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(Last updated 10/28/03)

EDITOR’S NOTE: To arrange an interview with Kessel, e-mail him at Kessel.1@osu.edu or contact Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; grabmeier.1@osu.edu

U.S. PRESIDENTS SUCCEED MORE OFTEN THAN THEY FAIL, STUDY FINDS

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Some pundits have discussed recently whether President Bush’s Iraq and economic policies have been failures – and whether they might signal an overall failure of the Bush presidency.

But not long ago many of these same pundits were praising Bush for his determined leadership. And if recent presidential history is any indication, it may be too soon to assess what Bush has accomplished, said John Kessel, a professor of political science at Ohio State University.


“Given the modern presidency and the complex political environment, analysts should ask what a president can realistically be expected to accomplish,” Kessel said. “With the difficulties they face, modern presidents have done better than they are often credited."


Kessel recently discussed how Bush’s policies are being assessed in light of a study he did that examined presidential successes and failures of nine recent presidents – Eisenhower through Clinton. In that study, Kessel found that successful policies dominated failed policies by a ratio of three to two.

“There’s been too much emphasis on presidential failure in recent decades, Kessel said. “While every president has their share of failures, there usually have more successes in important policies.”
Kessel’s study appeared in his 2001 book "Presidents, the Presidency, and the Political Environment" (CQ Press).

For his study, Kessel examined 161 policies by the nine presidents before the current President Bush, in foreign policy, economic policy and domestic policy. He classified each policy as a success, a failure or mixed. By his analysis, 48 percent of these policies were successes, 32 percent were failures and 20 percent had mixed outcomes. This finding has two important lessons, Kessel said. First, all presidents have successes and failures. Second, most presidents have more successes than failures.

“Given the modern presidency and the complex political environment, analysts should ask what a president can realistically be expected to accomplish,” he said. “With the difficulties they face, modern presidents have done better than they are often credited."

In both economic and domestic policies, the recent presidents had more successes than failures, with mixed results coming in third. For foreign policies, the three categories are more equally distributed (40 percent successes, 29 percent failures, 31 percent mixed results).

“Presidents are not always successful,” Kessel said. “But rather than say ‘this president was successful’ or ‘this president was a failure’ we should examine the balance between success and failure in their administration.” Seven of the nine presidents had more successes than failures. Only Carter and Reagan had more failures than successes.

In this light, the important question is whether President George W. Bush will achieve the usual mix of more successes than failures, or face the voters next year with more failures than successes . Kessel said that is hard to say at this point how well Bush has done, partly because he has done several things that are very different than his immediate predecessors.

Foreign policy is a good example. Recent presidents – both Republicans and Democrats – have followed a general policy of collective security and containment. Bush’s Iraq policy rests on unilateralism and the pre-emptive use of military power. “This is a marked departure from previous administrations and it is risky,” Kessel said.

Bush’s approach on domestic and economic policy is also different than what many observers expected, but fits what Kessel would have predicted based on a theory he explains in his book.

Most observers thought, based on the closeness of the election and his working style as governor of Texas, that Bush would take a bipartisan, consensus-building approach to dealing with Congress. Instead, his tactics have been much more ideological and partisan.

In the book, Kessel proposes a theory that explains Bush’s ideological focus. He said a president’s behavior depends on the amount of personal expertise in a particular area and the strength of his attitudes. When a president has expertise and strong attitudes in an area, there tend to be policies that are well designed to move in a particular direction. When he has expertise and weak attitudes about a subject, there is pure policy politics and few new initiatives. When a president has no expertise in an area and no strong attitudes, policies tend to drift or are decided based on trial and error.

President Bush tends to be in the fourth category in many areas – strong attitudes without personal expertise.

“President Bush appears to see himself as the decision-maker, with his staff being the experts on various subjects and funneling information to him,” Kessel said. “At the same time, he does have strong attitudes on many issues. That’s why we have such strong partisan politics going on in Washington today.”

With Bush’s different approach to foreign policy and ideological approach to domestic and economic policy, Bush’s record is still very much in the air, he said.

“With these changes, it is difficult to say how successful he will be,” Kessel said. “His policy choices have been somewhat different than previous presidents and they are somewhat risky. It’s just too early to tell what his overall record will be.”

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