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Edwards III, George C. Overreach: Leadership in the Obama Presidency. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012, £19.95 cloth). Pp 231. ISBN 978-0-691-15368-1. 



Now a prolific and diverse area of research, presidency scholarship is the site of one major dominant theme: the rhetoric of governance. Whether moral and religious, civil rights or diplomatic, in the US  rhetoric has for the larger part formed the defining object of enquiry of studies in the field. And it is in all respects only fitting that political oratory should take a front seat in presidential studies. The aura of the presidential institution owes a great deal to the persuasive capabilities of the head of state after all. Exclusive emphasis on the value of charismatic leadership, has, however, resulted in a considerable number of stereotypical approaches premised on the persuasive potential of presidential power, more illustrative of communicative action than of how presidents effect social change.

The author of The Strategic President (2012), political scientist George Edwards III, shifts the focus of attention prevalent in established literature from the inherent power of the presidential institution to presidential governing strategies, with a view to answering the question why the Obama presidency proved less impactful and transformative than was originally hoped. Here Edwards’s declared interest lies not in the power vested in the president, but in the limitations of presidential influence and in the awareness of these limitations. Rather than the predominant characteristics of Obama’s leadership profile, in his examination, Edwards thus concentrates on Obama’s ability to assess these limitations and take the best advantage of existing opportunities.

The central line of Edwards’s argument is that by overestimating their political and persuasive capital, administrations fail to seize what opportunity for implementing change is conjecturally there, constantly misdirecting their strategies toward creating new opportunities.  Drawing on the theory of the cost presidents pay for reaching too far and attempting too much, Edwards offers an in-depth analysis of the fortes and weaknesses of Obama’s leadership. He identifies the same, symptomatic propensity to ’overreach’ in order to succeed in mobilising the public and the Congress, in Obama’s leadership style and sees it as one of his major flaws. In this logic, despite his bold policies, Obama is yet to ’be the change he wants to see’, due to risky behaviour deriving from the wrong evaluation of his power to influence his followers. In Edwards’s view, this explains why Obama has not lived up to the infinite capacity for change with which he was credited upon taking office.

Single-mindedly, the author applies what is a very straightforward interpretive grid with the utmost consistence, confidence and systematicity, circumscribing his entire discussion to the concept of Obama’s political overreach. Granted, owing to the ample range of data and case studies, Edwards makes a convincing case for the relevance of the concept in assessing presidential effectiveness. It is interesting to note however that, as part of the enquiry into the limits and limitations of Obama’s presidency, Edwards chooses not to address directly the discrediting effect on the perception of Obama by a portion of the electorate as ’foreigner’. Whereas a brief and tangential consideration of how the questionining of his legitimacy, indeed of his right to run for president will have affected the president’s take on decision-making, may not necessarily have refined the argument, it would perhpas have shed further light on Obama’s ’war on the Second Ammendment’, his ’war on Oil and Gas producers’,  and perhaps the many more battles to come.

Although a lot of it dwells on probability and while it lacks a grounding in comparative politics, Edwards’s study provides an original and compelling account of the extent to which Obama has managed to identify and exploit opportunity in the pursuit of public and congressional support in the first years of his administration. In the final analysis, Edwards’s greatest merit, perhaps, is that of foregrounding the figure of Barack Obama as revealing of both change and resistence to change. And this articulates a particularly significant equation against the background of current debates on the global reach of American power.



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