The Chronicle Review

Neustadt's 'Presidential Power' at 50

Steve Brodner for The Chronicle Review

March 28, 2010

50: The number of years Richard E. Neustadt's Presidential Power has been in print since it was published, in April 1960.

6: The book's rank in how frequently it is still assigned in college courses on the American presidency, according to a recent survey of about 250 syllabi by Grand Valley State University's Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. That's nothing short of remarkable for a book with a chapter called "The Sixties Come Next."

60: The number of cents my father's mass-market paperback copy of Presidential Power cost when he bought it new, in 1961.

My father was an insurance broker in our suburban New Jersey town, high-school educated and involved part time in local government. He'd read an article when Presidential Power was published the previous year saying that John F. Kennedy liked the book, and it turned out my father liked it, too. So did I when he passed it on to me, a high-school freshman and a budding politics buff, a couple of years later. "It's by a political-science professor, but it's a good read," he said. "Lots of good history about Truman and Ike."

I liked the book for the same reason my father did—its solid, suspenseful accounts of Harry S. Truman's confrontation with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower's mostly maladroit dealings with Congress. But JFK and general readers (enough of them to put the original hardcover version of Presidential Power on The New York Times best-seller list for two weeks) weren't the only ones Neu-stadt's book impressed. Political scientists thought a lot of it, too. "Presidential Power is truly one of the great books of political science," said The Journal of Politics in an early, not atypical review, and the book won the American Political Science Association's Woodrow Wilson Award as book of the year.

When I got to college, in 1967, Presidential Power was assigned in the first two poli-sci classes I took—strong evidence of how rapidly the book had come to pervade the grass roots as well as the heights of the discipline. Five years later it was featured in my grad-school seminar on the American presidency as the most important work ever published on the subject.

The reasons most political scientists liked Presidential Power were different from my father's. One was that the book baptized presidential studies into the behavioral movement that had been sweeping the discipline under the World War II generation of political scientists. They had been trained chiefly in the venerable public-law tradition but spent time working in wartime agencies in Washington and concluded that political science needed to refocus on how government works in practice instead of how it works in the statute books. That meant concentrating on how politicians and government officials, voters and interest groups, actually behave.

Neustadt worked for seven years in the Truman administration and then "was 'turfed' out of the White House" after Ike was elected. He started teaching at Columbia University in 1954, and discovered that scholarship on the presidency "seemed to be very remote from what I had experienced." One reason he wrote Presidential Power was "to fill the gap between the academic literature that existed in the middle 50s on the presidency and my experience of it," which was much different from what he disdainfully referred to as the "literary theory of the Constitution" embodied in the book he hoped to topple from the pinnacle of presidential studies: Edward S. Corwin's The President: Office and Powers (1940, and in its fourth edition by 1957).

In particular, Neustadt argued that far from being a powerful office, the presidency is essentially an empty vessel—a glorified "clerkship"—that at any given moment takes the shape of the person who fills it. Whether it is filled ineptly or skillfully was, for him, the vital question. What marked successful modern (that is, post-Franklin D. Roosevelt) presidents was their understanding that "presidential power is the power to persuade," not command. Appealing to reason, to duty, or to loyalty was not what Neustadt meant by persuasion. Instead, "the power to persuade is the power to bargain"—to trade favors or the promise of favors—so that other powerful Washington figures become convinced that "what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their own interest, not his." The emphasis was Neustadt's—he really meant it.

The second reason that political scientists embraced Presidential Power so strongly was that Neustadt's bias toward strong presidential leadership accorded with the leading scholarly opinions of the day. Most postwar political scientists were convinced, as Neustadt was, that the American political system works well only when dominated by an energetic president. "Presidential government," wrote James MacGregor Burns in a typical claim of this era, "far from being a threat to American democracy, has become the major single institution sustaining it—a bulwark of individual liberty, an agency of popular representation, and a magnet for political talent and leadership." When Neustadt argued that "what is good for the country is good for the president, and vice versa," he was squarely in the intellectual mainstream.

Nonetheless, Presidential Power attracted its share of critics. The first to go into print was the political philosopher William T. Bluhm, who complained in his 1965 book, Theories of the Political System, that Neustadt, like Machiavelli, prescribed a "politics of manipulation" divorced from any "conception of the desirable—of the good." Bluhm wrote this not knowing what Neustadt later revealed in a 1985 article: that his preferred title for the book, until his wife talked him out of it, was "Primer for Presidents" because "I wished their aides and friends to read it and to trickle its message up." Not surprisingly, Neustadt reported being jarred when two disgraced former Nixon aides, Jeb Magruder and Gordon Strachan, told him that Presidential Power had been required reading in the Nixon White House. Kennedy-style liberals, it turned out, weren't the only presidents capable of using Neustadt's advice to enhance their power.

A second early line of scholarly criticism was that Neustadt wildly overestimated the amount of persuading and bargaining that a president either could do (an "immense and consistent overloading of his physical and mental apparatus will produce a breakdown in short order," wrote Peter Sperlich in 1969) or needed to do. Far from being Neustadt's "lonely fighter against all others," Sperlich argued, any president can count on support from legions of officeholders based on personal or professional loyalty, shared identification with his party or ideology, and respect for the office's command authority.

In the 70s and 80s, additional criticisms emerged. James David Barber, in his 1972 book, The Presidential Character, agreed with Neustadt that some presidents seek power in order to do good but argued that others are more like Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon: "active-negative" personality types whose pursuit of power is driven more by private demons than by public purposes and who as a consequence invariably crash and burn—at great cost to the country—when their need to dominate is thwarted.

Other lines of criticism from this period took Presidential Power to task for its inside-the-Beltway focus. Neustadt portrayed the president as operating almost entirely within the Washington community, but what about the American people? In the 1980 edition of The State of the Presidency, Thomas E. Cronin, citing the civil-rights movement as Exhibit A, argued that Neustadt's presidential focus was misguided because "history suggests that breakthroughs and leadership often come from the bottom (or at least the middle) up." (Remember the brouhaha when Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested in 2008 that LBJ, more than Martin Luther King, was the major player in enacting civil-rights legislation?) Samuel Kernell, who thought Presidential Power was basically right about politics in the 50s, argued in 1986 that Neustadt's insights had become much less useful by the 70s, when presidents began to de-emphasize behind-the-scenes persuasion in favor of "going public"—that is, regularly using television to go over the heads of Congress to the people, a strategy Kernell described as "more akin to force than to bargaining."

Neustadt, who moved to Harvard in 1965 to help found the John F. Kennedy School of Government, responded to these critics not by revising Presidential Power but by periodically appending new chapters, so much so that the 1990 edition of the book was 371 pages long, more than twice the length of the 1960 original. He gave little ground to critics and surrendered even that grudgingly. In the 1976 edition, for example, Neustadt invoked Woodrow Wilson's substantial 1900 revision of his 15-year-old classic Congressional Government, only to say that he was "eager to emulate [Wilson] but unable to do so." Nothing since 1960, Neu­stadt maintained—not Vietnam, not Watergate, not Johnson's and Nixon's consecutive implosions—"appears to have altered very much the general character of presidential power." In the 1990 version, Neustadt vowed to "persist in the belief expressed in earlier editions of this book—namely, that pursuit of presidential power ... is good for the country as well as for him."

Neustadt stopped revising Presidential Power in 1990, and he died in 2003, but political scientists still read and in various ways honor his book. One way they honor it is by continuing to take it seriously enough to criticize. For example, Neustadt's name pops up 40 times in The Oxford Handbook of the American Presidency, a mammoth new volume edited by George C. Edwards III and William G. Howell, and much of the time it's because a contributing scholar is praising Presidential Power for being pathbreaking before criticizing it as in some important respect wrong.

Recent critics of Presidential Power tend to pursue one of three lines of attack. The title of Howell's 2003 book, Power Without Persuasion, reveals both its theme and its obsession with Neustadt, the father of power with persuasion. "The president alone," Howell argued in an essay a couple years later, "can send troops abroad, renegotiate the terms of a tariff agreement with another country, alter environmental or worker-safety regulations, or revamp civil-rights laws without ever constructing a coalition or holding it together through the legislative process." Undergirding Howell's emphatic claim about the extent and importance of the unilateral power exercised by "even lackluster presidents" are the reams of statistical evidence he offered from the FDR through Clinton administrations.

As if to prove Howell right, George W. Bush came along right after Clinton and, even when unpopular in Congress and the country, governed virtually by fiat—sending the "surge" of more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq in 2007, for instance, after the Democrats had just won the 2006 Congressional elections by demanding withdrawal of the troops who were already there. Barack Obama spent 2009 trying to work closely with Congress, got frustrated with its reluctance to act on environmental, energy, fiscal, and other domestic matters, and changed to an executive-order-heavy governing style in early 2010. (He'd already pocketed and was employing most of Bush's national-security-based claims to unilateral power.)

Howell at least shares with Neustadt a focus on the president—they just disagree about how powerful an individual the president is. In a much-discussed 1993 manifesto, Terry Moe launched a more comprehensive assault. Moe urged scholars "to stop thinking about presidents as people and to start thinking about them generically: as faceless, nameless, institutional actors whose behavior is an institutional product." According to Moe, virtually everything that Neustadt had the president doing—lobbying Congress, making appointments, setting an agenda, framing the budget, and so on—is really done "by aides and specialists in the White House, in the Office of Management and Budget, in the Council of Economic Advisers, in Treasury, and elsewhere." By this reckoning, Corwin and the pre-behavioralists had been right all along when they "abstracted the presidency from the individuals who occupied it and, in so doing, promoted a clear, simple view of what needed to be explained: the institution."

Free-swinging as Moe's critique of Presidential Power was, it too bought into one of Neustadt's most important assumptions—namely, that the modern presidency is different in kind from its pre-FDR predecessor. That's the very thing that set off another of Neustadt's leading contemporary critics, Stephen Skowronek. In his 1993 book, The Politics Presidents Make, Skowronek argued, "The notion of a prior age when presidents did not have to be leaders—an age when vital national interests were only sporadically at the fore and most presidents could rest content with mere clerkship—is nothing more than a conceit of modern times." In truth, according to Skowronek, the president who founds an enduring governing coalition has more in common with the founders of earlier coalitions than with the other presidents of his own era. Want to understand FDR? Don't compare him to Truman or Ike, urged Skowronek—instead, compare him to Andrew Jackson. Want to make sense of Jimmy Carter? Look to Franklin Pierce, who like Carter served in a governing coalition's rapidly fragmenting final days.

But criticizing Presidential Power, as sincere a form of flattery as it is, isn't the only way contemporary scholars pay tribute to Neu­stadt. There's got to be a reason political scientists keep reading, citing, and assigning Presidential Power and why, as Charles O. Jones points out—uncontroversially—it has had "greater effect than any other book about a political institution."

Surely that reason is the sneaking and altogether valid suspicion that those who slight the personal, persuasive aspects of the office do not have a monopoly on truth, and that presidential scholars may be in danger of replacing, as Lawrence R. Jacobs puts it, "one extremism—one that gives nearly exclusive emphasis to the personality of individual presidents—with another (one in which institutions dictate presidential behavior)." The pedigree of scholarship on what Erwin C. Hargrove describes as "the central task of political leadership: How may A persuade B to agree on joint action when their views and stakes are different" dates back at least to Machiavelli. Neustadt's approach is not one to which contemporary political scientists should confine ourselves, but neither is it one we should lightly abandon.

Michael Nelson, a former editor of The Washington Monthly, is a professor of political science at Rhodes College and a senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is co-author, with Sidney M. Milkis, of The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2007 (fifth edition, CQ, 2007).