Power Lessons for Obama

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Richard Neustadt's book, Presidential Power, first published in 1960 but revised in several subsequent editions over the ensuing thirty years, offered groundbreaking perspective on the presidency and presidential power, revolutionizing the way even presidents viewed their own office. Political scientist Steven Skowronek's approach in The Politics Presidents Make (1997) is a helpful supplement to Neustadt's perspective. Drawing upon both authors, we can develop an understanding of presidential power that sheds light on Obama's presidency.

Power constitutes a president's ability to accomplish what he wants, not simply the ability to do things (a definition first established by Neustadt). This power differs from formal power, which describes what a president can to do under the law. We attempt to understand the power of the president as a measure of his ability to accomplish what he wants. That, in practical terms, is the sort of power Obama is cognizant of in the White House day by day.

Neustadt's most famous claim is that "presidential power is the power to persuade" (1990 edition, p. 11). Realizing the strengths of the president's opponents, Neustadt argues that presidential persuasion necessarily becomes bilateral: "The President's advantages are checked by the advantages of others. Continuing relationships will pull in both directions... Persuasion is a two-way street" (p. 31). To Neustadt, a president must offer concessions to his political adversaries, essentially attempting to glean the best possible returns for his expended favors. Therefore, presidential persuasion--upon which power hinges--distils to presidential bargaining (p. 32).

Obama has been no stranger to persuasion and bargaining in the White House, at times from a position of weakness.  Domestically, extensive bargaining lay behind his successful pursuit of an economic stimulus bill and health care reform. But in polarized Washington, that bargaining was successful only with those in his own party. On the eve of the congressional health care vote, White House pleading with fellow Democrats that they should not cause Obama's presidency to fail through the defeat of health care hardly illustrated persuasion from a position of strength. Obama has had to employ persuasion with other nations, achieving more success regarding nuclear proliferation than in reigning in the rogue states of Iran and North Korea. International bargaining is fraught with uncertainty, rarely delivering major breakthroughs.

Stephen Skowronek claims that the context in which a president enters office develops "expectations that surround the exercise of power at a given moment; the perception of what it is appropriate for a given president to do" (1997, p. 18). He argues that context shapes many elements of a president's power, because external factors shape the extent to which the president can utilize power resources. The contextual atmosphere surrounding the president has many implications on the utility of tools at his disposal, including that of presidential persuasion.

Barack Obama benefited from a favorable context upon entering office, with large majorities of fellow Democrats willing to follow his agenda. Obama's eventual decline in public approval resulted from a bad economy and a controversial agenda that limited his support largely to the category of fellow Democrats. The context for Obama's governance encompasses ideological and partisan "sorting" among the public and legislators, producing political polarization that has limited Obama's persuasive success to fellow partisans. This impeded but failed to derail his agenda during his administration's first fourteen months. Obama's public support fell during this time, but not to levels eclipsing his ability to persuade congressional Democrats in Washington.

Overall, what are the lessons for Obama from these authors? Richard Neustadt correctly notes that persuasion constitutes a very helpful and frequently used tool in a president's quest for influence. The president must attempt to bargain with Congress, the executive branch, and all his other clients to persuade them to follow his lead. Obama would do well to follow his advice.

All presidential actions, however, operate within a broader context surrounding a presidency. As Stephen Skowronek observes, this context has historical and political components including the policies, institutions, and trends left to a president by his predecessors. Context must also include all other outside events that affect the presidency, international and economic occurrences among them. The various elements of this broader context can greatly alter the "informal" political authority of presidents. As "informal" political authority varies, so does the power of presidents, changing presidents' ability to succeed through persuasion or unilateral action.

So when seeking to persuade others, as he must on a daily basis, Obama must understand well the broader context of his presidency to be successful.

Thumbnail image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images
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Presented by

Steven Schier

Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here .

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