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Too Hidden a Hand

- July 16, 2013

Front CoverIt’s nice to see Peter Baker writing in today’s New York Times about alternate modes of presidential leadership – notably the “hidden hand” style utilized by Dwight D. Eisenhower. The idea is that Obama is exercising power from behind the scenes by exploiting personnel and process rather than from a bully pulpit. This is a more complimentary way to describe, albeit similar in practice to, “leading from behind.”

I’d like to correct one odd shortcoming of the article: it does not mention the 1982 book by Princeton’s legendary Fred Greenstein that put that phrase on the academic map. Greenstein’s The Hidden Hand Presidency seems to have been a victim of its own success in re-writing the academic conventional wisdom about Eisenhower and bringing its title into shorthand usage. (Perhaps it is the ‘xerox’ of presidential studies?)

Pre-Greenstein, scholars assumed that Eisenhower was too passive to be president – that he did not understand or exercise presidential power as Richard Neustadt had so memorably laid it out – Ike was no FDR! Afterwards, they were convinced “that behind Eisenhower’s seeming transcendence of politics was a vast amount of indirect, carefully concealed effort to exercise influence” (Greenstein, p. xx). Even Neustadt reassessed Eisenhower in a later edition of Presidential Power, in a chapter dealing with Eisenhower’s efforts to avoid American entanglement in French Indochina (aka Vietnam) in the 1950s. A direct contrast of Eisenhower’s tactics and advising structures in that arena with Lyndon Johnson’s a decade-plus later would become the basis for Greenstein’s later book with John Burke (along with Richard Immerman and Larry Berman), How Presidents Test Reality.