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A president's test: not agenda but response

The most important things presidents do are often not preset items but reactive moves to events unforeseen.

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The US government's unprecedented efforts to rescue mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are a reminder that the most important things presidents do are often not action items from preset agendas but reactive moves to events unforeseen.

Eight years ago, George W. Bush didn't campaign on a proposal to save the housing market – or what he'd do if terrorists attacked the US. In 1960, John F. Kennedy didn't run on his ability to respond to Soviet missiles in Cuba, either.

In this election year, the implication is obvious: It's not just about the four-point plans, or the "vision thing," as George H.W. Bush referred to over­arching agendas. Voters might best judge a candidate's flexibility, relevant experience, and habits of mind.

"Lots of times, you look back at the four or eight years a president served ... and see that [their] success or failure was determined by things they didn't necessarily talk about as a candidate," says Stephen Hess, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of the forthcoming book "What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect."

This phenomenon may be most prevalent in foreign policy. The world has a way of grabbing the attention of even the most domestic-oriented of Oval Office occupants.


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