In This Review

Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era
Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era
By Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Princeton University Press, 2013, 200 pp

In this short, tightly focused, and useful book, Nye takes on one of the great myths of modern presidential scholarship. Many political scientists divide U.S. presidents into “transactional leaders,” who have relatively modest goals, and “transformational leaders,” who set out to recast U.S. institutions and political ideas. Political scientists and media commentators tend to swoon over the transformational leaders. Nye, in contrast, makes a compelling case that transactional leaders, such as Dwight Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush, often get more done than swaggering high rollers, such as Theodore Roosevelt and George W. Bush. It is, however, hard to conclude from the evidence he presents that one style is inherently better than the other. For example, Nye rightly notes that Roosevelt’s global diplomacy left few traces in U.S. politics, but that was less because Roosevelt’s actions were wrong than because Roosevelt was too far ahead of public opinion: in the early twentieth century, the United States would have been better off if more Americans had understood the dangers brewing in Europe, but the gulf between what public opinion would sustain and what the country needed was too wide for any leader to bridge.