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Sunday, June 23, 2013

On Neustadt's gold standard for presidential power

I am nearing the end of the chapters comprising the original edition of Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents (originally focused on the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower, later much expanded).  The original edition is in large part a close study of two failures in presidential decision-making: Truman letting his policy in Korea be shaped by MacArthur's military overreach, and Eisenhower failing to resolve internal splits in his administration over budget policy, and therefore appearing several times over the course of a year to contradict his own prior policies and pronouncements.

The basic premise is that almost nothing happens simply because the president decrees that it should: presidential power depends on convincing a multitude of individuals and constituencies that the president has the ability to help or harm them.  There is a chicken-egg aspect to this: the president convinces people of his power when things that he says will or should happen do in fact happen, and when the results are in line with his stated goals or expectations.  That means being highly alert to the human, interpersonal factors that can undermine both policy decision-making and execution - for example, a rift between budget director and Treasury secretary, or military brass unwilling to cross a legendary general in the field. The requisite alertness can only come from a president developing his own back-channel information network: he (or someday she, as Neustadt enthusiastically adds in a latter-day preface) must constantly be gathering such intelligence from a multitude of sources.

This all seems solid information as far as it goes, derived from Neustadt's personal experience in government as well as by talking to a lot of people in government. And yet, toward the end of the original edition, the thesis is nailed down by means that make a bit wary on structural grounds.

As I mentioned, the book is basically a study of instances of instances of major failure on the part of Truman and Eisenhower -- instances in which they both failed to develop effective policy and undermined their own credibility (though Neustadt is careful to signal that these close-ups don't imply overall judgment of either presidency). Who, then, could succeed where these two formidable men failed? The ideal is supplied close to the end:
No President has been more conscious of those needs [to set long-term priorities amid the crush of daily demands and crises] than Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt can be criticized on many grounds, but least of all for failure to protect his personal power stakes in his own acts of choice. As Arthur Schlesinger reports:
The first task of an executive, as he evidently saw it, was to guarantee himself an effective flow of information and ideas....Roosevelt's persistent effort therefore was to check and balance information acquired through official channels by information acquired through a myriad of private, informal, and unorthodox channels and espionage networks. At times, he seemed almost to pit his personal sources against his public sources. 
...The essence of Roosevelt's technique for information gathering was competition. "He would call you in," on e of his aides once told me, "and he'd ask you to get the story on some complicated business, and you'd come back after a couple of days of hard labor and present the juicy morsel you'd uncovered under a stone somewhere, and then you'd find out he knew all about it, along with something else you didn't know. Where he got his information from he wouldn't mention, usually, but after he had done this to you once or twice you got damn careful about your information" (pp 131-132, 1990 edition).
I do not doubt that Roosevelt operated this way, or that he was a master of working the levers of power --nor, really, that in the instances of presidential failure that Neustadt spotlights, that the process of gathering information and making decisions broke down in much the way he describes. And yet, the narrative structure, as it were -- two latter-day heirs to the throne who did not quite measure up to the Great King -- makes me a little suspicious. One sketched-in premise is that Eisenhower imported the military's command structure, which was less sensitive and complex than Roosevelt's; another is that he was disengaged, especially after his heart attack.  Rightly or wrongly, Ambrose's biography of Eisenhower challenges both premises (though I'll confess I'm drawing on a 15 year-old reading memory here). And Roosevelt, for all his mastery, certainly made his share of errant and even politically disastrous decisions (e.g., the court-packing of 1937) that probably could have sustained the same kind of failed-case study on which Presidential Power is built.

All that said, this Rooseveltian denouement gave me a little chill as I recalled Rep. John Dingell's recent one-sentence assessment of Obama (in an interview on the occasion of Dingell becoming the longest-serving Congressman ever): "“He’s a good president, but he’s probably got the smallest Rolodex of anybody who’s ever hit this town.”

But in a way that's just the point. Any narrative that sets up a Goofus/Gallant contrast invites you to view everyone in a given cohort in terms of a particular cardinal virtue.  Obama certainly has his own strengths when it comes to reading people, eliciting their views, stepping in their shoes.  Roosevelt had his own weaknesses in management -- not least that when he died, no one knew what he'd intended in some key instances.  This is not to say that judgments or relative assessments are impossible, or that Neustadt's favored presidential quality is not a crucial one -- or even that he oversells the centrality of the abilities he spotlights.  Just that this, too, is a partial criterion and a partial judgment.

Update: maybe writing about a book before you've finished really is a little stupid, but that's blogging. The chapter I had just started when writing the above offered detailed portraits of the operating styles of the three presidents discussed.  As indicated above, in Neustadt's view the hierarchy is clear: FDR was the master, Eisenhower had no idea how to conserve and deploy the power of the presidency, and Truman was a mixed bag in the middle  -- astute in his personal interactions, possessing a keen sense of the office's proper function, but almost fetchingly oblivious to his own personal power stakes and too willing to defer to generals in particular.  I suspect -- probably simply because Ambrose and others got to me first -- that Neustadt underestimates Eisenhower engagement in policy and ability to steer toward his long-term goals. On the other hand his portrait of Truman, whom he served personally, seems brilliantly nuanced in short space.  And FDR perhaps really was a master of political process and the assertion of personal authority unmatched in the 20 and 21st centuries.

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