Elaine C. Kamarck discusses her book: Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again


Cases abound of U.S. presidents stumbling into major failures when information that could have prevented the wrong decision was available. Examples include the attempt to free hostages from Iran by President Jimmy Carter, the missed intelligence warnings ahead of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by President George W. Bush and more recently, difficulties implementing the website for the Affordable Care Act insurance policies under President Obama. Elaine C. Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, looks at ways to sidestep such failures and also at how presidents can recover from them, if they should occur, to be effective leaders. She discussed her ideas, based on her book titled Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Below is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Knowledge at Wharton: I jokingly said this to you before we went on the air, but it is true. In some respects, it’s unfortunate that you have such a wide range of examples to use for your book.

Elaine C. Kamarck: Yes, it is. In this very polarized political season, there are examples from both Democrats and Republicans. This isn’t party. It is about how the modern presidency functions, or fails to function…. That’s why you see problems with Democrats, and the same problems with Republicans.

Knowledge at Wharton: Are there common themes that work their way through the presidency for … similar situations to occur on a historical basis?

Kamarck: The most common theme is that modern presidents can’t seem to get their head around the federal government that they’re in charge of. It’s understandable — the federal government is a very large and very complicated organization. The problem with not taking the time to do that is that presidents make two kinds of mistakes that come back to hurt them.

The first kind of mistake is they fail to see and find out what the government knows. This was particularly true in the case of 9/11, and of course in the Iraq war. But it also was there in [the response to Hurricane] Katrina (in 2005), and in the financial meltdown (of 2007-2008).

The second kind of mistake is that they fail to see where the government is going wrong, which was the case certainly in the failed hostage rescue situation [in Iran in April 1980], and was the case in Obamacare — giving it to the agency which screwed-up its implementation. But both of them come from the fact that modern presidents spend a lot of time talking, and not enough time on the serious business of government.

Knowledge at Wharton: You also look at how this is an historical issue, going back a long time. You mention President James Buchanan (1857-1961), and all of the problems that he had in office. Obviously, part of it was the fact that he was the president in office leading up to the Civil War.

“We’ve seen presidents pay loads of attention to communication, and not enough attention to implementation.”

Kamarck: Many presidents have had some big, whopping failures. Obviously, leading a country into a civil war is among the biggest. For modern presidents, though, there’s a slightly different twist. They have a government to run that is unprecedented in its size and in its scope, which Buchanan did not have. That government is so big that, at any given point in time, something is going very right and something is going very wrong.

If presidents could spend a little bit more time figuring out what’s going right and what’s going wrong, they would be better prepared to avoid, or at least mitigate, some of the kinds of failures that we’ve seen in modern presidential history.

Knowledge at Wharton: Is part of that an issue with relying on the people around them too much, and not giving themselves a half-hour to sit down and think about these issues?

Kamarck: Very much so. Part of it just comes down to scheduling. A previous book that I owe a great debt of gratitude to is by Samuel Kernell, called Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership. In it he shows that modern presidents, over the last half-century, were talking and traveling more and more every year. That’s fine, but there are only so many hours a day for everyone, including presidents of the United States. To the extent that they are speechifying and messaging, which all White Houses are obsessed with, they are not paying attention to the serious business of government, and from time to time, it just comes back to bite them.

Knowledge at Wharton: You talk about three pieces being important to this process: policy, communication, and implementation. Go through those a little bit, and also, which one is the hardest one to complete, because of the failures?

Kamarck: Going way back to leadership theories from the beginning of the last century — and this applies to the business world or to any sphere — leaders have to be able to get the answer right, communicate it and implement it. In the business world, if you think up a great new product and you do a great advertising campaign, but then if the dogs don’t eat the dog food, you’re in trouble, right? It’s the same in politics. You might get the right thing to do. You can make great speeches about it. But if, in the end, millions of Americans go to buy health care on the websites and they crash, you’ve got a great, big black eye.

So the point of this book is to say those three things should be equal in the president’s attention; and yet, over time, we’ve seen presidents pay loads of attention to communication, and not enough attention to implementation.

Knowledge at Wharton: If you looked at almost every president, you would be able to find something that would be that seminal moment/mistake that they had in their term in office?

Kamarck: Oh, yes. They’ve all had some big whoppers. But they differ in character, so to speak. Obviously, Bill Clinton’s big mistake in office was his personal behavior with an intern, which has all been unearthed again…. And Ronald Reagan had a very good first term, and then he got all mired in the Iran-Contra scandal in his second term. So, presidents are not perfect, right? They all have their screw-ups.

However, in this book, I talk about a particular kind of screw-up that, frankly, is preventable, and is in some ways worse than a personal mess-up the way Bill Clinton did. What it does is undermine Americans’ faith that government can do anything at all. So, we see fewer and fewer Americans over the years expressing any trust in their federal government.

“If … millions of Americans go to buy health care on the websites and they crash, you’ve got a great, big black eye.”

Knowledge at Wharton: You may be able to gain the trust, but it’s harder and harder for presidents to keep the trust, because of the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. We see that now in this year’s presidential race — more than 60% disapproval ratings for both candidates.

Kamarck: This has been an ugly year. It is a reflection of the last six or seven years of very ugly, very polarized politics. All of that makes it much more important that the next president, whoever he or she is, makes the government function in a way that fulfills their ends.

Usually, when we talk about government working, we think of it as coming from liberals. But the fact of the matter is conservatives need to pay attention to the government as much as liberals do. [Republican politician] Newt Gingrich took over the Congress in 1994 with a pledge to shrink the government. We’ve had lots of Republican Congresses — some Senates and some presidents — since then. But the government is just as big, if not bigger, than it was in 1994. Part of that is, if you want to cut the government, you have to understand what’s going on in it, and what you can cut and what you have to keep.

Knowledge at Wharton: You have a diagram in the book that looks at the level of trust that the public has in the president. In I was born in 1966, and at that time, the level of trust in the president, but more importantly, in Washington, D.C., was 70%-80%. Over the course of time, things have changed, but it is so low now — a staggering decline, even though it’s over a 50-to 60-year period.

Kamarck:  That’s right. When you were born, in the 1960s, the people who were adults then — your parents — had experienced a federal government that had done two rather spectacular things. They had defeated the Nazis and the Japanese in a world war, built an amazing economy that, through the 1950s, made us the richest country in the world, by far. And they had gotten us out of the Great Depression.

So, people in that era saw a government that was functioning in a very competent way and that it had achieved great things. Beginning in the 1970s, we have a long slide in trust. Interestingly enough, the trust keeps going down, whether there are Democrats or Republicans in office. It goes on, regardless of policy. It clearly is an indication that Americans are feeling that this Washington government, which they built, which is a result of the expansion of government after the Second World War, is not working very well.

Knowledge at Wharton: What about somebody like LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson), or Richard Nixon?  LBJ was president around the time of Vietnam. Nixon was in there as well, and also during the Watergate scandal. With those are two gentlemen, there was already a growing distrust with government, and with the way the country was moving.

Kamarck: Well, they’re slightly different situations, but I think they both make the point. LBJ was extraordinarily competent at legislation. I think it can fairly be said that you needed an LBJ to finally pass civil rights legislation. That was his big achievement. Where he fell down was in an area that he knew nothing about, which was military action. He pursued a war in Vietnam that many people came to dislike, so much so that he didn’t even run for re-election in 1968, even though he could have.

“We see fewer and fewer Americans over the years expressing any trust in their federal government.”

With Richard Nixon, you had some superb foreign policy achievements. He was very good at government on the international side, the opening to China being the big one, and ending the war in Vietnam was another. His failures were more failures of character. He was going to beat George McGovern in 1972. He didn’t have to have a campaign that was involved in dirty tricks and breaking into places and obstructing justice. That was not a failure of governance. That was a failure of his own character.

Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about Hurricane Katrina in here. I guess, to a degree, Hurricane Sandy [in 2012] would be involved in this as well. But Katrina is the one that so many people remember, and the fact that the response by the federal government was not as effective as it needed to be.

Kamarck: No. Again, this was knowable. One of the points I try to make in the book is [the aspect of] organizational capacity or incapacity – there are generally many signs of it before the thing blows up. In the case of Katrina, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) had been placed inside of a very large department, the Department of Homeland Security. The head of FEMA had been buried under three layers of bureaucracy. There was no direct access to the president. They were put into an unwieldy situation.

Between the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, everything about FEMA changed. FEMA, in the Clinton administration, was a star agency. In the Bush administration, it gave us Katrina. That change in the capacity of the organization was something that people saw, people warned about, et cetera. It could have been prevented, and it wasn’t.

Knowledge at Wharton: Is your expectation that, unfortunately, we may very well see something similar — hopefully we don’t — with whomever becomes president come November?

Kamarck: One of the reasons I wrote the book is that, hopefully, we won’t. I think presidents have now seen how damaging to their presidency these great big screw-ups are. Jimmy Carter lost his election to Ronald Reagan in a landslide. Now, he may have lost anyway in 1980, but if he had rescued the hostages from Tehran in some big, cool special-ops operation, that would have helped him a lot in his re-election bid.

Even [George W.]  Bush, and then Obama — once they had their great, big failures, they lost political capital. Obama couldn’t pass immigration reform. Bush couldn’t pass his Social Security reform plans. They’re weakened by these. If the new president looks at this, they will pay a little bit more attention to trying to avoid these kinds of failures, so they don’t find themselves in the third year, fourth year or fifth year of their presidency dealing with a disaster that weakens them for the rest of their presidency.

Knowledge at Wharton: For President Carter, the Iran hostage rescue failure was, in some respects, the last nail in the coffin for him.

Kamarck: The rescue failure happened in April of 1980, and he was up for reelection in November of 1980. He ended up being a one-term president, and losing in a huge landslide.

Knowledge at Wharton: Do military actions play a role that is very hard to turn around for presidents?

Kamarck: They sure do. The president is the commander-in-chief, and Americans hold the president responsible for these things. So when you do a rescue mission with a military that can’t talk to each other, and has no special forces capacity, you’re going to be in trouble. When you go into Iraq, and you’re not prepared to hold territory, you’re going to be in trouble. The military failures are the ones that we really see, because there’s often loss of life involved, and American humiliation around the world. They come back to get the president.

Knowledge at Wharton: You have to throw in, over the last 15 years or so, the advent of social media …  because you have bloggers and all kinds of different people who think they are reporters, who are bringing this to the forefront.

Kamarck: Some of that is very good and some of that is just a lot of noise. But the fact is that the kinds of failures that I talk about in this book that really do hurt the president are those where everyone says, “Oh, my God. What a mess.” Democrats and Republicans say it. The bloggers say it. And individual Americans experience it.

“If you want to cut the government, you have to understand what’s going on in it, and what you can cut, and what you have to keep.”

One of the points in the book is that you can’t use media to talk your way — whether it’s social media or television, or whatever else it is. When there’s a big, big governmental failure, the president can’t talk his or her way out of the failure. Spin just stops working, because everyone sees with their own eyes what the failure is.

Knowledge at Wharton: The last paragraph in the book captures the feelings of many people right now in the United States. That paragraph goes like this:

“There’s no perfect system for picking presidents, but the old system had the virtue of testing something important to presidential leadership: the ability to work in a system of divided power. To be sure, that old system had its faults, but it has been replaced by a new system that rewards the ability to communicate over and above abilities such as negotiation among equals that are needed to govern.”

That’s a powerful statement. It does encapsulate how much the presidency has really changed over the last 30 to 40 years.

Kamarck:  You bet. All you have to do is look at today’s news, and Donald Trump going to war with his own party. If he should manage to become president, how are his relations with the Republican Congress going to be? With giants of the Republican Senate like John McCain? With the Speaker of the House, like Paul Ryan?

In modern America, we give an outsized amount of media attention to presidents. But the fact is, the Constitution is still the Constitution. The branches are equal, and you can’t do very much without the cooperation of Congress. The skills that make you able to do that are not at all tested in the modern nomination system, the way they were in the old-fashioned system, where other party leaders nominated you, not voters in the primaries.