In Honor of Neustadt’s Centennial, We Celebrate Presidents Day

It is Presidents Day – when I traditionally post my column commemorating the late, great presidential scholar Richard E. Neustadt. This year seems a particularly appropriate time to do so, however, since we are in the centennial of Neustadt’s birth on June 26, 1919. I’ve been fortunate to participate in several events commemorating Neustadt during his centennial, including this very touching tribute by five of his former students and colleagues: Graham Allison, Harvey Fineberg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Gore and Roger Porter.

Of course, as I’ve written previously, many students of the presidency, and pundits more generally, believe that President Trump has rendered the notion of presidential weakness, which is the core of Neustadt’s argument in his classic work Presidential Power, largely irrelevant, or at least misplaced. In their view, Trump’s willingness to shatter traditional norms of presidential behavior, from his use of social media to drive media coverage to the politicization of the Justice Department to a foreign policy that seems based on personal whim, is proof that he acts free from the constraints that shackled his presidential predecessors.

A full assessment of these claims is beyond the scope of a single blog post. However, I suspect Neustadt would have a different reaction. He almost certainly would view Trump’s actions to date as largely confirming his model of presidential power. To understand why, it is worth reviewing Neustadt’s argument. To do so, we need first to understand something of Neustadt’s background, and the context in which he wrote Presidential Power.

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.  They gave the President a seat at the governing table, but with no guarantee that he (someday she) could dictate the menu. To fully understand what made presidents more or less effective, then, one had to dig deeper to uncover additional 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 must 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 rejects the notion that presidents rely on “charm or reasoned argument” to convince others to adopt their 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, or simply advice on how to organize your White House, 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 later 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, or two or three.  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.

Elsewhere I have written in some detail about how Trump’s initial missteps during his first weeks in office, from the hiring of Steve Bannon to the ill-fated “Muslim” travel ban to the decision to follow the Republicans’ lead and attempt to roll back Obamacare cut short any honeymoon he might have had, and contributed to the eventual loss of the House in 2018, and any hope of passing any more of his legislative agenda. Or, consider the emergency declaration Trump issued a year ago which allowed him to shift appropriated moneys to fund the building of a wall along our southern border. At first glance this appears to be an illustration of effective unilateral action. However, Trump issued it only after failing to persuade the Democratically-controlled House to appropriate money for the 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 has subsequently used the emergency to reallocate appropriated money toward funding the wall, the maneuver is not without risks – as are most instances in which presidents act “unilaterally” through “command” authority to achieve objectives. The long-run repercussions on his sources of influence remain 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 less durable than if Trump had effectively bargained to achieve his wall funding.

None of this would please Neustadt, of course. As he noted in the conclusion to his classic work, “a President’s success in that endeavor [the pursuit of power] serves objectives far beyond his own, and far beyond his party’s…an expert search for presidential influence contributes to the energy of government and the viability of public policy.” The key word in that passage, however, is “expert.” Neustadt warned that “an expert in the White House does not guarantee effective policy, but lacking such an expert every hope is placed in doubt.” He was writing, at least in part, with Eisenhower in mind – a president about which Neustadt later revised his perspective, at least in foreign affairs – but it is hard, when reading Neustadt’s advice to “Men in Office” not to apply his analysis to the current President, and to find Trump’s understanding of his sources of power falling short of Neustadt’s standards.

As Neustadt was all too well aware, evaluating presidents from a distance is a difficult exercise, fraught with uncertainty. It is why his initial analysis of presidential power, based on his first-hand experience peering over Truman’s shoulder, and on talking to those who occupied similar positions under FDR and Eisenhower, proved so penetrating. It may be that when Trump’s presidency undergoes similar scrutiny, a different story will be told. Until then, caution is the word.

But today is not the time to fret about the status of Trump’s presidency or the future of the nation. Instead it is a time to celebrate the legacy of the foremost scholar of the presidency, in commemoration of his 100th year! So, take a moment tonight 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, now ordered electronically, 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!

3 comments

  1. “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 fully understand what made presidents more or less effective, then, one had to dig deeper to uncover additional sources of the president’s power.”

    I’ve had occasion to consult Neustadt’s work over the years, and I can see why it’s so widely admired, but on the other hand, I find a statement like this one kind of baffling. How could it possibly have taken political scientists until the mid-20th century to notice that presidents don’t just give orders but have to negotiate, cajole, twist arms, call in favors, etc. etc. in order to get things done? I mean, any history of Lincoln’s maneuverings during the Civil War, of which there were already many, would surely have made that obvious. It’s not like Gen. McLellan, or William Seward, or even the Republican Congress just snapped to attention and did whatever Lincoln wanted, and this despite the fact that he was commander in chief during a war on which the nation’s whole future depended.

    And what about Machiavelli? Didn’t political science long ago take on board the basic Machiavellian insight that there’s an art to the effective exercise of power, and that it often requires subtlety, craft, fear and flattery? Or we could go even further back, to Thucydides and the other classical Greek and Roman historians, who generally seem versed in those facts as well. Seems like this is all very old news.

    Again, I don’t mean to take anything away from Neustadt. No doubt somebody had to lay out the details of how things had come to work in the new context of the big, bureaucratic, post-New Deal Executive Branch and “administrative state.” So good on him for doing that. But, full disclosure, those of us in the humanities sometimes look at the social sciences as long ways around to stating the obvious. Is that more or less what happened here, or am I missing something?

  2. Jeff,

    Interestingly, Neustadt’s analysis isn’t fully accepted by many political scientists even today! Some of his early critics did, in fact, compare him to Machiavelli, and argued that his “instrumentalist” perspective lack any ethical foundation; Neustadt was teaching how to get power for power’s sake, without regard for consequences. Some even blamed him for indirectly contributing to the atmosphere in the Nixon White House that led to Watergate! Today critics argue that he overstates the persuasive ability of presidents, and understates the importance of formal powers. I’ve written about these and other critiques of Neustadt’s model here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41427418?seq=1 So I think your points are well taken.

  3. Thanks for the reply, Matthew — that’s very interesting, since I have only heard discussion of Neustadt from his fans (mainly you and Jonathan Bernstein). I guess I can see where someone might make the leap to Watergate, although that seems an obvious misreading. Anyway, thanks for linking to the article, I’ll be interested in reading that. 🙂

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