P&R Book Club - The Strategic President

The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership by George C Edwards III. Here’s the product description:

Like many poli-sci and current event books that I read, this one came to my attention via a blog post by Marc Ambinder. I’ve been somewhat aware of data indicating that public opinion wasn’t nearly as shapeable by politicians as people like to think, so it was exciting to see someone actually wrote a book about the subject!

The book’s thesis is pretty well encapsulated above. President’s can’t actually shape public opinion very much. The power of the bully pulpit is overrated. Rather, Presidents are successful when they seize opportunities presented by circumstances beyond their control. In Ambinder’s blog post, he points out that it is doubtful that the Affordable Care Act would have passed if several major insurers hadn’t decided to suddenly raise their rates by 25% or more.

I’ll be making a post per chapter, outlining the key points the chapter makes, pointing out any supporting data that seems relevant, and adding my own thoughts. I’ll also do my best to answer questions folks may have.

Chapter 1: Power as Persuasion

I became interested in this book because of arguments I’ve had right here in P&R. It doesn’t seem like I can go a day without seeing someone accuse Obama of lacking “leadership.” If only the president showed some real leadership, the lament goes, we’d have single payer healthcare. Or Gitmo would be closed. Or the war in Afghanistan would be over. Or unicorns would shit faries. And so on and so forth.

This form of argument annoys me for a few reasons:

  • Leadership is often vaguely defined. I often get the sense that even the person calling for it doesn’t know what he really wants. It’s like pornography - “I’ll know it when I see it!”
  • It’s magical thinking. There’s no actual mechanism by which “leadership” somehow leads to these good outcomes. It ignores outside context, structural features of our government and politics, limits regarding public opinion, etc etc. It’s like that internet meme:
  1. Leadership
  2. Profit!
  • It flies in the face of research regarding the degree to which public opinion can be moved by political leaders (hint: not really at all).

So I was greatly interested in reading this book, so I can smack down qt3 P&R posters. :)

Leadership as Persuasion
In this first section, the author attempts to come up with a working definition of leadership. He starts by establishing what leadership isn’t. To wit - exercising the discretionary authority of the President is not leadership, even if that exercise results in some form of change. President Obama could tomorrow start a nuclear war, nobody would accuse him of great leadership. And so on and so forth.

Dispensing with what leadership isn’t, the author attempts to narrow it down further. While undoubtedly there’s an element of leadership in running the Executive branch - fostering a dynamic environment, innovative thinking, effectively implementing decisions - that’s not very interesting for the purposes of this book. So it’s going to be ignored.

Now that we’ve narrowed things down, Edwards provides us with a working definition of leadership.

Richard Neustadt and the Power to Persuade
“Presidential power is the power to persuade.” So wrote Richard Neustadt in his 1960’s work “Presidential Power,” which influenced a generation of scholars. Previously, presidential power was primarily analyzed in terms of the formal powers of the presidency, as enumerated by the Constitution, and the president’s various roles.

But, as Neustadt states, “powers are no guarantee of power” and “the probabilities of power do not derive from the literary theory of the Constitution.” Instead, Neustadt places “people and politics in the center of research, and the core of activity on which he focused was leadership.” Under this model, Neustadt and subsequent scholars began analyzing people and relationships within institutions, rather than the institutions themselves. “It was not the roles of the president, but the performance of those roles that mattered.” And, as mentioned above, the main focus of Neustadt’s analysis was on presidential persuasion.

Two premises followed from Neustadt’s “power is persuasion” thesis.

  • Power is a concept that involves relationships between people. To understand relationships, we must explain behavior. This also lead Neustadt and subsequent scholars to focus less on on what causes something to happen in one particular instance, and to look at power at a more strategic level - e.g. what affects the probabilities of something happening in every instance.
  • Presidents can succeed in persuading others.

It’s this second premise that was, perhaps, damaging. It caused scholars, analysts, observers, pundits, and P&R posters to focus on how presidents persuade, rather than whether or not they can persuade. It also caused the same folks to ignore the context in which this persuasion occurred.

Transformational Leaders
From this operative defintion of leadership as “The power to persuade,” we segue into the concept of a transformational leader. The biggest proponent of this concept is a fellow named MacGregor Burns, who describes such a leader as “elevating moral leadership, transforming both the leaders and the led. This change, in turn, leads to fundamental and comprehensive change in society, values, and politics.” OBAMA! OBAMA!

Anyway - the author is not interested in identifying a given president as a “Transformational leader,” nor whether a specific change was “transformational.” Rather - “the fundamental question is whether presidents have the potential to persuade others to follow them. If significant changes in public policy occur, what is the explanation? Can presidents transform politics through persuasion? On the other hand, must presidents persuade in order to change policy?”

Explaining Change
We pretty routinely see commentators and P&R posters extoll the potential of political leadership. The great social changes of the 20th century are laid at the feets of presidents - FDR and the New Deal, Johnson and the Great Society, Reagan and his Revolution. More to the point, we credit their ability to persuade as being integral to these changes. This in spite of the fact that there is literally no evidence supporting this assertation. No systematic study exists that demonstrates presidents can reliably move others to suppoort them. Zip. Zero. Nada.

And yet - we cling to this view. If anyone reads these posts (which I doubt; God knows I wouldn’t) I expect to encounter some hostility on this front. But it’s true (or at least this fancy political scientist is willing to gamble his career in making the claim). So why do we continue to cling to the concept of the president’s power to persuade? Some possibilities:

  • It simplifies political analysis. The outside forces and contexts acting to influence policy are often complex, and perhaps even intractable. By focusing on presidential leadership, we can comfortably ignore them.
  • It simplifies the evaluation of the problem of governing. If we exist in a system that is influenced by the president’s persuasive leadership, then all we have to do is elect a good leader and good things will happen. Likewise, if good things don’t happen - it indicates that the person we’ve elected is a failure; he lacks the talent, skill, will, or whatever. See almost every post criticizing Obama in these past few weeks for an example. “The blame of unsuccessful leadership lies with the leader, rather than opportunities for change in the leader’s environment.”

Leadership as Facilitation
Here, Edwards gives us his alternative explanation for why some presidents succeed and others fail. He proposes that a successful president recognizes and acts on opportunities for change; that this - rather than persuasion - is the essential presidential leadership skill.

He then presents us with two views of the presidency, which he hopes will be useful in analyzing presidential performance:

  • Director of Change: the president defines an agenda and through his leadership skills he persuades others - the public, organizational interests, Congress, qt3 - to support his policies. In this model, the president is the moving force of the system.
  • Facilitator of Change: The president recognizes opportunities presented by the environment around him and fashions strategies & tactics to exploit them. This is more of a reactive model; the president is not the moving force - rather, that force is outside of him.

Great Men versus Historical Inevitability
This is another bit of a segue, a brief overview of the competing approaches to interpreting history. In the former, best espoused by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century, history is made by great men. The environment of these heroes is malleable, and susceptible to their influence. In the latter, history is an inexorable march - the so called great men were buffeted by outside forces and unable to act except as they did.

Edwards doesn’t seem to be very interested in this argument; and I’m not sure why it’s even brought up - except to point out that he takes the middle road. He brings up the what-if case of Roosevelt being assassinated before his inauguration and states that leadership does matter - the question is how much, and in what way?

How Presidents Matter
The author isn’t suggesting that the president doesn’t matter. He brings up several examples from the 19th century, of the president making a big difference in the course of events:

  • Andrew Jackson undermining the Second Bank of the US
  • Franklin Pierce using his office to support the Kansas/Nebraska Act
  • Abraham Lincoln fighting the Confederacy

That being said, none of these are acts of persuasive leadership. These are examples of the president exercising his discretionary power. While these were obviously important historical events that could have had a drastic impact if they’d gone the other way - they aren’t examples of a president using persuasive leadership.

The importance of understanding leadership
Edwards concludes the chapter by explaining why understanding the true nature of presidential leadership is important - for both analytical and proscriptive reasons. He then gives a brief overview of what the next few chapters will look like - as he examines various presidencies, both transformational (Lincoln, FDR, Reagan) and not (Bush Sr.) and seeks to understand what role, if any, persuasion played in these presidencies.