Birkner on Miroff, 'Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face'

Bruce Miroff
Michael J. Birkner

Bruce Miroff. Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016. 208 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2285-6.

Reviewed by Michael J. Birkner (Gettysburg College) Published on H-FedHist (September, 2017) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

Presidents succeed, presidents stumble. Why? How? These questions are at the heart of Bruce Miroff’s meditation on presidents’ exercise of power since the New Deal era. With the arrival of Donald Trump in the Oval Office, presidential studies are entering a new boom era. I cannot help but regret that Miroff’s book went to print before Trump’s inauguration, because Trump is testing every precept.

In each chapter, Miroff draws on Machiavelli’s dicta about the importance of a president knowing and navigating complex political terrain. That includes knowing who to embrace, who not to offend, and the art of self-presentation. This “Machiavellian” approach resonates with the work of the late Richard E. Neustadt, whose influential book Presidential Power (1960) has been called a modern version of The Prince.[1] Echoing Joseph S. Nye Jr.’s argument about a president’s need for “contextual intelligence,” Miroff says that the more alert a president is to the ground on which he or she is operating, the more likely the presidency will prosper.[2] While Miroff also cites Stephen Skowronek’s “historical-institutional” approach to the presidency, he emphasizes the agency of presidents to make their mark—or conversely, fail to take the nation to a better place.[3]

Miroff’s thesis focuses on five different realms of presidential leadership: managing the media and what he calls “presidential spectacle,” managing the economy, working with Congress, making domestic policy, and steering foreign policy. In each of these areas, Miroff draws on examples from the modern presidency to argue that depending on a number of factors, both within and beyond their control, presidents can shine or sink. Most of the examples Miroff provides are familiar to presidential scholars.

Readers learn about John F. Kennedy’s glamor and Ronald Reagan’s amiability, for example, though that is not the sum of what he says we need to know. Kennedy proved his mettle during the Cuban Missile Crisis, while Reagan showed backbone by firing the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) firing and subsequent invasion of Grenada enhanced Reagan’s reputation for strength and served him well, especially compared with the widespread perception of his predecessor’s fecklessness. Franklin Delano Roosevelt proved adept in navigating political ground, though in Miroff’s rendering, his merit lay less in conveying strength than in his deftness in outreach to Congress on behalf of an increasingly bold agenda during his first term. For his part, Lyndon Johnson proved masterful in securing congressional support for controversial initiatives like his civil rights bills and Medicare, cultivating members of the opposite party as well as his own.

Richard Nixon receives substantial attention. Miroff explains how Nixon jumped on the environment issue for political advantage, then largely abandoned it when it no longer suited his needs. Nixon’s foreign policy—notably the China initiative—broke with party orthodoxy and contributed to his landslide reelection victory in 1972. Miroff views Nixon as a case study in successfully “poaching” an opposition constituency to win elections: in Nixon’s case, the white “hard-hat” vote. In this he mimicked Roosevelt’s “poaching” of black voters from the GOP through rhetoric and policy moves appealing to them. In 2016, taking a cue from Nixon, Trump “poached” enough aggrieved working-class whites to win a spectacular upset victory. George W. Bush is also viewed as a “poacher,” for proposing a Medicare drug benefit that drew senior citizens into the Republicans’ orbit.

Miroff’s chapter on domestic policy highlights the perils of upsetting the status quo. He observes that whether the issue is health care or social welfare (for example, Social Security) presidents advocating major systemic changes run real risks. Roosevelt had the advantage regarding Social Security, because citizens had no fear of losing anything. By contrast, Bill Clinton’s health-care plan was demonized and stymied, as was George W. Bush’s second-term efforts to alter Social Security, as opponents stoked voters’ fears that the change would harm them. Along the same track, Barack Obama paid a steep political price for advocating the Affordable Health Care Act. “Loss aversion,” Miroff argues, trumped optimism about the new program (p. 101).

In foreign policy, presidents have seen the ground shift since the 1960s, as increasingly politics no longer stops at the water’s edge, as it (largely) did for a generation in the wake of World War II. New orthodoxies emerged in both the Democratic and Republican Parties in the 1970s, the former less aggressive in foreign affairs than the latter.

No brief review can do full justice to Miroff’s thoughtful analysis, which demonstrates his deep knowledge of presidential history as well as his willingness to admit when a particular case does not fit his paradigm. However, Miroff’s lack of interest in the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower is surprising. Each brought distinctive strengths to the presidential office, and each is today more widely appreciated by scholars than when they served. Truman rates a handful of passing mentions. Eisenhower gains Miroff’s attention primarily as he sought to ease Cold War tensions. Miroff contrasts Eisenhower’s calming speeches and more “cautious” approach to policymaking with Kennedy’s muscular Cold War rhetoric and early miscues, notably in Cuba (p. 131). Eisenhower’s effective dealings with Congress in passing domestic legislation, including such signature measures as the National Highway Act of 1956, his Mutual Security program, and the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958, are ignored, even though they would fit nicely into Miroff’s discussion of coalition building. Truman’s strength of character, exemplified both in foreign and domestic affairs, equally merits attention within Miroff’s framework.

Despite these regrettable omissions, there is much to learn from this well-wrought work. Daunting as the terrain modern presidents traverse may be, Miroff sees opportunities for creative leadership. Our best presidents, he argues, are idealists without illusions. Like good Machiavellians, they know their terrain and maneuver deftly on it. They are shrewd, not blustery, communicators. Were Trump a reading man, I would have no hesitation recommending this book to him.


[1]. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “What Presidents Should Have Done,” New York Times, November 1, 1990.

[2]. Joseph S. Nye Jr., The Powers to Lead (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), chap. 4.

[3]. Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

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Citation: Michael J. Birkner. Review of Miroff, Bruce, Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL:

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