Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again

Elaine C. Kamarck
Release Date: July 26, 2016

From the botched attempt to rescue the U.S. diplomats held hostage by Iran in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter and the missed intelligence on Al Qaeda before 9-11 under George W. Bush to, most recently, the computer meltdown that marked the arrival of health care reform under Barack Obama, the American presidency has been a profile in failure. In Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again, Elaine Kamarck surveys these and other recent presidential failures to understand why Americans have lost faith in their leaders—and how they can get it back.

Kamarck argues that presidents today spend too much time talking and not enough time governing, and that they have allowed themselves to become more and more distant from the federal bureaucracy that is supposed to implement policy. After decades of “imperial” and “rhetorical” presidencies, we are in need of a “managerial” president. This White House insider and former Harvard academic explains the difficulties of governing in our modern political landscape, and offers examples and recommendations of how our next president can not only recreate faith in leadership but also run a competent, successful administration.

Praise for Why Presidents Fail

“It’s amazing how much we talk about politicians and how little we talk about what politicians actually do. Politicians govern. Elaine Kamarck has rectified that brilliantly in Why Presidents Fail, showing that an inability to govern effectively is at the heart of recent presidential failures. This is crucial information, compellingly told.”—Joe Klein, columnist, Time Magazine

“Elaine Kamarck’s book is a must-read for all presidential candidates, correspondents, students of government, and citizens who hunger for Washington to function well again. There’s a stick of dynamite in every chapter.”—Donna Brazile, commentator, CNN

“White House failures have occurred so often—Desert Storm, 9/11, Katrina, Iraq, the VA, the Health Care Rollout—that many think them inevitable. Not so argues Elaine Kamarck, widely respected as both academic andpractitioner. Presidents should talk less and manage more; stop the perpetual campaign and start governing. This book should go to the top of the required reading list for our next chief executive.”—David Gergen, professor of public service and co-director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School

“Why have so many modern presidencies begun in hope and ended in disappointment? In this concise and trenchant book, Elaine Kamarck offers a convincing answer: Too many presidents have neglected a vital part of their job, managing the federal government. Kamarck’s compelling case studies of political disasters are page-turners—a label few books on public administration ever get. Every American should read this book before voting. Would-be White House aides should read it more than once.”—Doyle McManus, Washington columnist, Los Angeles Times

“In this magnificent and timely book, Elaine Kamarck unlocks vital truths about why modern presidents so often fail—and what they must do to succeed. Writing as both a superb scholar and a seasoned White House adviser, her case-based analyses of several recent presidencies leave none of conventional academic wisdom unchallenged. This wise book will be read by scholars and students for generations to come—and it ought to be read by the president, top White House aides, and cabinet leaders right now!”—John J. Dilulio Jr., Frederic Fox Leadership Professor, University of Pennsylvania


Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at Brookings and the founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management. She is also on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a public sector scholar with wide experience in government, academia, and politics. Kamarck is an expert on government innovation and reform in the United States, OECD countries, and developing countries. In addition, she focuses her research on the presidential nomination system and American politics and has worked in several American presidential campaigns.