Dilemmas of Presidential Leadership challenges the widely accepted distinction between "traditional" and "modern" presidencies, a dichotomy by which political science has justified excluding from its domain of inquiry all presidents preceding Franklin Roosevelt. Rather than divide history into two mutually exclusive eras, Richard Ellis and Aaron Wildavsky divide the world into three sorts of people-egalitarians, individualists and hierarchs. All presidents, the authors contend, must manage the competition between these rival political cultures. It is this commonality which lays the basis for comparing presidents across time.
To summarize and simplify, the book addresses two general categories of presidencies. The first is the president with a blend of egalitarian and individualist cultural propensities. Spawned by the American revolution, this anti-authoritarian cultural alliance dominated American politics until it was torn asunder by what Charles Beard has called the second American revolution, the Civil War. The Jeffersonian and Jacksonian presidents labored, with varying degrees of success, to square the exercise of authority with their own and their followers' ami-: authoritarian principles. They also were faced with intraparly conflicts that periodically flared up between egalitarian and individualist followers.
The president with hierarchical cultural propensities faced different problems. While the precise contours of the dilemma varied, all straggled in one way or another to reconcile their own and their party's preferences with the anti-hierarchical ethos that inhered in the society and the polity. Hierarchical presidents like Washington and Adams were hamstrung by this dilemma, as were Whig leaders like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster who aspired to the presidency but never achieved it. .Abraham Lincoln's greatness resided in part in his ability to resolve the hierarch's dilemma. He operated in wartime when he could invoke the commander-in-chief clause, and he created a new cultural combination in which hierarchy was subordinated to individualism. This, suggest the authors, was a key to his greatness.
The unique dimension of this volume is its use of cultural theory to explain presidential behavior. It also differs from other books in that, it deals with pre-modern presidents who are too often treated as only of antiquarian interest in mainstream political science literature on the presidency. The analysis lays the groundwork for a new basis for comparison of early presidents with modern presidents.