Even after a major push by the Obama Administration this past week, the major news outlets led today with the following:
Suggesting an uphill fight for President Barack Obama, House members staking out positions are either opposed to or leaning against his plan for a U.S. military strike against Syria by more than a 6-1 margin, a survey by The Associated Press shows. The Senate is more evenly divided ahead of its vote next week.
The report also noted that:
After a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, polls have shown Americans consistently oppose intervention in Syria, a fact Obama acknowledged after meeting fellow leaders of the leading rich and developing nations Friday.
The President’s recent difficulty in rousing support for the Syrian strike seems an excellent occasion to contemplate the nature (and limits) of presidential leadership from the Political Science literature.
The way students of American politics have understood presidential leadership has evolved over time. Early literature focused on the formal powers of the presidency as the source of presidential leadership. Later scholars, following Neustadt (1960), began to assert that the president’s real power consisted in the power to persuade. This conceptual shift engendered a corresponding emphasis on the personal capacities of individual presidents to inspire confidence, induce action, and strike bargains. More recently, however, understanding of presidential leadership has shifted yet again. After briefly revisiting Neustadt, this post will highlight two such works: Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make (1997), which presents presidential leadership as a function of nested agency, and Edwards’ The Strategic Presidency (2009), which poses a serious challenge to the notion that presidents even possess the power to persuade.
The Neustadt Thesis
Richard Neustadt’s 1960 Presidential Power is an oft-cited classic in America politics and most famous for the proposition that presidential power is the “power to persuade.” Neustadt’s work presented detailed analyses of presidential leadership. In each case he argued compellingly that the heart of presidential leadership lay not in the president’s formal powers of command, but in his ability to elicit compliance with his wishes without recourse to the cumbersome exercise of formal powers. Neustadt presents, for example, Truman’s firing of General MacArthur or seizing of steel mills in the 1950’s as a costly exercise of formal power resulting from a failure by the president to direct the actions of the headstrong general or orchestrate a settlement between steel industry management and labor. He then presents instances where the president was able through effective communication and bargaining to sway others to follow his lead.
One of the sources of the modern president’s persuasiveness, suggested Neustadt, is his ability to draw support from the national electorate through direct appeals which he can then leverage against other political actors. This thread is picked up and explored by Kernell in Going Public (1997), who suggests that this strategy of going over the heads of Congress to appeal to the mass public bypasses “internal mechanisms of exchange” which may alienate potentially vital bargaining partners within Congress. Kernell argues that not only is the emergence of such a practice a sign of deinstitutionalization of our representative political system, but is likely to benefit the president only when he or she is very popular.
The Skowronek Model
Skowronek, in The Politics Presidents Make (1997) presents a nested account of presidential leadership. Rather than simply reflecting a president’s own personal capacities, presidential leadership should be understood as interplay between several contextual factors. Presidents come to office, argues Skowronek, either opposed to the previously established regime or by affiliation with it. Transitions of power are inherently disruptive and the established regime is either vulnerable to collapse or resilient, depending upon public support for its ideological commitments. Each possible combination places the incoming president in a different posture, which in turn determines the “political impact of the leadership projects presidents undertake” (Skowronek 1997). Thus, presidential leadership is a matter of structure and agency in tandem.
“In the first cell of the typology,” says Skowronek, “the president heralds from the opposition to the previously established regime, and pre-established commitments of ideology and interest have, in the course of events, become vulnerable to direct repudiation as failed or irrelevant responses to the problems of the day.” The presidencies of Jackson, Lincoln, and FDR can be so categorized. These presidents, engaged in what Skowronek calls the politics of reconstruction, “each set out to retrieve from a far distant, even mythic, past fundamental values that they claimed had been lost in the indulgences of the received order.” While there is nothing to suggest that these were inherently great men or that they were particularly adept at solving the nation’s problems—Skowronek gives several examples of failure to illustrate—they are distinct primarily because of their wide latitude for independent action, afforded by their relationship to the previous governing coalition.
Sometimes however, presidents arrive in office affiliated with rather than in opposition to a vulnerable regime. These presidents are engaged in what Skowronek calls the politics of disjunction. He cites John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Pierce, Buchanan, Hoover, and Carter as examples. Such figures, rising to power by aligning themselves with ideological commitments increasingly viewed as bankrupt, find themselves in an unenviable position: “To affirm previously established commitments is to stigmatize oneself as a symptom of the nation’s problems and the premier symbol of systemic political failure; to repudiate them is to become isolated from one’s most natural political allies and to be rendered impotent.” Hence, the apparent weakness or failure of such presidents in American history may not necessary tell us very much about their personal leadership qualities—it is quite plausible on this view that some individuals with exceptional leadership qualities simply found themselves in circumstances under which failure was all but inevitable.
Next, some presidents rise to office by affiliation with a previously established regime which remains resilient. Such figures as Monroe, Polk, TR, and LBJ, says Skowronek, operate according to the politics of articulation. These “orthodox-innovators” operate in office both constrained by previous commitments and empowered by the presently vital coalition with which they are aligned.
These presidents cast their leadership as wholly constructive rearticulations of the received orthodoxy; no one and nothing of significance was to be repudiated. In giving full vent to the fully affirmative course, their impact on national politics proved to be as profound as that of the opposition leaders who have founded new political orders by repudiating past commitments outright.
Notably, Polk, TR, and LBJ each declined reelection opportunities, perhaps signaling “that power would be, or was, exercised selflessly in genuine service to the regime.”
In the last cell of Skowronek’s typology a president rises to office in opposition to a resilient regime. This is called the politics of preemption and describes the presidencies of Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Wilson, and Nixon. “Like all opposition leaders, these presidents have the freedom of their independence from established commitments, but unlike presidents in a politics of reconstruction, their repudiative authority is manifestly limited by the political, institutional, and ideological support that the old establishment maintains.” This category may be the most dependent on the personal leadership characteristics of the president as well as the more specific vagaries of the circumstances.
What Skowronek’s typology suggests is that there are clear patterns of contextual circumstances that may explain a good deal of the variation in presidential leadership. Indeed, much of what is historically ascribed to the personal leadership qualities may owe a great deal more to the structural context in which the figure operated and much of what is deemed leadership style may constitute fairly predictable responses to those contexts. While not denying a role for individual agency, this perspective offers a more nuanced view of the impact of presidential leadership than some of the more personalized accounts of the Neustadt school. To be clear, Skowronek does not appear to suggest that personal traits do not matter. On the contrary, the personal contributions of presidents cannot be truly understood without an appreciation of the institutional contexts in which they operate.
Presidential Leadership and the Capacity to Persuade
If presidential leadership does matter, the question arises as to how it matters. Of course the Neustadt thesis asserts that presidents lead primarily through persuasion. This persuasion means in part moving public opinion. Successful presidents, under this view, are those that can move opinion in support of their policies. Edwards’ The Strategic President (2009) asks whether presidents are the opinion leaders which they are commonly assumed to be. Can some presidents drive public opinion in their favor? Edwards says no. He examines three of the strongest historical cases of presidential persuasion—Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan—and finds each one wanting.
These three figures, argues Edwards, were facilitators playing the hand they were dealt. In the case of Lincoln, the war was thrust upon him by rebellious secessionists, and emancipation was a strategic decision only undertaken once he was sure the public would support the move. Edwards’ review of the record shows that FDR was eager to engage in WWII but could not move an isolationist public in his favor and had to rely on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to bring the public around. By the early Reagan administration, polls showed a public that was already turning in opposition to Reagan’s proposed budget cuts. Reagan was able to pass his agenda in Congress despite his lack of public support not because of it. What each of these cases is supposed to demonstrate is that the president cannot move public opinion independent of events, and the president can only carry his agenda through bargaining with elites.
Of course, while Edwards does expose serious problems with the assumption that presidents move public opinion in the strongest sense, there are a couple of reasons why Edwards’ case is not conclusive on the point. First, Edwards does not tackle framing effects on public opinion. It might be that considerable indirect persuasion takes place by co-opting an oppositions’ argument or emphasizing certain factors to the exclusion of others. Successfully re-characterizing an issue as one of ‘national security’ or ‘humanitarian’ might often etiolate substantial opposition by re-conceptualizing the issue as one in which only one conclusion is morally (or practically) tenable. Second, much of Edwards’ evidence about public opinion depends on responses to polls which themselves are susceptible to framing effects and issue salience. Moreover, the dichotomous nature of many polling questions do not allow for the expression of weak or highly nuanced opinions. For many reasons therefore, the polls may not be capturing the sincere or stable opinions of members of the voting public (cf. Zaller 1992).
It appears that Neustadt gave us a more nuanced perspective of presidential leadership than he inherited. Since 1960, much academic literature on the presidency has been in response to Neustadt, affirming him at points, but also calling into question the completeness of his portrait of presidential leadership. Our two authors together ask us to consider the context of presidential leadership as well as the nature and extent of the president’s persuasive ability.
Here’s a good question to ponder: Where does Obama fit in Skowronek’s presidential typology and why?