Tag Archives: Presidential Power

On Presidents Day, We Celebrate The Guardian of the Presidency

It is Presidents Day – a time to repost my traditional column commemorating the late, great Richard E. Neustadt. This year the post seems particularly timely, given the controversy surrounding our current President – particularly the fear that his authoritarian tendencies will undermine the presidency and the Constitutional order.  As I hope becomes clear by reading this post, I suspect Neustadt would have a different, but not less worrisome, reaction to Trump’s presidency.

Until his death in 2003 at the age of 84, Neustadt was the nation’s foremost presidency scholar.  In his almost six decades of public service and in academia, Neustadt advised presidents of both parties and their aides, and distilled these experiences in the form of several influential books on presidential leadership and decisionmaking.  Perhaps his biggest influence, however, came from the scores of students (including Al Gore) he mentored at Columbia and Harvard, many of whom went on to careers in public service.  Others (like me!) opted for academia where they schooled subsequent generations of students in Neustadt’s teachings, (and sometimes wrote blogs on the side.)

Interestingly, Neustadt came to academia through a circuitous route that, unfortunately, is rarely used today. After a brief stint in FDR’s Office of Price Administration, followed by a tour in the military, he returned to government as a mid-level career bureaucrat in President Harry Truman’s Bureau of the Budget (BoB) in 1946, gradually working his way up the ranks until he was brought into Truman’s White House in 1950 as a junior-level political aide.  While working in the BoB, Neustadt took time to complete his doctoral dissertation at Harvard (working from Washington), which analyzed the development of the president’s legislative program.  When Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952, Neustadt faced a career crossroads. With the doctorate in hand, he decided to try his hand at academia.

When he began working his way through the presidency literature to prepare to teach, however, he was struck by just how little these scholarly works had in common with his own experiences under Truman.  They described the presidency in terms of its formal powers, as laid out in the Constitution and subsequent statute.  To Neustadt, these formal powers – while not inconsequential – told only part of the story.  To fully understand what made presidents more or less effective, one had to dig deeper to uncover the sources of the president’s power. With this motivation, he set down to write Presidential Power, which was first published in 1960 and went on to become the best-selling scholarly study of the presidency ever written. Now in its 4th edition, it continues to be assigned in college classrooms around the world (the Portuguese language edition came out a few years back.) Neustadt’s argument in Presidential Power is distinctive and I certainly can’t do justice to it here.  But his essential point is that because presidents share power with other actors in the American political system, they can rarely get things done on a sustained basis through command or unilateral action. Instead, they need to persuade others that what the President wants done is what they should want done as well, but for their own political and personal interests.  At the most fundamental level that means presidents must bargain. The most effective presidents, then, are those who understand the sources of their bargaining power, and take steps to nurture those sources.

By bargaining, however, Neustadt does not mean – contrary to what some of his critics have suggested – changing political actors’ minds.  As I have written elsewhere, Neustadt does not mean that presidents rely on “charm or reasoned argument” to convince others to adopt his (someday her) point of view. With rare exceptions, presidential power is not the power to change minds. Instead, presidents must induce others “to believe that what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their interests, not his.” That process of persuasion, Neustadt suggests, “is bound to be more like collective bargaining than like a reasoned argument among philosopher kings.”

At its core, Presidential Power is a handbook for presidents (and their advisers). It teaches them how to gain, nurture and exercise power. Beyond the subject matter, however, what makes Neustadt’s analysis so fascinating are the illustrations he brings to bear, many drawn from his own personal experiences as an adviser to presidents. Interestingly, the book might have languished on bookstore shelves if not for a fortuitous event: after his election to the presidency in 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked Neustadt to write transition memos to help prepare him for office. More importantly for the sale of Neustadt’s book, however, the president-elect was photographed disembarking from a plane with a copy of Presidential Power clearly visible in his jacket pocket.  Believe me, nothing boosts the sale of a book on the presidency more than a picture of the President reading that book!  (Which reminds me: if you need lessons about leading during a time of crisis, President Trump, I’d recommend this book. Don’t forget to get photographed while reading it!)

But it takes more than a president’s endorsement to turn a book into a classic, one that continues to get assigned in presidency courses today, more than two decades after the last edition was issued.  What explains Presidential Power’s staying power? As I have argued elsewhere, Neustadt’s classic work endures because it analyzes the presidency institutionally; presidential power, according to Neustadt, is primarily a function of the Constitutionally-based system of separated institutions sharing power.  That Constitutional grounding makes Neustadt’s analysis of continuing relevance.   And while many subsequent scholars have sought to replace Neustadt’s analysis with one of their own, for the most part they end up making his same points (although they often don’t acknowledge as much) but not nearly as effectively.

Neustadt was subsequently asked to join Kennedy’s White House staff but – with two growing children whom had already endured his absences in his previous White House stint – he opted instead to stay in academia.  He went on to help establish Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote several more award-winning books, and continued to advise formally or informally every president through Clinton. After the death of Bert, his first wife, he married Shirley Williams, one of the founders of Britain’s Social Democrats Party (and now a Baroness in the House of Lords), which provided still another perspective on executive politics.  He also continued churning out graduate students (I was the last doctoral student whose dissertation committee Neustadt chaired at Harvard.). When I went back to Harvard in 1993 as an assistant professor, my education continued; I lured Neustadt out of retirement to co-teach a graduate seminar on the presidency – an experience that deepened my understanding of the office and taught me to appreciate good scotch.  It was the last course Neustadt taught in Harvard’s Government Department, but he remained active in public life even after retiring from teaching.  Shortly before his death he traveled to Brazil to advise that country’s newly-elected president Lula da Silva.

What might Neustadt make of the Trump presidency?  That is a topic worthy of a separate post.  But I suspect that in contrast to many of my political science peers, who have expressed a fear that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies pose a threat to the Constitutional order, Neustadt would have a different concern:  that Trump’s inexperience – compounded by his initial decision to surround himself with equally inexperienced aides – has led to an exceptionally weak presidency, one unable to provide the energy and institutional stiffening that Neustadt believed was indispensable for making our system of shared powers work toward solving national problems.  To be sure, that weakness might yet lead a frustrated president to lash out against his political enemies, and to engage in extraconstitutional actions that could further weaken the presidential office. If so, my colleagues’ fears may yet be realized. For now, however, I suspect Neustadt would worry not that Trump’s presidency was too powerful – but that it was not powerful enough.

In the meantime, take time today to hoist a glass of your favorite beverage in honor of Richard E. Neustadt, our own Guardian of the Presidency. If you are interested in learning more about him, there’s a wonderful (really!) book available on Amazon.com edited by Neustadt’s daughter and that blogger guy from Middlebury College (see here). It contains contributions from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Gore, Ernie May, Graham Allison, Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harrison Wellford, Harvey Fineberg, Jonathan Alter, Chuck Jones, Eric Redman, Beth Neustadt and yours truly.

Here’s to you,  Dick!

 

Was Obamacare Worth It? Some Democrats Think Not.

I’m up today at US News with a new post that serves as a sequel of sorts to an earlier post I wrote discussing the impact of Obama’s policy agenda on Democrats’ loss of control of Congress. In recent days Democrats such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer have openly questioned whether Obamacare was worth the political price paid for its passage.  Drawing on data compiled by Middlebury College student Tina Berger, I showed that during Obama’s six years as president Democrats had lost more than 25% of the seats they had started with when Obama first took office. That was the second greatest proportion of seats lost, exceeded only by Eisenhower, during a president’s time in office during the post-Hoover modern presidential era. A primary cause of the loss of partisan support, I suggested, was Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform despite its controversial nature and uneven political support.

In response, the New York Times Brendan Nyhan wondered whether the erosion of Democratic support might vary across the two congressional chambers, with losses greater in either the House or the Senate. The short answer is no – he’s lost about equal support across his presidency in the Senate and the House, at least in terms of modern rankings, as the following graphs constructed by Berger indicate.  Here’s the percentage of House seats lost:

HouseAnd here’s the Senate seats lost:

 

SenateClearly Obama has been an equal opportunity president.

Mo Fiorina, meanwhile, pointed out that rather than speculate regarding why Democrats lost so many seats, I could have cited some research that points directly to Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform as a primary cause of Democrats losing control of the House and, I would add, contributing to the loss of the Senate too.  In my U.S. News post, I make amends by delving a bit more deeply into that research.  The gist of it suggests that health care and climate change legislation might have cost Democrats some 20-40 House seats in 2010.

Sill, this is not necessarily meant to suggest that pursuing health care reform was a mistake. As I discuss in the U.S. News post, the key issue is whether Obama, in deciding whether to embark on health care reform, fully anticipated the political cost his party would pay for doing so. This is the crucial point the late, great presidency scholar Richard Neustadt makes in his classic work Presidential Power: presidents ought not to be judged solely on their ability to achieve a treasured legislative objective. They must also be assessed on whether they understood the likely consequences of achieving that objective on their future bargaining prospects. Did Obama understand that in pursuing health care reform he would likely cost his party its House majority and, perhaps, control of the Senate as well? These are not easy questions to answer, of course; when making these decisions presidents are operating under conditions of great uncertainty. Surely Obama could not have anticipated the botched rollout of Obamacare, for instance. Still, Neustadt’s analysis suggests that these are questions any president must ask before embarking down the legislative road of significant policy change. In the case of health care reform, it’s not clear to me whether Obama tried hard enough to find an answer.

The Real Lesson of Watergate

Beginning today, I’ll be posting at U.S. News & World Report’s online site once a week (typically on Friday) under the editorial direction of my former Middlebury student Rob Schlesinger and his team.  Since they prefer that I not crosspost their material here, I’ll link directly to the U.S. News site – you can read my full post there, but I still invite comments on particular posts here.

Today’s U.S. News post, not surprisingly, tries to correct misperceptions regarding the root cause of the Watergate scandal:

Tomorrow I’ll be back here with another trip to the archives – this one from the Nixon presidency, so keep this site bookmarked.

 

No, the Presidency Has NOT Become More Difficult

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote an interesting column two days ago under the headline “It’s Virtually Impossible to be a Successful Modern President.” Cillizza begins his piece like this: “Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail.”

Both those statements are wrong, of course. As I and other presidency scholars have written repeatedly, the presidency is not a very powerful office and it is certainly not the most powerful job in the world.  Indeed, even among elected chief executives in modern democracies, the presidency is one of the weaker offices. The primary reason, of course, is because the Framers wanted it that way, as indicated by their decision to embed the presidency within a constitutional system of shared powers. That’s why presidents cannot dismiss Congress, call for new elections, or even count on the support of a legislative majority to pass legislation – all expectations that many prime ministers in other nations possess. And, with the ratification of the 22nd amendment, presidents lucky enough to win reelection serve most of their second term as defacto lame ducks. As Brendan Nyhan notes in his column today, however, this weakness has not stopped individuals from exaggerating the president’s potential degree of control over events.

But what of Cillizza’s second claim? In part, both Cillizza and Ronald Brownstein, whose article here provides some of the evidence on which Cillizza bases his claim, rest much of their case about presidential weakness on the belief that America is an increasingly divided nation. As I’ve argued elsewhere,  however, the evidence that Americans are polarizing along ideological lines is weak – most of what analysts claim to be a growing ideological divide is more accurately described as party sorting. In short, there’s not much support for the claim that modern presidents are dealing with a more ideologically polarized public.

The more empirically valid charge is that modern presidents must deal with a very polarized Congress – the most partisan  polarized Congress since the 19th century. Both Cillizza and Brownstein argue that it is very difficult for presidents to get legislation passed through a Congress that is so deeply polarized along partisan lines. But the link between partisan polarization and legislative productivity is more complex than this simple narrative would have one believe. Nelson Polsby, in his classic work How Congress Evolves, describes how a cross-partisan conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans stymied the passage of liberal legislation from 1937 until the mid-1960’s. More generally, building on Polsby’s observation, studies show that too little polarization in Congress is as counterproductive to legislative productivity as is too much. This is because under conditions of limited partisan polarization, we often see great divisions within parties (see Polsby’s description of the Democrats during the era of the conservative coalition), and little difference across them – exactly the conditions that James MacGregor Burns complained about in his classic study of American political gridlock in the early 1960’s.  Evidence shows that legislative productivity under these conditions of weak polarization is as limited as under the deep polarization in Congress presidents confront today.

Moreover, there is other evidence one can cite that undercuts the premise of Cillizza’s and Brownstein’s argument. For instance, we might think that if the presidency was so much more difficult, presidents would find it harder to win reelection. However, our three most recent presidents – Clinton, G. W. Bush and Obama – all successfully won reelection. In contrast, three of their four immediate predecessors: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and G. W. Bush, did not. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson did not pursue a second full term in 1968 because of political opposition and declining support, and Nixon resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment, making Ronald Reagan the only one of those six previous presidents to serve two full terms. No wonder scholars complained of a “tethered” presidency at the start of Reagan’s first term!

Finally, consider the severity of the issues facing recent presidents. Yes, 9-11 ushered in the Age of Terrorism, and all the difficulty that entails for presidents’ efforts to fulfill their commander-in-chief functions. But the consequences of making a mistake in the fight against terrorism, while enormous, are arguably not any greater – and probably less significant – than what the post-World War II presidents confronted during the height of the Cold War. It is for this reason that Neustadt, in the final edition of his classic work which was issued as the Cold War came to a close, cautions against looking back on those years with rose-colored glasses. He writes, “From the multicentered, interdependent world now coming into being, environmentally endangered as it is, Presidents [and pundits!] may look back on the Cold War as an era of stability, authority and glamour. They may yearn for the simplicity they see in retrospect, and also for the solace. Too bad.” Although acknowledging that governing in this new age has its own set of difficulties, Neustadt reminds us that there are compensations for outliving the Cold War: “[T]he personal responsibility attached to nuclear weapons should become less burdensome for Presidents themselves, while contemplation of their mere humanity becomes less haunting for the rest of us. To me that seems a fair exchange.”

To me too. Yes, the presidency is difficult. But there’s little evidence that it is harder today than in previous presidencies during the post-World War II modern era.  Indeed, one might argue that the job has become slightly easier, although I doubt that is any solace to Barack Obama.

P.S. This post attracted its fair share of readers, so I’ll follow up with some additional discussion focused on recent evaluations by pundits of Obama’s presidency.  If you are interested in getting notifications of new presidential power posts, I post notices on twitter at: https://twitter.com/MattDickinson44

Or contact me at dickinso@middlebury.edu and I’ll put you on the anonymous distribution list.

UPDATE: Jonathan Bernstein weights in on the issue here: http://bv.ms/1xbKij5

Why Obama Continues Bush’s Foreign Policy

Against the backdrop of today’s joint Obama-al Maliki press conference it is worth noting that perhaps the strongest portion of Obama’s presidential record so far has been his handling of foreign policy. Public opinion polls give the President much higher marks for his conduct of foreign policy than of domestic issues, and some of his most notable policy successes – killing Bin Laden, overthrowing Gadhafi – have taken place abroad. The irony, of course, is that Obama’s success in this policy realm has come largely by building on the foundation laid down by his predecessor George W. Bush rather than dismantling it. And when Obama has sought to deviate from the path charted by Bush, more often than not he’s been unsuccessful.  Continuity, then, and not change, has been the byword of Obama’s foreign policy.

The most immediate reminder of this will occur at the end of this month, when after nine years, the last of the U.S military forces in Iraq will return home.  At its peak, the U.S. had over 170,000 troops in Iraq – now it is down to about 6,000. (The U.S. will retain a sizable force of military trainers and other civilian support staff, in addition to its diplomatic corps, although the exact size and composition is a matter still under negotiation.)   The troop withdrawal, of course, is based on the status of forces agreement negotiated by Bush with the Iraqis – an agreement the Obama administration had hoped to amend to allow some U.S. military forces to remain in Iraq to prevent a return to the sectarian violence that plagued the country in recent years.  The Iraqi government, however, proved unwilling to do so on terms acceptable to the U.S., and so Obama will largely adhere to Bush’s original withdrawal schedule.  In terms of electoral politics, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing – the U.S. military presence in Iraq was not very popular, and the military withdrawal allows Obama to keep a campaign promise to wind down the Iraqi war.

There are many other areas of continuity between Bush and Obama in the conduct of foreign policy.  Obama has expanded Bush’s use of drones as both offensive weapons in the War on Terror, but also in intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance operations.  Although Obama purportedly closed secret CIA prisons holding suspected terrorists, he continues the policy of rendition under which suspected terrorists can be sent to foreign prisons for interrogation.  He has authorized the use of military commissions to try some terrorists, and – with the courts’ consent – supports the Bush policy of holding enemy combatants indefinitely without charge. Despite opposition from both conservative Republicans and many Democrats, he signed a four-year extension of the Patriot act which, among other provisions, provides federal authorities roving wiretap power to listen in on conversations of foreign suspects even when they change phones or locations, and gives the government the authority to investigate foreigners who have no known affiliation with terrorist groups. (To do so, however, requires approval from a secret federal court.)

In some instances, Obama has out-Bushed Bush in the conduct of the war on terror.  In Afghanistan, of course, Obama built up the U.S. military presence in order to stabilize a rapidly deteriorating situation there, and thus lay the groundwork for an earlier U.S. withdrawal.  To date, Obama appears committed to the withdrawal schedule although his commanders on the ground are fighting a rearguard action in order to extend the U.S. presence there. Perhaps the most notable foreign policy success, of course, was the killing of Bin Laden, which required violating Pakistan’s airspace. And, in perhaps the most dramatic example of Obama’s willingness to push the limits of his authority, he authorized the assassination of an American citizen overseas who was suspected of actively working as a terrorist.

When Obama has sought to step back from Bush-era policies governing the War on Terror, however, he has often been unsuccessful.   After months of wrangling with Congress, Obama has implicitly admitted that Guantanamo Bay prison will not be closed, and in fact will continue to hold high value targets who may be caught in the anti-terror campaign. His effort to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civil court collapsed in face of domestic opposition from New York officials.  And even Obama’s decree banning the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique is now under reconsideration in the Republican House.

What explains this continuity in foreign policy between a Republican and a Democratic President? Why was Obama largely unsuccessful when he did try to break with his predecessor’s policies? At the most fundamental level, it reflects the common pressures both Bush and Obama feel, as chief executive and commander in chief, to protect the nation against attack. Political scientists have long debated whether the president wields a greater panoply of powers in the foreign versus domestic realm.  Depending on who one consults (and when), presidents are either characterized as imperial (think FDR, Nixon or Bush) or imperiled (Ford or Carter) in their ability to conduct foreign policy.  I’ve long argued that this debate misses the crucial aspect of foreign policy that differentiates it from domestic issues as seen from the president’s perspective:  because the repercussions of a foreign policy failure are far more damaging not to just to him (someday her) – but to the nation, presidents feel they have no choice but to expand their foreign policy powers as much as political constraints allow.  Put another way, they don’t feel nearly as powerful in foreign affairs as they think they should be to meet expectations. From the perspective of one sitting in the Oval Office, the constraints on the president’s ability to protect the nation feel far more onerous because the burden of responsibility that weighs on the president is so much greater.

Because Bush was the one in power when 9-11 occurred, he endured most of the political fallout resulting from his desire to meet the new expectations associated with fighting a different type of war.   The ensuing debate over how to balance the desire to give the President the powers necessary to prevent another attack with the need to hold him accountable for utilizing those powers was politically costly to Bush, but in the end a framework for balancing energy and accountability was developed.  That debate continues today, but mostly in fine tuning the measures negotiated between Bush, Congress and the courts in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. The most recent manifestation, of course, is Obama’s threat to veto the military authorization bill because it limits his flexibility in handling suspected terrorists. Obama’s opposition to a provision in the bill allowing Americans captured on American soil to be held in military custody without charge is only partly motivated by a concern for civil liberties. Of greater concern to Obama are the limits the bill places on him in his ability to prosecute the War on Terror.

In this desire for maximum flexibility, Obama is no different from Bush.  Indeed, Bush did not just bequeath Obama hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against the backdrop of a global war on terror – he also handed over a set of policy tools, forged in heated debate between our governing institutions,  for fighting those wars.  For the most part, Obama has chosen to use those tools because, as did Bush, he feels more than does anyone else the pressure to protect the nation from another terrorist attack.

When it comes to foreign policy, presidents may appear to be imperial – but they feel anything but.