Agency or context, personality or history, skill or opportunity? Research on the American presidency, unfortunately, tends to bounce between dichotomies such as these. But Bruce Miroff's new study of presidents “on political ground” is wary of the either/or trap. The book lays out five political contexts that form the backdrop of presidential acumen and accomplishment. Miroff then draws effortlessly from anecdotes in modern presidential history to illustrate that presidents have responded in unique ways to these common contextual patterns according to their character and skill.
The five political grounds are the media and the presidential spectacle, political economy, coalition politics, the politics of domestic policy, and the politics of foreign policy. These are eminently sensible analytic categories to understand the constraints and opportunities of presidential action. For instance, presidents wishing to enact their favored policy must reckon with basic realities about the coalitions that support them: divided partisan coalitions can stifle a president's policy ambitions, while a burgeoning social movement may force the president to yield to a completely unanticipated set of political priorities. Political economy is another useful category to understand political context. Miroff describes three Democrats who were disappointed to discov
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