Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Q Day 5: Presidential Persuasion

Bill Harshaw asks:
Okay, you aren't on board with shmoozing as being important for a President, how about good ole Texas style arm-twisting a la LBJ? Or has that gone out the window with the pork barrel?
Presidents should attempt to use whatever they can to persuade, whether their targets are interest groups, Members of Congress, bureaucrats, leaders of foreign nations, party leaders, whoever.

What Neustadt says, more or less, is that substance mostly trumps style. Presidents usually don't persuade by badgering, bullying, sweet-talking, or befriending. Yes, those things can help. Perhaps a related point Neustadt does mention is something that Newt Gingrich has talked about, which is that just walking in to the Oval Office can be intimidating. They aren't the main tool.

In the long run, presidents persuade best by changing incentives or by finding something to trade that the target wants. Now, it's possible that what a Member of Congress might really want is to hang out with the president! Or, say, a Member might really care about being on the invitation list for a state dinner, perhaps because that's what it's going to take to make his or her spouse happy. But that's not really about making a transaction easier by establishing a smoother relationship, is it? What it is about, and what LBJ was really good at, is figuring out just what each Member of Congress (or bureaucrat, or governor) really wants. That takes political instinct, but it mostly takes information. Or, perhaps, a combination; it takes constantly seeking out information and having good instincts for what information is helpful -- for learning to see everything as a potential bargaining chip and knowing how to use it.

Remember, with Johnson, his bullying style may well have won him some victories, but it also made him enemies, and may well in the end made it harder for him to learn things he needed to know, whether on implementation of Great Society programs or, of course, on Vietnam.

And that's only on the bargaining part of things. I do think it's important -- but the bargaining president model shortchanges the overall political context. It's certainly easier for Obama to convince the 111th Congress to do something than the 113th Congress, no matter how skilled he might be.

So, sure, reading people and knowing how to adapt during negotiations, whether it's to turn on the charm or turn on the bully, is a useful skill for a president. It's just real easy, in my view, to overrate it.


  1. Bill Clinton had a knack for getting the Republicans to propose ideas that he liked, or for stealing their ideas, depending on how you look at it. Certainly in his debate with GHW and Ross Perot, he campaigned as a man with an open mind.

    When Obama tried the same trick, he couldn't pull it off quite as well. Maybe Bill was better at protesting too much.

    1. That wasn't Obama's lack of persuasiveness. It was a deliberate decision by Republicans to oppose everything he proposed. Just look at the number of bills they now oppose that Republicans once originated. In the past Congress, some Republicans even voted against bills they sponsored because Obama supported them.


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