Your Moment of Wonk: Obama and The Limits of Presidential Power

In his 1960 work Presidential Power and The Modern Presidents political scientist Richard Neustadt came up with the classic concept that despite all of the formal powers and statutory and constitutional authority granted to the office, any President of the United States’ power is basically limited to the ability to persuade.

Neustadt wrote, “In these words of a President, spoken on the job, one finds the essence of the problem now before us: “powers” are no guarantee of power; clerkship is no guarantee of leadership. The President of the United States has an extraordinary range of formal powers, of authority in statute law and in the Constitution. Here is testimony that despite his “powers” he does not obtain results by giving orders-or not, at any rate, merely by giving orders. He also has extraordinary status, ex officio, according to the customs of our government and politics. Here is testimony that despite his status he does not get action without argument. Presidential power is the power to persuade….”

Former president Harry Truman described the limitations of presidential power as, “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them…. That’s all the powers of the President amount to.”

Neustadt described the type of authority that the president used to hold, “A President’s authority and status give him great advantages in dealing with the men he would persuade. Each “power” is a vantage point for him in the degree that other men have use for his authority. From the veto to appointments, from publicity to budgeting, and so down a long list, the White House now controls the most encompassing array of vantage points in the American political system. With hardly an exception, those who share in governing this country are aware that at some time, in some degree, the doing of their jobs, the furthering of their ambitions, may depend upon the President of the United States. Their need for presidential action, or their fear of it, is bound to be recurrent if not actually continuous. Their need or fear is his advantage.”

Much of what Neustadt described in the paragraph above was an accurate description of presidential power until the terms of Bill Clinton. Although the 1995 Republican lead government shutdown ended up being a PR disaster for the GOP, it was a watershed moment that marked the beginning of shift in presidential power. By carrying out the government shutdown, Republicans learned that inaction can be a preferred political outcome. Neustadt’s concept of presidential authority was based on the assumption that all actors want to act, but what if they don’t? What if their goal is to prevent action? This is situation that the 21 Century president faces today.

The undercutting of a president’s traditional power base began under Clinton, and continued into the terms of George W. Bush. Except for a brief period after 9/11, when Bush enjoyed a surge in presidential power fueled by patriotism, he also saw battled with a legislative branch that saw inaction as the preferred political outcome. One has to look no further than Bush’s attempt to pass bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform to see how the balance of power had shifted. Bush’s immigration reform proposal was dealt a death blow by his fellow Republicans, who feared other consequences more than presidential power.

In the first two years of the Obama administration, we have seen presidential power virtually neutered by both congressional Democrats and Republicans, as the president argues for passage of legislation, he now faces Democrats who more interested in maintaining their own power bases, and Republicans who see blockage and inaction as the path to future electoral victories. Any perceived failure to persuade is deemed a personal failure of the president, because the public perception of the presidency is still based on a largely imaginary power. The notion of a decline in presidential power defies centuries of national mythology, and is out of the realm of comprehension for many Americans.

This new environment of decreased presidential power will only serve to make the job of future presidents more difficult. As Obama is learning, the American belief in the myth of titanic presidential power is engrained in our collective conceptualization of the presidency. Even though the foundation of presidential power is still based on a willingness of all to act, as long as inaction remains a desired outcome future presidents beyond Obama will continue to struggle with balancing exaggerated public expectations with a declining power to act.

The moment of wonk is stitch of time in our little cyber universe where I will take classic concepts, theories, and works in political science, and apply them to the modern American political universe as it exists today. These aren’t be all/end all discussions. They are simply little moments in our day when we can sit down and embrace our inner wonk.

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4 Replies to “Your Moment of Wonk: Obama and The Limits of Presidential Power”

  1. Brilliant. I wish everyone would read this. A fascinating look at the morphing powers of the Office of the President. Can’t wait to read your next “moment of wonk”:-)

  2. A U.S. president might also be able to arrange for his friends at the C.I.A. to manufacture and distribute propaganda (lies) about the ability of a foreign country, (for example, Iraq), to send unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the east coast of the United States. And, a president can order attacks on other countries without obtaining authorization from Congress, in effect starting a war without congressional authorization.

    During 2002 the amount of ordnance used by British and American aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones of Iraq increased compared to the previous years and by August had “become a full air offensive”. Tommy Franks, the allied commander, later stated that the bombing was designed to “degrade” the Iraqi air defense system before an invasion.

  3. Hi Scott,

    You are discussing presidential power as it relates to the Commander in Chief role. My focus was on the legislative process. As Commander in Chief, the president enjoys much broader unilateral powers where action does not depend on persuasion.

  4. Great article, Jason. A very nice – and very useful! analysis of the situation. I agree with Sarah: I wish everyone would read this.

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