Memo to the Next President

As the 1960 presidential campaign was taking shape, an eminent political scientist examined the top candidates' leadership strategies for bringing an obstinate Congress to heel.

Senator Kennedy campaigns at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on January 14, 1960. (Henry Burroughs/AP)

Within a few months of the inauguration next January, the new president will face the inevitable chasm between White House and Capitol Hill, with most of his promises still to be redeemed. What then?

All presidents, even [Warren G.] Harding, have encountered this problem in one form or another. Some of them have seen their differences with Congress as simply a matter of poor communication; if only they could explain the problem to some balky committee chairman, they seem to have felt, the misunderstanding would disappear. So they have breakfasted with congressmen, held weekly meetings with Senate and House leaders, delivered speeches to joint sessions, sent up bulky recommendations and even drafts of bills. Rarely have such methods won over the president’s real opponents. For the real problem is that congressional leaders, whether conservative or liberal, hold office on different assumptions, different mandates, different expectations from the president’s.

Inevitably the strong presidents have used the routine weapons of presidential power—patronage, deals, personal pressure, even the pardoning power—vigorously and even cynically. But the routine weapons have not been enough, and beleaguered presidents have tried to mobilize popular support behind their programs, particularly when congressmen came up for reelection. From Andrew Johnson’s effort in 1866 to defend his Reconstruction program against the Radicals to Eisenhower and Nixon’s attempt in 1958 to win back a Republican Congress, presidents have made the long whistle-stop trips across the nation in order to force Congress into line.

Johnson failed, so did Eisenhower and Nixon, and so did virtually every president in between …

“Legislative leadership is not possible without party leadership,” Kennedy said.

How will the next president tackle the problem that has perplexed and thwarted so many of his predecessors? That this question is already on the minds of at least two presidential candidates became clear in mid-January in a remarkable speech by Senator John F. Kennedy and in a swift rejoinder by Vice President Nixon. Kennedy’s statement is worth pondering. Not only did he assert that the president must exercise the fullest powers of his office, “all that are specified and some that are not,” but he called for forceful political leadership in the White House. “Legislative leadership is not possible without party leadership,” Kennedy said. “No president, it seems to me, can escape politics. He has not only been chosen by the nation—he has been chosen by his party. And if he insists that he is ‘president of all the people’ and should therefore offend none of them—if he blurs the issues and differences between the two parties—if he neglects the party machinery and avoids his party’s leadership—then he has not only weakened the political party as an instrument of the democratic process—he has dealt a blow to the democratic process itself.” Two days later, Nixon took issue with Kennedy’s views. Too often people who clamored for more leadership were actually looking for someone to “lead the people to the mountaintop,” he said. Some presidents achieved results by table pounding, others worked more quietly by persuasion …

Nixon would not enjoy President Eisenhower’s personal popularity with most factions of Congress. But he would possess something perhaps as important—a knack for manipulation, for making deals, for exploiting to the full the president’s traditional powers of bargain and barter. No detached observer can underestimate that knack.