedthe same wake-up call furnishedby defeat after his first as governor, Clinton correctedsharply,moved to the center, signalled his willingness to bargain and negotiate, and even conspicuously added to his staff the former Republican White House aide David Gergen. Ironically, Gergen had been chargedwith the public relationsaspects of enacting PresidentRonald Reagan's 1981 tax cut, which produced the mounting deficit that President Clinton's 1993 economic programwas designed to combat. Because my concern is with the outer aspects of the Clinton leadershipwith his style ratherthan his characterand personality-I will not attempt to arrive at an answer to the puzzling question of why Clinton appearsto require external correction in order to modify his style in ways that are plainly in his interest. Rather, I will focus on the particularelements of his leadership that combine in different ways at differentperiods to account for his two political modes.

CLINTON'S LEADERSHIP QUALITIES The account that follows of the components of Bill Clinton's oscillating clustersof observations. political style takes the form of nine somewhatarbitrary While it has something of the atomized, static characterof trait-psychology

Symposium: Two Leadership Styles


inventories of personal attributes,I will set it forth in the form of a continuous narrativethat is meant to suggest how these components fit together and come into play under varying circumstances. 1. Policy Concerns High on any listing of the qualitiesBill Clintonbringsto his leadershipis his domestic policy. Clinton is passionate interestin public policy, more particularly preoccupied with policy not just in the broad sense of having general policy aims, but also in the narrowersense of being fascinatedby the specific details of particularpolicies. Beginning in the Trumanyears when the practice of the presentationby presidentsof an annuallegislative programcame into being, all presidents have promulgatedpolicies as part of their official responsibilities (Neustadt, 1954). But only a few presidentsappearto have had much intrinsic interest in the detailed rationalesfor alternativepolicies. Dwight Eisenhowerbroughtto his presidencya deep concernwith the logic of nationalsecurity,which went back to his early careeras a militaryplannerand staff officer. JohnKennedydevelopeda curiosityaboutthe logic of policies while he was in office, largely as a consequence of his interactionswith his more specialized advisers. And Jimmy Carterwas notable for his preoccupationwith the details of his own policies. But Clinton is an aficionado of policy in and of itself, and not just the policies of his own administration,so much so that his rhetoricon the stump sometimes has more of the ring of the public policy school than of the political arena. Interestingly,for a presidentwho is so deeply fascinatedwith the rationale for and mechanics of his domestic policies, Clintonseemed for much of his first half-yearin office to be almost oblivious to foreign policy. Neither his formative experiences as a Vietnam war protester,nor his dozen years as goveror of a small Southernstate appearto have led him to addresshimself in any sustained way to the largerworld. Apartfrom occasional brief periods of intense involvement in foreign affairs on the occasions of his meeting with Soviet President Boris Yeltsin and his participationin the Tokyo economic summit, he appears almost to have delegated the largerworld to his foreign policy team for much of his first year, only stepping into the commander-in-chief role in October, when events in Somalia and Haiti made it evident that, like it or not, he is commander in chief and head of state and he cannot confine himself to leadership in the domestic sphere. 2. Political Propensity Clinton also stands out in the extent to which he is a political animal, although, in a universe that includes FranklinRoosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and


FredI. Greenstein

with politics is less distinctivethanhis passion RichardNixon, his preoccupation for policy. He is political both in the public sense of batteningon the responsesof the mass public and in the privatesense of reveling in the artsof persuasionand cajolery. Moreover, he seems to have exhibitedthese qualities, at least in anticipatoryform, from his earliestyears. As the editorand compilerof a collection of reminiscencesof citizens of Arkansaswho knew Clinton at various points in his development puts it:
Few Americansever had the exteriorgifts of the politician in such abundance.Bill Clinton was handsome, loquacious, and tireless. He always exhibited a boundless optimism. He met people with grace and facility, and a prodigious memory never let him forget them. He had what seemed to be a compulsive need to meet people, to know them, to like them, to have them like him. These are the instinctsof the calculatingpolitician, but they long preceded Clinton's political impulses. Bill Clinton's is the case where a man's deepest human instinct perfectly matched, maybe even gave rise to, his most abiding ambition. (Dumas, 1993, p. xvi)

There is no obvious precedentin the moder presidencyfor a chief executive who combines a concern for and interestin politics and policy to the extent that Clintondoes. It is as if the more cerebralside of JohnF. Kennedy'sapproach to leadershipwere writ large and amalgamated with LyndonJohnson'sproclivity to press the flesh, find ways to split the difference with his opponents, and otherwise practice the art of the possible. 3. Verbal Facility and Proclivity The link between Clinton's policy and political orientations is his intelligence and formidable verbal facility. The record abounds with evidence of Clinton'sseemingly effortlessabilityto elaborateat length abouthis policies with modificationsof emphasisfrom audienceto audience. The perfectlygrammatical 100-odd-wordsentences Clinton is able to spin out extemporaneously could not be more unlike the fractured prose of George Bush. Indeed, he sometimes spins out statementsof extraordinary complexity with seemingly effortlessspontaneity, as in the following vintage utteranceto the WallStreetJournal staff membersto whom he granted his first interview after taking office, which juxtaposes two pairs of if-then propositions:
The people who say that if I want to go to a four-yearphased-incompetition model [in connection with health care reform]and that won't save any tax money on the deficit in the first four years, but will save huge tax money on the deficit in the next four years, miss the main point, which is that if we have a system now which begins to move health care costs down towardinflation, and thereforelowers healthcare as a percentageof the GNP in the years ahead, the main beneficiariesby a factor of almost two to one will be in the private sector. (Clinton, 1992)

As exceptional as Clinton's verbal intelligence is, however, it is not clear how able he is to make the kinds of sound, balancedjudgmentsthat commonly

TwoLeadership Symposium: Styles


are summarizedin the term"commonsense," and it is not certainwhetherhe has a fundamentallyanalytic cast of mind that leads him to search for evidence that would lead him to accept or reject the assumptionsbehind the formulationshe can verbalize with such facility. (On multiple intelligences, see Gardner,1983.) Moreover,precisely because he is so facile, so well-informed,and so profoundly political, it is difficult for others (and perhaps Clinton himself) to be sure of when and whetherhe is advancinga policy on the basis of its intrinsicmerit and when and whether he is trimming. 4. Dynamism and Ebullience Other elements of the Clinton amalgam are an energy, exuberance, and optimismof trulyremarkable proportions.Even when he was deeply beleaguered at the time of the New Hampshireprimary,Clintonexhibitedan optimism reminiscent of FDR's capacity to radiate confidence under conditions of extreme adversity.But unlike Roosevelt, he has no war or Depression as a foil for these qualities, and unlike Roosevelt he is not a naturaldramatist.More fundamentally, he appearsto lack a comprehensivestrategic sense about how to present himself to the public and advance his policies. issue" during the Interestingly,Roosevelt, like Clinton, faced a "character when he was the Part of the concern was about his period seeking presidency. and cheerful critics dismissed him as lacking in very outgoing qualities-his in because of what Edmund Wilson once described presidentialstature, large part as his "unnatural sunniness." But such skepticism was forgottenin the wake of his magisterial assumptionof power in March 1933 (Maney, 1992). Clinton's assumptionof power, however, was anythingbut magisterial.Indeed, duringthe transitionperiod between his election and his inauguration,Clinton received a quite favorablepress for his performancein an economic "summitconference" he convened in Little Rock, Arkansas, and for such initial presentationsas his interview with the WallStreetJournal. During that period his support, as measured in public opinion polls, was quite high. But by the time the first polls were conductedafter he enteredthe White House, his administration had experienced a series of gaffes thatsignificantlylowered his supportlevels (Greenstein, 1993).

5. Lack of Discipline; Failure to Focus Related to Clinton's energy, enthusiasm,intelligence, and devotion to policy is a cluster of more problematictraits-absence of self-discipline, hubristic confidence in his own views and abilities, and difficulty in narrowinghis goals,



ordering his efforts, and devising strategies for advancing and communicating the ends he seeks to achieve. 6. Insensitivity to Organization Another of Clinton's traits is a predilection to take on large numbers of personal responsibilities and to do little to establish structuresof delegation which divide the labor of his presidency and avail him with overall strategic to move advice. The paradoxicalresult is that it is difficultfor his administration at the time he has a Carter-like one track at a but same on more than time, Jimmy tendency to overload the national political agenda. This is the case in spite of Clinton's many statements, during the transition,of his intention to avoid Carter's difficulties and emulate Ronald Reagan in the single-minded pursuit of a limited numberof major goals. has Because Clinton takes on so many responsibilities, his administration been slow to make appointments,many of which are held up for clearancein the Oval Office (Pearl, 1993). In general, Clinton's exceptional talents are in great need of managementlest he fly off in all directions,but he is not easily managed. Moreover,he appearsnot to have given much thoughtto problemsof creatingan effective staff. In this, he is a striking contrastwith Eisenhower, who entered office with a well-developed view of the staff needs of the presidency and for whom effective delegation was an article of faith (Greenstein, 1984). Given his energy and intelligence, Clintonprobablydid not need to be very attentiveto staffingin Little Rock, but he plainly does in Washington.He is said to be a student of the presidency and of American history, but he shows little awarenessof the uses some presidentshave made of well-designed formal organization (Burke, 1992). Indeed, he has acknowledgedthat he enteredthe White House with no plan for White House organization,whetherat the informalor the formal level, and initially peopled his staff with aides who had little Washington experience and who lacked the statureto help him to control his own centrifugal tendencies (Nelson & Donovan, 1933; Watson, 1993). This, of course, was the early story of his White House. Then he turned(with seemingly good results) to such Washingtoninsidersas veteranRepublicanWhite House aide David Gergen for staff assistance (Frisby, 1993). 7. The Not-So-Great Communicator As articulateas Clinton is, his record of communicatinghis aims to the his fluency serves him poorly. He finds it all public has been poor. Paradoxically, too easy to deluge the public with details, and it appearsto be difficult for him to transcendpolicy mechanics and convey the broadprinciples and values behind

Symposium: Two Leadership Styles


his programs. Here, of course, he is the antithesisof Ronald Reagan, who was notoriously innocent of policy specifics, but gifted at evoking larger themes. 8. Personal Charm At the personal level, Clinton appearsto be one of the more ingratiating incumbentsof the Oval Office. In spite of being ratherthin-skinnedand having a quick temper,which occasionally is evident in public, he is fundamentallyamiable, sometimes to the point where this is counterproductive. Thus, like Franklin Roosevelt, his congeniality sometimes leaves those who consult with him the false impression that he has accepted their views, when he intends only to acknowledge that he has heard them. Clinton's impulse to be agreeablefeeds the familiarcharge that he seeks to be all things to all people and reinforcesthe "Slick Willie" epithet that is turned against him by his enemies. Yet he made surprisinglylimited use of his charm and persuasive powers in the early months of his presidency,perhapsbecause, like many bright, self-confident people, he is impatientwith those who do not share his views and ill-disposed to take them seriously. Thus, he overestimated his ability to win support by appealing directly to the public through cable television and failed to cultivatethe press. And he did little duringthe transition to win over such key Washingtonactors as Senators Sam Nunn and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And once in office, he was slow to do much to enlist the supportof Republicanmoderatesand Democraticconservatives. 9. Resilience; Capacity to Take Correction I have left for last what seem to me to be Clinton'smost redeemingtraitsones that bode favorablyfor his leadershipin the long, if not the short, run:his remarkable capacityto reboundin the face of adversity,his fundamental pragmatism and his capacity (in spite of his thin-skinnedtendencies) to admit his own failings. This cluster of traitshelps accountfor the commonly made observation that he is incapable of sustainederror. THE CLINTON SYNTHESES Most of the componentsof Clinton'sleadershipstyle are not distinctive, but the magnitude of some of them and the way they fit together are. As I have suggested, there appearto be two Clinton syntheses. Under some circumstances his traits combine to form an undisciplined, have-it-all approach, and under others they converge in a more focused, accommodatingstyle. When he is in the



first mode, as he was in his initial termas governorof Arkansas,as well as in his first months in the White House, Clinton is animatedby his policy enthusiasm, his boundless energy, and his impatience with the views of those who do not share his policy vision. Even when he is in the first mode, however, he is no Woodrow Wilson, capable of bringing his own programto defeat by insisting that the Congress take its medicine. But when he pulls back after overreaching himself, his compromises are likely to have a disheveled, rear-guard quality, as was the case of his prolonged negotiationsover gays in the military. As I noted earlier, Clinton's second, more pragmaticand focused mode of him. operationappearsto come intoplay only afteroutsideforces haveconstrained It is not clear why such an intelligent, politically awareleader, who knows in his heartthathe shouldbe laser-likein his focus, begins his presidencyin a scattered fashion, or why he is so dependenton externalcorrection.My task of examining Clinton'sstyle does not requirethatI reacha settledconclusionaboutthis andother questions that bear on his inner workings, including questions bearing on the over who the "real"Bill Clintonis. Some answersarevery continuinguncertainty to found in be his likely upbringing.Clintonand his aides have themselves drawn attentionto his alcoholic stepfather,suggesting that his almost unsettling good cheer reflects the exaggeratedneed to be agreeablefound in children (and stepchildren) of alcoholics (Kaufman& Pattison, 1982; Cruse, 1989). It is also the case that his younger step-brother had a substanceabuse problem. Clinton's backgroundin a family in which addictionsplayed a significant parthas an obvious bearingon his tendency to leave people with the misleading impression that he accepts their views. But his lack of self-discipline would appearto have other roots. At a minimum, Clinton, whose outwardcharacteristics seem almost to have been custom-madeto illustrateJames David Barber's active-positive charactertype, shows the difficulty of categorization, in that much of what is puzzling about him stems from inner complexities that do not figure in Barber's(and perhapsany other) classification (Barber, 1992). More to the point may be the political psychology of RichardNeustadt, in which the accent is on "political"ratherthan "psychology."Neustadt's 1960 book nicely anticipatesmany of Clinton'sproblems. Neustadt, it will be rememweakness of the Americanchief executive in an bered, stressed the fundamental era in which the nation's problems are huge, but there is little readiness on the part of the other members of the Washingtoncommunity, whose support is needed to bring the president'sprograminto being, to transcendpolitical advantage and rally around him. The president, Neustadt argues, has two basic resources with which to accomplish his purposes above and beyond his executive powers and his ability to use these to bargain-his reputationwith other policymakers as a skilled, determined player and their perception that he has the unaltered supportof the public. (Neustadt's1960 accountremainsfundamentally in its 1990 incarnation.See also the elaborationon Neustadt's formulationby Sperlich, 1975.)

Symposium: Two Leadership Styles


WHITHER THE CLINTON PRESIDENCY? In the early monthsof his presidency,Bill Clintonmanagedto diminishboth of the resources Neustadt sees as the levers of presidentialpower. His political and policy propensitiesoften convergedin a mannerthatled him to be perceived by othermembersof the political communityas inconstantand disingenuous,not only because he departedfrom previously held positions, but also because his often seemed effortless. It would not mattermuch to membersof the departures Washingtoncommunitythat a presidentseemed insincere("Whatelse is new?"), if he were seen as havingthe public behindhim. But Clintonwas conspicuousfor his failure to capturethe imaginationand enthusiasmof the American people. Before he modified his style, Clinton was more Carter-likethan Jimmy Carterin his seeming assumptionthat once elected he could put politics behind him. In fact, he made even less effort than Carterto establish a favorablepublic persona. Once in office, his tendency was to confine himself to impersonaland distinctly noninspirationalmessages on such themes as the need to "grow the economy," and he and his associates did little to humanizehis presidency. (For discussions of what citizens appear to expect of their presidents and of the of public aspirations,see Greenstein, 1977, and Stuckey, presidentas interpreter 1991.) Then, at aboutthe mid-pointof his first year in office, he enteredinto the transformation noted above. Once he moved to his second, more strategic mode in the summer of his first year in office, Clinton not only became more focused and accommodating, but also appearedto have realized that he needed to find ways to simplify and dramatizehis appeals to the public. Strikingdeals with dissident Democrats, he brokeredthrough a deficit reductionmeasure in the summer of 1993 and then departedon a vacation that some felt was as needed by the Washingtonpolicy from vacationwith what communityas by the presidentand his staff. He returned seemed to be an impossiblydemandingpolitical agenda-comprehensive reform of the nation's health system, the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the gimmicky sounding"reinventionof government" effective set of well-publicized proposals. But he used the latterfor a remarkably for that once showed his administration in a favorablelight; photo opportunities, he made a tour-de-forcepresentationof his health programto a joint session of Congress, shrewdly associatinghimself more with its general aims than with its specific provisions. And he largely delegatedthe promotionof NAFTA to others until almost the eleventh hour, when he engaged in a whirlwindof promotional and bargainingactivity, achieving a victory in the House of Representativesthat for the momentput to rest the view thatClintonwould never be able to adapthis leadership skills to the complexities of politics in the nation's capital. The Clinton presidency seemed emphaticallyto be on a roll by the end of November 1993, reinforcing accounts in the media two months earlier of a remarkable"turn" in Clinton'sfate (e.g., Barnes, 1993). Such claims had barely



been made on the earlieroccasion, however, when Clintonencountereda succession of blows from the international environment-media images of the bodies of Americansoldiers being draggedby mobs on the streetsof Mogadishuand of similarly ominous mob action preventingthe landingof Americanpeace keepers in Haiti-reminders that the jury is still out on the Clinton presidency. Still, there was little doubt that, whether by dint of his own far-reaching policy aspirationsor the very power of the modernpresidentto shape the nation's political agenda, the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton had directed the nation, at least in its domestic policies, toward ends which would probablynot even have been envisioned if the electorate had returnedGeorge Bush for a second term in November 1992.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT My work on this paperwas supportedby grantsfrom the Lynde and Harry and Oliver LangenbergFundsof the BradleyFoundationand the JohnJ. Sherrerd Center of International Princeton Studies, University.

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