On President’s 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 President Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency in order to free up money to fund construction of a wall along the United States’ southern border with Mexico. Although Trump’s critics view the declaration as another sign of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies – a view consistent with many political science arguments regarding the effectiveness of unilateral presidential action, I suspect Neustadt would have a different reaction to Trump’s decision. He almost certainly would view it as a sign of presidential weakness – not strength. To understand why, it is worth reviewing Neustadt’s argument.

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 reportedly 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.

The recent emergency declaration perfectly illustrates Neustadt’s thesis. Trump issued it only after failing to persuade the Democratically-controlled House to fund his proposed border wall in the amount he requested, and after the nation endured a 35-day partial government shutdown that failed to gain Trump any additional traction. Although Trump might yet be able to use the emergency to reallocate appropriated money toward funding the wall, it is a potentially risky strategy – as are most instances in which presidents act “unilaterally” through “command” authority to achieve objectives. In this instance, Trump’s actions will almost certainly be challenged in court, and the long-run repercussions on his sources of influence are at best uncertain. All this is consistent with Neustadt’s warning that unilateral efforts to achieve presidential objectives are typically a sign of weakness, not strength and that in the long run they frequently undercut a president’s sources of bargaining power – particularly his public prestige and professional reputation, to say nothing of his formal powers. It remains to be seen how this latest effort to exercise command authority will play out, but I suspect it will prove costly to Trump in the long run.

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!


  1. Thank you, Matt, for reminding us how perceptive Neustadt was.

    Question: Even as a weak president, isn’t Trump capable of doing great harm to the country through his foreign policy powers, which he mostly does not share with the other two branches of government.


  2. MATTHEW: First, thank you for including me in that post. I seem not to hear from you anymore after the discussion on the imbroglio at Middlebury. I’m still curious if that fracas resulted in a drop in enrollment or not. It certainly did at Evergreen with lots of faculty and support staff losing their jobs.

    I have a proposal on how to fix our immigration laws, which I’ll paste in below. If you don’t think it appropriate, just delete it. The key point is that If we mustered the political courage and will to do these things, we would not need a wall and could totally avoid this costly mess.

    This is a very simple solution. The Democrats (and some Republicans) have to agree to major changes in the laws about immigration in general, especially illegal immigration. They snookered Ronald Reagan in 1986 when he legalized 3,000,000 illegals (rumor has it he was told it was 300,000 but he kept his word anyway) with a promise to reform the immigration system so that people landing here illegally could be immediately sent back. Dems reneged on their promise. The Republicans are not forgetting that you cannot trust the Dems to keep their word on immigration. Pass the laws as a package.

    First: All illegal immigrants crossing our borders MUST be returned to their own countries or remain in Mexico while their claims are processed by our Justice system. They CANNOT BE RELEASED into the United States with a promise to show up for their hearing some years later. Too many disappear permanently.



    Second, all immigrants coming on legitimate VISAs MUST check in monthly at a minimum. VISA over-stays are a major source of illegal immigration, around 630,000 in 2016.


    They must be fingerprinted and photographed for facial recognition so as to make it much harder to disappear in our vast country. And we need to develop a tracking system, which we have not done despite it being called for by Congress.

    Third, we MUST eliminate chain migration because that is bringing everyone and their distant relatives out of countries that are totally dysfunctional, mostly because of fighting about religion, Muslims, Christians, Animists, etc., AND, tribal fighting. We don’t need that mental set here. We have enough problems as it is. Stay home and fix your countries.

    Fourth, the law must be changed so illegals who arrive in shiploads of containers are immediately sent back to their countries of origin. Same with those arriving from Canada.

    Fifth, employers who hire MUST know the immigration status of their hires. If they don’t check, then THEY are liable for BIG fines and prison time. Here’s the method to stay legal.


    And STOP giving SS cards, drivers licenses, welfare cards, etc., to illegals. Stop the “free stuff” that we don’t even give to our own citizens. The entire Left coast is especially bad.

    Sixth, we must implement a strong, enforced guest worker program for people from Central America only. When the job is done, THEY GO BACK HOME. Germany tried guest workers and they stayed and Germany didn’t send them back. That is causing a lot of trouble for Germany. So, our program has to have rigorous tracking that insures the people leave.

    If the DEMS will not agree to this, or something very much like it, then WE KNOW that they are FOR TOTALLY OPEN BORDERS because the immigrants tend to vote Democratic and they are trying to subvert the United States’ balance between parties.

    For every 770,000 increase in population that the census bureau counts (they count EVERYONE) a state can get another person in the House of Representatives. So, California currently gets about five Representatives because of all the illegals in that one state. They love it. They also get Big Bucks from the Feds based on their population.

    That’s the proposal, Matthew.

  3. Matt- thanks for sharing this – it is my second year to receive this and it is a welcome reminder of the positive contribution a careful and perceptive academic can make!

    I look forward to your analysis/estimate of what Neustadt’s might “make” of Trump. In particular, I’m interested in how the use of twitter and the opposition of the MSM have introduced additional levers of influence that the President must take account of and can employ. I suggest that Trump may be able to exercise more unconventional power through his use of the media (and his prodigious communication skills) to reach his base directly – he has all but captured the Republican party, including almost all of their representatives. I can’t recall a similar situation, although perhaps Ross Perot’s campaign suggests some parallels. In any event, I suggest that there are additional institutional factors and players that Neustadt would be unfamiliar with and I look forward to your perspective on what he might make of their interaction with the institutional structure he was familiar with.

    Thanks again for sharing!

    Kind regards, John

  4. Jack,

    I would be cautious in translating “policies I don’t agree with” into “great harm to the country”! Remember, he is pursuing foreign policies that in almost every case he campaigned and won the presidency by promising to do. I would add that Congress is perfectly capable of blocking his foreign policy – if it was so inclined.

  5. John,

    You are right that Neustadt wrote long before the movement to the digital media age. What that development says regarding his understanding of presidential power is an important question – one that political scientists are eagerly studying. My initial reaction is that there is less here than meets the eye, but I admit that we don’t really possess a complete understanding regarding how these developments, including the rise of social media, have impacted presidential power. But I’ll have more to say about this in future posts.

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