How do presidents lead? If presidential power is the power to persuade, why is there a lack of evidence of presidential persuasion? George Edwards, one of the leading scholars of the American presidency, skillfully uses this contradiction as a springboard to examineand ultimately challengethe dominant paradigm of presidential leadership. The Strategic President contends that presidents cannot create opportunities for change by persuading others to support their policies. Instead, successful presidents facilitate change by recognizing opportunities and fashioning strategies and tactics to exploit them.
Edwards considers three extraordinary presidentsAbraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reaganand shows that despite their considerable rhetorical skills, the public was unresponsive to their appeals for support. To achieve change, these leaders capitalized on existing public opinion. Edwards then explores the prospects for other presidents to do the same to advance their policies. Turning to Congress, he focuses first on the productive legislative periods of FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Reagan, and finds that these presidents recognized especially favorable conditions for passing their agendas and effectively exploited these circumstances while they lasted. Edwards looks at presidents governing in less auspicious circumstances, and reveals that whatever successes these presidents enjoyed also resulted from the interplay of conditions and the presidents' skills at understanding and exploiting them.
The Strategic President revises the common assumptions of presidential scholarship and presents significant lessons for presidents' basic strategies of governance.
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About the Author
George C. Edwards III is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. His books include Overreach: Leadership in the Obama Presidency (Princeton) and On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit. He is the editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly.
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The Strategic PresidentPersuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership
By GEORGE C. EDWARDS III
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePower as Persuasion
Leadership is perhaps the most commonly employed concept in politics. Politicians, pundits, journalists, and scholars critique and analyze public officials, attributing both success and failure to the quality of their leadership. When times are bad, as people often perceive them to be, the reflexive call is for new-and better-leadership.
The president is the most prominent focus of political leadership in the United States, and the notion of the dominant president who moves the country and the government by means of strong, effective leadership has deep roots in American political culture. Those chief executives whom Americans revere-from Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt-have taken on mythic proportions as leaders. Anecdotes about the remarkable persuasive powers of presidents abound. Often these tales originate with presidential aides or admiring biographers, fed by the hagiography that envelops presidents and distorts both our memories and our critical faculties.
For example, Garry Wills entitled a book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. But did they? The evidence suggests a different conclusion, at least when it came the idea of equality. Recent scholarship has shown that few listeners, including soldiers, commented about his speech, and when the press mentioned Lincoln's words at all, they accorded it second billing to Edward Everett's two-hour official oration. Otherwise, the press typically reduced the address to a sound bite-or worse, as in the memorable words of The Steubenville Weekly Herald: "President Lincoln was there, too." Similarly, the press met the president's words with "virtual editorial silence," although some opposition papers greeted the speech with criticism. In a final, although unintended insult, a number of news reports badly misquoted the president. The Centralia Sentinel in Illinois substituted "Ninety years ago" for "Four score and seven" and heard "conceived in liberty" as "consecrated to freedom."
What about a generational impact? We know that it took a century to realize Lincoln's call for equality, so it seems rather generous to Lincoln to argue that his few sentences at the cemetery dedication remade America. We also know that Lincoln's decency and eloquence did not preclude him from being in danger of losing the election of 1864 until Sherman marched through Georgia. Similarly, the president's own party largely ignored his call in his eloquent second inaugural address for toleration and moderation toward the defeated South. Lincoln was undeniably an extraordinary human being. However, we cannot infer from that fact that public officials and members of the public responded positively to him.
When Ronald Reagan's pollster found that the public overwhelmingly disapproved of the administration's reductions in aid to education, Michael Deaver-the president's longtime public relations guru-arranged for Reagan to make a series of speeches emphasizing quality education. Deaver later gloated to the Wall Street Journal that public approval of the president regarding education "flip-flopped" without any change in policy at all. If public opinion did change as Deaver described, it would indeed have been an impressive performance of presidential persuasion. However, opinion did not change. Deaver was referring to the addresses, including national radio addresses, Reagan delivered in the spring and summer of 1983. Yet in Gallup's August poll, only 31 percent of the public approved how Reagan was handling education.
Similarly, in his memoir of the Reagan years, Deaver reports that the president was distressed about the lack of public support for defense spending. According to Deaver,
Reagan pulled me aside one day; "Mike," he said, "these numbers show you're not doing your job. This is your fault; you gotta get me out of Washington more so I can talk to people about how important this policy is." I did, and he would systematically add his rationale for more military spending to nearly every speech, and eventually his message would get through to the American people.
In fact, however, public opinion on defense spending did not move in the president's direction, as we will see in the next chapter. One does not have to challenge the sincerity of the author's memory to conclude that such commentary contributes to the misunderstanding of the potential of presidential leadership.
Even though both the public and commentators are frequently disillusioned with the performance of individual presidents and recognize that stalemate is common in the political system, Americans eagerly accept what appears to be effective presidential leadership as evidence on which to renew their faith in the potential presidential persuasion to engender change. After all, if presidential leadership works some of the time, why not all of the time?
Leadership as Persuasion
Despite all the attention to leadership, it remains an elusive concept, and there is little consensus even on what leadership is. According to James MacGregor Burns, "Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth." Barbara Kellerman lists ten different definitions of political leadership, as does Gary Yukl.
Writers and commentators employ the term "leadership" to mean just about everything a person who occupies what we often refer to as a position of leadership does-or should do. When we define a term so broadly, however, it loses its utility. Making tough decisions, establishing an administration's priorities, and appointing good people to implement policy are core functions of the presidency. Yet these activities are quite different from, say, obtaining the support of the public, the Congress, or other nations for the president's policies.
George W. Bush liked to say his job was to make tough decisions. He often referred to himself as a "strong leader" in this context, and he made strong leadership the underlying theme of his reelection campaign. The president promoted this perception of his leadership with a tough-guy image, as in his use of provocative language declaring that he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" and his taunting Iraqi insurgents to "bring 'em on."
There is no question that the Constitution and federal laws invest significant discretionary authority in the president. Making decisions and issuing commands are important, and doing them well requires courage, wisdom, and skill. At times, the exercise of unilateral authority may lead to historic changes in the politics and policy of the country. In the extreme case, the president can choose to launch a nuclear attack at his discretion. The consequences would be vast. Most people, however, would not view such an act as one of leadership. In exercising discretionary authority, the president, in effect, acts alone. He does not have to lead. At its core, decision making represents a different dimension of the job of the chief executive than obtaining the support of others.
Persuasion refers to causing others to do something by reasoning, urging, or inducement. Influencing others is central to the conception of leadership of most political scientists. Scholars of the presidency want to know whether the chief executive can affect the output of government by influencing the actions and attitudes of others. In a democracy, we are particularly attuned to efforts to persuade, especially when most potentially significant policy changes require the assent of multiple power holders.
An important element of a chief executive's job may be creating the organizational and personal conditions that promote innovative thinking, the frank and open presentation and analysis of alternatives, and effective implementation of decisions by advisers and members of the bureaucracy. We may reasonably view such actions as leadership, and there is no doubt that the processes of decision making and policy implementation are critical to governing. For purposes of this book, however, I focus on leadership of those who are not directly on the president's team and who are thus less obligated to support his initiatives.
Richard Neustadt and the Power to Persuade
Perhaps the best-known dictum regarding the American presidency is that "presidential power is the power to persuade." It is the wonderfully felicitous phrase that captures the essence Richard Neustadt's argument in Presidential Power. For half a century, scholars and students-and many presidents-have viewed the presidency through the lens of Neustadt's core premise.
Neustadt provided scholars with a new orientation to the study of the presidency. Published in 1960, his framework was strikingly different from those of Edward S. Corwin and Clinton Rossiter that had dominated presidential scholarship. These differences were to have important consequences for the way many scholars would examine the presidency over the ensuing decades, as the emphasis on persuasion encouraged moving beyond Corwin's focus on the formal powers of the presidency and Rossiter's stress on roles. In Neustadt's words, "'powers' are no guarantee of power" and "[t]he probabilities of power do not derive from the literary theory of the Constitution." Power, then, is a function of personal politics rather than of formal authority or position. Neustadt placed people and politics in the center of research, and the core activity on which he focused was leadership. Indeed, the subtitle of Presidential Power is The Politics of Leadership. In essence, presidential leadership was the power to persuade.
Following Neustadt's lead, scholars began to study the people within institutions and their relationships with each other rather than to focus primarily on the institutions themselves and their formalities. It was not the roles of the president but the performance of those roles that mattered. It was not the boundaries of behavior but the actions within those boundaries that warranted the attention of scholars. In other words, scholars began to study presidents attempting to lead by persuading others to follow them. The president's need to exercise influence in several arenas led those who follow Neustadt's power perspective to adopt an expansive view of presidential politics that includes both governmental institutions and actors, such as the Congress, bureaucracy, and White House staff, and those outside of government, such as the public, the press, and interest groups.
Two critical premises follow from Neustadt's argument that presidential power is the power to persuade. Both have had a powerful impact on studying the presidency. The first stems from the fact that power is a concept that involves relationships between people. By focusing on relationships and suggesting why people respond to the president as they do, Neustadt shifted us into a more analytical mode. To understand relationships, we must explain behavior.
Equally important, Neustadt was concerned with the strategic level of power:
There are two ways to study "presidential power." One way is to focus on the tactics ... of influencing certain men in given situations.... The other way is to step back from tactics on those "givens" and to deal with influence in more strategic terms: what is its nature and what are its sources? ... Strategically, [for example] the question is not how he masters Congress in a peculiar instance, but what he does to boost his chance for mastery in any instance.
Neustadt, then, was less interested in what causes something to happen in one instance than in what affects the probabilities of something happening in every instance. To think strategically about power, we must search for generalizations and calculate probabilities. Although he employed neither the language nor the methods of modern social science, Neustadt was clearly a forerunner. His emphasis on reaching generalizations about presidential power discouraged ad hoc explanations and may have been his greatest contribution of all.
The emphasis on explaining relationships has had a positive impact on studying the presidency. Less benign has been the impact of a second implicit proposition. There is an important a prescriptive element in Presidential Power. Neustadt's central motivation for writing the book was to offer advice to presidents to help them help themselves with their strategic problem of power, and he remained interested in the challenges of governing. Indeed, tying scholarship to governing is important, because-entertainment value aside-governing is the primary reason we study politics. Underlying his effort to aid presidents in leading was Neustadt's premise that they could succeed in persuading others if they were skilled enough at recognizing and protecting their interests and exploiting critical resources.
The view that presidents not only need to persuade but that they can do so has led scholars, commentators, and other observers of the presidency to focus on the question of how presidents persuade rather than the more fundamental question of whether they can do so. In addition, Neustadt's emphasis on the personal in politics-and the potential success of persuasion-has led some scholars to overlook the importance of the context in which the president operates as well as his institutional setting. Ironically, this focus has also discouraged reaching generalizations about the strategic level of power.
It would be unfair to argue that Neustadt had erected an impediment to understanding the broader patterns of presidential influence. His emphasis on the person in the office certainly discouraged it, however, especially among the less discerning of his readers. Similarly, many scholars and other commentators on the presidency have fallen prey to the personalization of politics and have uncritically accepted, for example, an exaggerated concept of the potential for using the "bully pulpit" to go public.
Presidential Power has remained the most influential, and most admired, book on the American presidency-and for good reason. Its focus on the influence relationships of presidents was a critical intellectual breakthrough that forced us to broaden and clarify our thinking and encouraged us to emphasize explanation and generalization in our research. Yet we must not assume the power to persuade. Instead, we need to explore the basic premises of presidential leadership.
Although Neustadt encouraged the belief that presidential persuasion was possible, he began with the premise that presidents would have to struggle to get their way. As he put it, "The power to persuade is the power to bargain." Indeed, it was the inherent weakness of the presidency that made it necessary for presidents to understand how to use their resources most effectively. Not everyone has such restrained views of leaders, however.
A common premise underlying the widespread emphasis on political leadership as the wellspring of change is that some leaders have the capability to transform policy by reshaping the influences on it. Such "transformational" leadership is the holy grail of leadership studies. An Internet search of the phrase "transformational leadership" will quickly produce more than a million hits. Web sites, institutes, and research studies focus on understanding-and teaching-the principles of transformational leadership.
With so much attention on transformational leadership, there is no consensus definition of the concept. The most prominent advocate of transformational leadership is James MacGregor Burns. The essence of Burns's concept of transformation is elevating moral leadership, transforming both the leaders and the led. This change, in turn, leads to fundamental and comprehensive change in society, values, and political structures. In his work on leadership, Burns focuses more on the goals of leadership than on democratic political leaders actually leading.
Excerpted from The Strategic President by GEORGE C. EDWARDS III Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsPreface ix
CHAPTER 1: Power as Persuasion 1
CHAPTER 2: Leading the Public: Best Test Cases 19
CHAPTER 3: Leading the Public: Exploiting Existing Opinion 61
CHAPTER 4: Leading Congress: Best Test Cases 110
CHAPTER 5: Leading Congress: Less Favorable Contexts 152
CHAPTER 6: Reassessing Leadership 188
What People are Saying About This
The Strategic President speaks to all those who still believe in the magic of presidential leadership and who still put their faith in the power of political persuasion. The book is everything we have come to expect from George Edwards: strong, clear, consistent, and sober. Taking on the great leaders as well as the mediocre ones, Edwards shows that context determines the boundaries of possibility, and that the skills needed to get things done are those that address the situation as it is and exploit what opportunities it affords.
Stephen Skowronek, Yale University
The Strategic President makes explicit an underlying theme of George Edwards's long and illustrious career: presidents exercise influence not through persuasion, but instead through the exploitation of political opportunities not of their making. For Edwards, facilitation, rather than transformation, establishes the foundation of presidential power. This important book challenges the dominant conception of power that has preoccupied presidential studies for decades, just as the book invites altogether new thinking about how and when presidents can effect change in a system of governance that all too often appears stacked against them.
William Howell, University of Chicago
George Edwards is the dean of presidency scholars, and this book shows us why. Presidential studies usually narrate the tale of how a president obtained office, recognized a major problem, mobilized public opinion, persuaded Congress, and transformed the policy and political arena. Edwards establishes how little evidence there is for any of these propositions, and does so using the most difficult cases. This book will fundamentally change the way political scientists and the Washington community think about presidential power.
Richard Pious, Barnard College, Columbia University
"The Strategic President makes explicit an underlying theme of George Edwards's long and illustrious career: presidents exercise influence not through persuasion, but instead through the exploitation of political opportunities not of their making. For Edwards, facilitation, rather than transformation, establishes the foundation of presidential power. This important book challenges the dominant conception of power that has preoccupied presidential studies for decades, just as the book invites altogether new thinking about how and when presidents can effect change in a system of governance that all too often appears stacked against them."William Howell, University of Chicago