Presidential Power and Political Science

By Hargrove, Erwin C. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Presidential Power and Political Science


Hargrove, Erwin C., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The purpose of this article is to ask how the 1960 edition of Richard Neustadt's book Presidential Power has influenced presidential scholarship since its publication and how subsequent major scholars have built on, played off, or departed from Neustadt's ideas. It is, if you like, an intellectual history of modern presidential scholarship. The book is a classic because the author explores the central task of political leadership, How may A persuade B to agree on joint action when their views and stakes are different? Like a good novelist, Neustadt delineates a timeless situation that recurs again and again in history. Yet, his achievement was to some extent drawn from the historical context in which he wrote, which he called "the presidency at midcentury." The heroic presidential years of depression and war had given way to the frustrations of domestic stalemate and cold war with "emergencies in policy with politics as usual" in the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies (Neustadt 1969, 5).

It is appropriate to study the presidency as intellectual history. The office is historically bound and protean so that leadership will be shaped by the tasks of context. And the political resources available to presidents over time will vary and evoke contrasting theories of how best to lead. Such limits will apply to both Neustadt and his successors, since the task of political science is to get only "within shouting distance of reality."

Neustadt wrote within the "progressive" interpretation of American history in which the presidency is taken as the focus of moral agency to articulate the purposes of the nation. Franklin Roosevelt was his exemplar. Yet, "politics at midcentury" did not admit such broad possibilities. He therefore perceived the task of presidential leadership as akin to bargaining, which was a metaphor to characterize a range of incremental persuasive tasks. The political resources available to presidents are always limited and therefore must be husbanded. We must follow Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) the fox more than the early lion. Neustadt searched for realistic ways of enhancing the progressive vision through bargaining. The president was a necessary partner with Congress, which could not be bowled over.

Contemporary scholars are critical of a "presidentialist" interpretation of government that posits that the president must and should lead all the time, otherwise nothing gets done (Jones 1994, 9). Neustadt may, at times, idealize the purposes of presidents who would win, but he stands midway between such idealization and a realistic prudence.

The rest of this article will ask how subsequent scholarship has assessed, incorporated, and modified Neustadt's work on four topics:

1. the political resources for leadership,

2. the relative importance of individual presidents in broad political leadership,

3. presidential management of policy making, and

4. the relation of the search for personal presidential power to constitutional norms.

Political Resources

The first critique of the book was by Peter Sperlich (1969, 169-81). After an accurate summary of the book's central propositions about presidential self-help, the centrality of bargaining, and the importance of strategic choices as a guide to tactics, Sperlich found that the model of leadership is internally logically consistent and meets the tests of external coherence. The task is to match the logic of the model to the demands of external coherence. He asks the central critical question, Is persuasion, through bargaining, the only or best path to influence, or are there other bases to persuasion as well?

He does not think the model rich enough in its repertoire of persuasive resources because it is based solely on "instrumental" appeals. For example, Neustadt sees "command" within the executive branch as the very last resort when bargaining with subordinates fails. …

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