John Hinrichs

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The president of the United States is the most powerful person on the face of the earth. Although the average American inattentively appraises presidential leadership, the president’s standing and legacy depends upon our consensus. Richard Neustadt uses case studies; these cases emphasize presidential weaknesses caused by information shared in presidential bargaining.i While Neustadt believes in bargaining reminiscent of FDR, Samuel Kernell writes about “going public” and declares “…the ultimate object of the president’s designs is not the American voter, but fellow politicians in Washington.”ii The treacherous political environment encourages modern presidents to employ a hybrid of bargaining and going public for securing endorsements from fellow politicians and Americans.

Political Leadership

The president has to do more than talk a good game. Usually events outside a president’s control create a plan rather than presidential rhetoric. Presidents want their policies to be viable. In order to lead the president has to work Congress. He does not have to conquer Congress; he needs them to see his insights for governing. The president bargains with Congress so that necessary legislation will be passed in accordance with his vision, looking toward tomorrow from today. As the ultimate leader, the president bears the responsibility for policies enacted.

The public expects great achievements, but the political system is full of snares. Just because he was a good campaigner is not a guarantee that he will be a good governor. No part of the government at any level equips a man to be president. The first one hundred days in office provides the president with opportunities. The president surely wants to find out what the public wants and weigh this against what he must surrender in attaining these goals.

Like the consummate poker player, the president only has so many chips to push into the political arena. Other political players have chips also: they will endanger their chips when they feel the odds are favorable for them. Being only assured of four years in office, the president must move along briskly. When President Ronald Reagan did not reach a compromise with Congressman Dan Rostenkowski on the budget, the administration was forced to spend its chips in order to buy votes at the expense of rational tax and budget policy.iii This judgment then became a mark of Reagan’s leadership and legacy. Neustadt describes presidential vulnerability to personal misjudgments “…fueled by dubious advice is breathtaking and persistent.”iv

The greater part of this essay will be aligned with comparing Neustadt’s and Kernell’s theories on presidential leadership around three overlapping discussion areas as follows: public approval ratings and governance, the evolution of the political context in Washington, and the president as a man. Before the concluding comments, the major and unique contributions, the strengths and weaknesses, of these two political science scholars will be summarized. These summaries will include some repetition or at least connotations of the comparative evaluations. One wonders why anyone wants to be president of the United States.


From about 1945 to 1960 bargaining in Washington predominated. Presidents excel in private bargaining because they have access to information that no one else has. This may inhibit bargaining, but it does not kill it. On the other hand, by the 1970s presidents went public more. This strategic choice has diminishing returns if overused. The president can only go public on one or two major issues. For example, President Bill Clinton went on national television selling his national health care proposal—the Holy Grail for all Democratic presidents. Clinton emphatically declared that every American must be covered. In retrospect, Clinton might have achieved his goal if he had used a shrewd combination of bargaining and public pleas. Dwight Eisenhower was helped in 1956 by his handling of the Suez crisis and Soviet aggression against Hungary. These “rally points” lifted Eisenhower’s public approval ratings. International events often do this for presidents, but they are only means to effective governance.

Neustadt claims presidential influence stems from three factors. First, the U.S. Constitution, laws, and customs grant authority. For Neustadt, FDR was his model and idol, so not surprisingly; his second factor is professional reputation. A president should use the honeymoon period of the first three months in office and show his winning ways. In today’s polarized environment a president does not have political pundits who help define reputation. The third factor is public standing which consists of professional reputation and public prestige. Eisenhower, for example, was low in professional reputation (Neustadt calls him an amateur) and high in public prestige. Prestige helps check the resistance coming from other prominent politicians. Neustadt grades reputation high for he declares, “[R]eputation, of itself, does not persuade, but it can make persuasion easier, or harder, or impossible.”v According to Neustadt, you increase influence by creating a competitive system and serving as your own intelligence adviser—boilerplate from FDR.

Kernell agrees with Neustadt that a president’s effectiveness in rallying public support is closely monitored by fellow politicians. Strong popular support grants the president some latitude in dealing with Washingtonians. The president assembles coalitions among diverse constituencies. Successful coalitions implementing sound policies on major issues counterbalance the opportunity costs the president incurred in bargaining and going public.

A president may have prominent public support from going public and still be trumped by Congress. The president can pick and choose among policy proposals. He has political assets which he can tactically use against Congressional opposition whose institutional resources are less abundant. The president continues campaigning so policy sometimes serves rhetoric. Going public puts the office on a campaign footing. Kernell warns, “A president whose leadership is heavily invested in public opinion offers no assurances.”vi

While bargaining requires sage advice from intelligent advisers, presidents who go public need pollsters. The continued improvements in air travel, television, and radio allowed more frequent direct communications with the American public. Presidential press relations result from the degree with which modern presidents have gone public. There needs to be cooperation between the president and the media. The president wants to media to stress how hard he is working.

Today the relationship between the president and the media has turned adversarial. The media detests being manipulated. The media uncovers skeletons in the closets of political aspirants. They remind politicians later about improvident remarks made earlier. Richard Nixon in 1962 and Barry Goldwater in 1964 made comments they wished could have been stuffed back into their mouths.

One of Neustadt’s major contributions was the theory of the president as a clerk. Congress, partisans, foreigners, bureaucrats, and the public are five distinct groups who overwhelm the president by demanding clerkly duties. The president has to spend so much time serving constituents that he does not have time to serve his political purposes. Clerkly duties include, but are not limited to, the state of the union address, report on the budget, and meeting with the winner of the Super Bowl. The president makes decisions on options thrust upon him by others. Consider how George Humphrey as Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Treasury in 1956 during the budget proceedings commented to the press that if taxes are too high a depression will ensue. Eisenhower had rewritten Humphrey’s criticism of the budget and used this rewritten version for his press release. Neustadt said Eisenhower handled this poorly. Maybe this author expects too much out of one human being.

The bottom line is that the president should not spend all his time on clerkly duties and shortchange his political purposes. Each important issue will entice contributions from multiple sources. However, the presidential input is critical since this represents the president’s personal power stakes in the issue. In the example above, the budget was Eisenhower’s, not Humphrey’s. If the president is an energetic clerk, he will energize all government; a man intent on influence will do this.

Kernell standing on the shoulders of Neustadt sees a different political setting, calling for revised strategy. He argues that Washington has changed from institutionalized pluralism to individualized pluralism, liberating politicians from party bounds. Beginning in the 1970s the divided government is characterized by caucuses and primaries. Bargaining lessens as presidents look forward to the next elections. The decline of parties and institutional leadership in Congress and divided government has made the Washington movers and shakers more susceptible to public opinion. This stronger public pressure has affected weaker leaders and shaky coalitions. Therefore, the individualized pluralism causes a rise in going public as a presidential strategy.

The president needs to be thinking for himself because he can count on no one else to do it. Neustadt says he can see public interest because it is his interest. One can question whether or not presidents personify the public interest. This is a study of how a president gains and wins power. Presidential power is the ability to persuade through bargaining. His case studies do not involve Congress because a president is usually not able to bargain with Congress. His critical case study on President Harry Truman’s recall of General Douglas MacArthur did not really show the power of command as much as it illustrated shortsighted presidential persuasion.

Although Neustadt harkens back to FDR, the political scenario differs today. Presidents still face emergencies, but everything remains unfinished, no closure. The Israeli and Palestinian problems are still with us. Tax reform and social security changes are never finalized. Neustadt came out of the field of public administration; he believed in the one best way model. Decisions are the building blocks. The reputation is made by the man himself. Not only does Neustadt place inordinate pressure on a president, but also myopically discounts the roles played by other politicians and the public. He was intrigued by Ronald Reagan, who unlike FDR scorned details, yet Reagan was a “…unique combination of incuriosity and conviction.”vii

Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were professional politicians who crashed and burned. The door flew open and political outsiders like Jimmy Carter (ranked low by Kernell) and Reagan gained access to the Oval Office. Kernell theorizes that these outsiders resorted to going public more often because bargaining was not their forte. However, Nixon had gone public frequently as had Kennedy. Nevertheless, Kernell believes bargaining had shown declining efficiency. By going public the president promotes himself and his policies. This technique allows them to appeal to constituencies outside of Washington. The reactions of ordinary citizens are enhanced when presidents rely on public strategies. If a president fails at the bargaining table, then he can go public. His level of prior approval-the public ratings-condition the response he will receive from the audience. Kernell fashioned his model after Reagan as if Reagan was the paradigm for almost always going public. Reagan could bargain well. Before a floor vote on his budget, Reagan would woodshed House members in the Oval Office and at Camp David. Reagan as a conviction president used both strategies.

Contributions by Authors

According to Neustadt, what the president wants to accomplish are beyond his clerkly duties; predictably, his power to persuade is through bargaining. The practical probabilities of power do not spring from the Constitution. The Constitution grants the power to command as commander-in-chief, but this power cannot be used everyday; persuasion can be used daily. The president as his own executive assistant gathers intelligence on a host of issues. Democrats until Carter made this mistake. He labeled FDR as the energized president and criticized Eisenhower for not being adventuresome. If Ike had been as politicized as Neustadt framed, he probably could not have been elected out of the minority party. The president sets the tone, and he can set traps for his adversaries. People are introspective so they judge a president by what is happening to them. His influence stems from this together with his unique, pivotal vantage point and his reputation inside the Beltway. Neustadt said Nancy Reagan helped her husband see power stakes, even though he typically disdained information elicited by presidential questions. If she can do this, then why cannot Eisenhower or George H. W. Bush gather important information from key advisers? Perceptive advisers do this for their presidents.

Kernell writing later gives us reasons for going public. Quiet private diplomacy has not disappeared, but it has given way to direct public strategies as a different approach. Presidents have advances in transportation and telecommunications at their disposal. In earlier times Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had both utilized partisan newspapers for their public pronouncements. Presidents will be tempted to travel widely in search of sympathetic audiences. Woodrow Wilson traveled across the country by train in furtherance of his proposal for a League of Nations. An international crisis associated with leadership may popularize the president to such an extent that he can sway the independent voters. Going public forcefully dictates the president’s aims. One aim may be to secure marginal votes especially when he feels entrenched within his own party. However, this ability controls the policy discussion often at the expense of politicians on the other side of the aisle. How opponents view the president will significantly influence how others judge him. Spending popularity can be a risky adventure for a president. The president may find the threat to go public more effective than the act. Kernell opines, “The story of Reagan’s first three budgets spans the peaks and valleys of leadership based on going public.”viii


The president has the best vantage point to see the public interest. Neustadt said it calls “for a good ear and a fine eye.”ix Unlike bargaining where failures can be repaired, going public does not seem to offer such remedies. In going public presidents seek to exploit the advantages of public opinion so they embrace issues that give them the strongest claims to represent the public interest. A president consults with his pollsters and public relations staff in an effort to quantify his prestige. He hopes to choose in such a way that his power base is not undermined. A conviction president wants to get things done; he wants to leave a legacy. Reagan appeared as somewhat of an enigma to Neustadt and Kernell. Reagan bargained diligently on his budgets: he did not just go public.

Submitted by: John F. Hinrichs

i Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan, rev. ed. (New York: Free Press, 1990), ix-x.

ii Samuel Kernell, Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1993), xiii.

iii John W. Sloan, The Reagan Effect: Economics and Presidential Leadership (Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1999), 142.

iv Neustadt, 290.

v Ibid., 54.

vi Kernell, 190.

vii Neustadt, 276.

viii Kernell, 125.

ix Neustadt, 314.

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