Remembering The Guardian of the Presidency On President’s Day

On President’s Day, I post my traditional column commemorating the late, great presidency scholar Richard E. Neustadt.  During almost six decades of public service and in academia, until his death in 2003 at the age of 84, 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, or as an amalgamation of different roles – chief diplomat, chief legislator, etc.  To Neustadt, these formal powers and related roles – 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 sat 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 three years ago). 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 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.

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 an economic depression, President Obama, 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.

After publishing his classic work, 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. (Many of his presidential memos were later published in this book.) 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 semi-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.

And so sometime today take time 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 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!



  1. You write that Neustadt’s main point is that “because presidents share power with other actors in the American political system, they can rarely get things done 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.”

    I never would’ve asked this at Midd since it’s such a cheesy question, but did Neustadt have a president who he thought best exemplified this description, a ne plus ultra of persuaders? Whenever I read you on Neustadt, my mind goes to a wheeler-and-dealer like LBJ. Would he have agreed?

  2. Great points, but if I can be unfair and lob a tough question at Matthew let me go with this: where would Neustadt stand when it comes to the functionality of the Madisonian system itself? In other words a number of writers, largely associated with the website Vox, have been arguing (quite effectively) that the whole idea of separate institutions sharing power doesn’t really work. Matt Ygleisas summed this argument up pretty succinctly by saying “American Democracy Is Doomed.” I don’t really agree with them, but we’ve certainly seen our share of political crises in the last seven years. Would Neustadt have a good response for people who want to make the US a parliamentary democracy? Are we all really doomed?

  3. Polemarchus,

    No question is too cheesy for this blog! Neustadt did have an exemplar of an effective bargaining president – it was FDR. In his chapter titled Men in Office, Neustadt discusses the specific traits – FDR’s temperament, his experience, his love for power – which he felt made FDR such an effective bargainer. Interestingly, in a subsequent edition to his classic work, Neustadt laments that for all his political experience, LBJ did not guard his power prospects nearly as effectively as Neustadt anticipated. Johnson’s failure caused Neustadt to rethink how best to get his advice across to presidents, something he worked at refining for the rest of his career.

  4. Longwalk,

    An interesting question! I never asked Neustadt this specific question, but we did talk in general about the system of shared powers. I recall that after 9-11 he remarked that it was a good thing that the President could still exercise emergency war powers. I think he meant that in a period of crisis, the normal constraints on presidential power would fall away, at least for the moment, and allow the president to act with the dispatch and urgency necessary to deal with the crisis. So in that sense I think he believed the Madisonian system was still working in that it allowed action when the moment called for it, but otherwise prevented action in the absence of a strong consensus regarding what action to take. But he wasn’t pollyannish about the American system – he recognized that it was an experiment in constant need of nurturing and vigilance.

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