Thursday, July 21, 2011


Ezra Klein's post yesterday on what he called "the paradox of presidential leadership" made a strong case, with which I agree, that going public is apt to be counterproductive in an era in which the out party demonizes the president and demonizes compromise.

Klein refers to Richard Neustadt, however, and I do want to clarify Neustadt's idea of presidential persuasion. It's not, or at least not primarily, about what Klein describes as Washington's idea of persuasion, which is "taking strong positions, giving speeches, getting out on the campaign trail and forcefully making your case." I think a nice long quote from Neustadt is in order:
The separateness of institutions and the sharing of authority prescribe the terms on which a President persuades. When one man shares authority with another, but does not gain or lose his job upon the other's whim, his willingness to act upon the urging of the other turns on whether he conceives the action right for him. The essence of a President's persuasive task is to convince such men that what the White House wants of them is what they ought to do for their sake and on their authority...
Persuasive power, thus defined, amounts to more than charm or reasoned argument. These have their uses for a President, but these are not the whole of his resources. For the individuals he would induce to do what he wants done on their responsibility will need or fear some actds by him on his responsibility. If they share in his authority, he has some share in theirs. Presidential "powers" may be inconclusive when a President commands, but always remain relevant as he persuades...
A President's authority and status give him great advantages in dealing with the men he would persuade. Each "power" is a vantage point for him in the degree that other men have use for his authority. From the veto to appointments, from publicity to budgeting, and so down a long list, the White House now controls the most encompassing array of vantage points in the American political system. With hardly an exception, those who share in governing this country are aware that at some time, in some degree, the doing of their jobs, the furthering of their ambitions, may depend on the President of the United States. [His emphasis]
OK, what does that all mean? For Neustadt, "persuasion" is about transactions; it's about bargaining, in which the president has considerable advantages. It is not, and certainly not primarily, about what he calls "charm and reasoned argument." It's not, that is, about convincing anyone to agree about some subject; it's about convincing others to agree to do something, generally because he can align their self-interest with doing so. In order to do that, presidents may try using "charm and reasoned argument." They may try using what Neustadt calls status; Newt Gingrich, reportedly, used to go all weak in the knees when he stepped into the Oval Office. But most of all, for Neustadt, a president can use his "vantage points"  -- the many, many, bargaining chips that the modern presidency give him.

Note too that it's transactions between Washingtonians. Constituents aren't irrelevant; they have interests, and all Washingtonians with constituents must try to represent those interests, and presidents can use that to their advantage. Constituents, too, may like or dislike the president, and if a Member of Congress knows that the president is popular in her district, or an interest group leader knows the president is popular with the membership, she may be more disposed to go along with what he wants (what Neustadt calls "leeway"). Figuring out how to do that in a polarized era, in which many Republican Members believe that their constituents will on principle hate any deal with the Kenyan socialist president, is certainly a challenge that Eisenhower and Truman never had to deal with. There is, to be sure, plenty of room for argument about how well Barack Obama is handling that particular challenge.

But as far as "giving speeches, getting out on the campaign trail and forcefully making your case" is concerned: that's not persuasion as Neustadt understands it. His political system (and he's of course writing in the late 1950s) doesn't feature constituents who pay attention to such things, and if they don't pay attention they aren't going to be convinced of the president's views, and they aren't going to put pressure on their representatives to go along.

Of course, presidents have in fact done what political scientists call "going public" -- trying to win arguments in Washington by enlisting ordinary citizens. There's some evidence that, at least in some circumstances, it can work. In my view, however, it's unlikely to be anything more than, at best, a small additional weapon in a president's arsenal. Which is basically what Klein argued in his post.

Either way, however, I think it is important to remember that Neustadt's "persuasion" wasn't about convincing people who think one thing about public policy to reconsider and decide to think something else. It's about finding ways to maneuver their self-interest so that they'll agree to do what the president wants them to do, with as little cost to the president as possible. Skill in doing so, for Neustadt, both makes a president powerful and, as a side-benefit, produces good public policy. So it's terribly important that presidents realize what game they're playing, and get really good at it.


  1. This topic fascinates me. Are there any good examples of when a president has used Neustadian persuasion to pass his agenda? Or is this persuasion necessarily so subtle and behind-the-scenes that it never makes it into the historical narrative?

  2. Wow, Neustadt's prose is dated. It's hard to read with so much parallelism:

    "What the White House wants of them is what they ought to do..."
    [Better: "they ought to do what the White House wants..."]

    "the individuals he would induce to do what he wants done on their responsibility will need or fear some acts by him on his responsibility"
    [Better: "when he wants people to use their responsibility, they will need or fear some acts by him"]

    "If they share in his authority, he has some share in theirs"
    [Better: omitted.]

    Anyway, I like your gloss.

  3. "dated" is an odd euphemism for "horrible", no?

    Worst written classic, ever. The sentences are very, very bad, but what's even worse is his habit of attaching counterintuitive, obscure, or just mysterious names to his concepts. "Vantage points"?

  4. Exactly right, but this is where Obama has been a consistent failure.

    I've been saying this since the New Hampshire primaries. Obama just needed to call AFSCME and say "What will it take for you to drop HRC." At that point, her entire camapign was just union staffers. One call like that would have gutted her.

    Also true with health care (call Ben Nelson and tell him that Obama will destroy him unless he goes along) and a host of other issues.

    I'd be curious to know if Obama has read any of the "great" books on presidents or politicians. I don't think he thinks of himself as one.

  5. I had said "dated and awful", and I guess I should have stuck with that. You know why it strikes me as awful....the datedness comes through in its repeated use of "men" instead of "people" or "public officials".

    I think he meant "vantage points" to abbreviate "points of advantage", but that's no excuse for the idiosyncratic terminology.

  6. I tend to agree with charlie. "Charm and reasoned argument," and even "convincing people who think one thing about public policy to reconsider," aren't exactly straw men, but close -- they're not descriptions of what activists unhappy with Obama think he should be doing. What they mainly want is to see him acting more like a party or movement leader and raising the price for noncooperation with him/us, both on the opposition adn on the sticks in the mud within his own coalition. It does beggar belief that there was no more he could do about problems like Ben Nelson than he was already doing, and I remain deeply unconvinced that when he was newly in office, with 66% approval ratings and people terrified of a second Great Depression, he couldn't have done a few televised fireside chats and explained very simple concepts like the "output gap" and why it requires more federal spending. For a guy who was a teacher and community organizer, and who labored to make his presidential campaign look like a movement, he seems amazingly willing to settle for "leading from behind," as one of his aides put it.

  7. @Jeff; I think that he background is as a "community organizer" is exactly the problem. Those are the guys who lead from behind. But combine that with his 1980s view that "bipartisan" is what people want, and you've got a toxic combination.

    Completely understand that as an angry black man, Obama would do nothing. But I think his background in the state senate might be also apart of why he is so afraid of being a partisan.

  8. Interesting point, charlie, I hadn't thought about community organizing that way, but I can see what you mean. As to the angry-black-man problem, I think he's overcompensating. Americans want presidents who will get angry on their behalf at the forces that threaten to make their lives worse.

    That said, Obama's apparently polling better than any president in history relative to the level of public discontent over the economy, according to the latest Gallup report. So maybe the appearance of unflappable reasonableness works for him at some level.

  9. The reason Obama got my vote in '08, was that he seemed to be the most sensitive, articulate, and wise Presidential candidate we had seen in decades ... and I don't think I was the only one.

    I am getting inclined to conspiracy theories when I contemplate how that candidate has disappeared since January '09. There's been a flash or two of it, he turned it on for his Middle East speech in '09 and for his speech on health care later in the year ... which makes the total evaporation of that sensitive, articulate candidate even more strange. I can get on an intellectual level that he has internalized the lesson of never being an angry black man, yet how can he be so blind on his own strongest talents and how to use them to his advantage?

  10. One challenge for Obama is that, post-WJC, there really aren't liberals anymore, at least not in the sense of voting blocks on which politicians rely to push memes. Those who previously played those roles on the left, such as faux-socialists and big labor, have been replaced by neo-capitalists who distinguish from conservatives by favoring government to catch the fallen, as opposed to private avenues favored by Dubya-types. Is that a distinction on which Obama can hang his hat?

    It wasn't pushing a Democratic issue, but Obama's speech after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting was as powerful and moving as any you'll see from a politician, particularly the tear-jerking part about little Christina Taylor-Green. He unfortunately picked up very few chits that night, but no doubt he knows that as well as you, and probably privately thinks to himself that even the best gardener will struggle with rocky soil, which somewhat describes Obama's predicament.

  11. Just to tie my last comment to the open, Obama's Giffords speech was obviously an example of 'going public', and as was discussed above, he made very little headway in that, even with an immensely impressive speech. If his goal was decreasing the availability of automatic weapons, he'd have been better off pressing his 'vantage points'.

    In this case, though, what are said 'vantage points' if not enlisting his reliable interlocutors to push his argument and raise a crescendo his opponents cannot ignore? Who are said interlocutors on the left anymore? I suppose Obama could spend his chips in a horse trading fashion ("give me your assault weapon ban vote and I'll give you pork"), but in that case, why bother with the speech at all?

    Here's a pertinent question for liberals: if a Rawlsian model of distributive justice (i.e. inequality in outcomes is tolerable as long as everyone is at least somewhat better off) naturally occurred in a capitalist system, absent government intervention, would you then be a conservative? Not wolf-face crazy Fox-News type conservative, more like classic, old-school Burkean-type conservative. My guess is that many American liberals these days would answer yes.

    If I'm right about that, then a 21st century Democrat President is like a general leading a relatively non-committal army. Who knows, maybe something like the proliferation of information technology will push our democracy naturally in the direction of Rawls' ideal. If so, I suspect Obama, or whoever leads the Democrats, would have a whole lot of trouble on their hands.

  12. Argghhh...Just popping in to say that I wish I had time to participate in this discussion, but it's not gonna happen. Oh well. As I've said before, even when I don't respond I'm still able to read every single comment, usually very soon after they're posted.

    Maybe I'll have time to re-engage in this one over the weekend, if anyone is still looking at it.

  13. Hmm. I think that CSH's model worked well in the last 10 years, but there isn't a rising tide right now, and a lot of boats aren't being floated. Consistent 10-15% unemployment is hard to live with.

  14. Charlie, thanks for taking up my argument. IMHO, only the most delusional right wing media consumer would think that the US currently meets Rawls' standard of distributive justice. For the unemployment reason you mention, plus a million other data points reflecting the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer, the US pretty objectively fails Rawls' test.

    And perhaps we always will, as reflected by the accumulation of power among the haves in society. But maybe not. Not to get all Andrew Sullivan, but perhaps the democratization of information will be an avenue for the disenfranchised to re-assert their interests, which could result in the US moving back in the direction of Rawls' ideal.

    I find this an interesting idea, because if it is true, as I suspect, that a more Rawlsian society would convince many liberals that their work is mostly finished, thus converting them to (classic) conservatives, well the thing about Rawls' model is: it enshrines inequality. A kinder, gentler inequality than the kind you see in the US today, but inequality nonetheless.

    Conservatives never had a problem with inequality. But the old reliable left-wing movers, such as big labor and the pseudo-socialists, stood athwart inequality, even of the benign Rawls variety. As a result, the US has a different left than it had 40 years ago. Arguably, a somewhat weaker left. Those are the cards Obama is forced to play, not an entirely easy task, it seems to me.


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