Richard Neustadts book ‘Presidential Power’ attempts to analyse the position of the President and attempts to answer the question, “How does a President make the powers of the presidency work for him?” Ronald Reagan was the fortieth President of the United States, winning two general elections in 1980 and 1984, and serving out his two terms fully. He brought with him to the presidency a unique set of policies and ways in carrying out the role. In this essay, I will explain how Neustadt answers his own question, I will then outline the political style of Reagan. I shall then show how Neustadt examines Reagan and judge how well Reagan carried out his presidency. I will then finally discuss Neustadts analysis in the context of Reagan and what new light can be found; essentially this relates to Reagans lack of interest in detail combined with general policy objectives, and the successful manipulation of the media.
Neustadt essentially argues that in order for a President to maximise his influence within the system, he has to make choices in the present with a view of how they will affect future choices; “A President has nothing he himself (someday herself) can bring to bear on his prospects for effective future influence save present choices.” Neustadt gives a series of reasons for this observation about choices. It appears helpful to explain Neustadts logic as a ‘chain of situations’ – each link building up to the final observation of present choices influencing future ones. The starting point appears in the constitutional set-up of the American system.
Each institution – the executive, legislature, and judiciary – are entirely separate in their authority, but rely on each other to get things done and possess a series of checks and balances over each other which can prevent actions from occurring again. They have no way of exacting retribution for one institution ‘checking’ anothers actions and this leads to the separate institutions sharing power. For the President, this means in order to (for example) have a bill passed in Congress, he must persuade members of Congress to support him, when they can decide what they wish to do independently of the President and may not necessarily be persuaded. “When one man shares authority with another, but does not gain or lose his job upon the others whim, his willingness to act upon the urging of the other turns on whether he conceives the action right for him.”
“No man can argue on his knees.” The President must find ways of becoming persuasive in order for him to act effectively. The President must find ways of improving his status and authority – bargaining advantages – to enhance his persuasiveness of his arguments. The Presidents status and authority can be distinguished in two ways, there is the tangible show of status – the Oval Office, his roles as Chief Executive, Commander-in-Chief, Chief legislator, Chief of party and Chief diplomat.
The second side of status and authority is less tangible, “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 on the President ….Their need or fear is his advantage.” The President can use this as a bargaining advantage, either implicitly or explicitly, that the Presidents future decisions and the results of those decisions are influenced by the present, and depending on whether those around him comply with his wishes or not will affect their future. This status is however, also checked by those he is trying to persuade. They themselves have their own status (or the President would not be persuading them to do something) and so the bargaining becomes a two way street.
“The power to persuade is the power to bargain.” Status and authority give rise to bargaining advantages, but the separation of institutions sharing power means that persuasion is not always possible. The President must increase his status and authority by increasing two other attributes, Professional Reputation and Public Prestige. Both of these are subjective and are formed in the minds of those he tries to influence. Professional Reputation is the level that the people needing persuading are convinced that the incumbent President has the will and ability to use any advantage. More succinctly, how capable the President appears to the ‘Washington community’ or Washingtonians. Washingtonians comprising of Congress, the Administration, State governors, military commanders, party leaders, representatives form private interest groups, newsmen and foreign diplomats. These Washingtonians watch how the President performs and make judgements of how effective he is.
This is underpinned by the ‘law of anticipated reactions.’ Washingtonians will do what they must, this is affected by their perceptions of Presidential reactions, how they may be realistically affected in the future by complying or not with the President: whether the President will carry out a particular action, who will gain or lose the most and what are the risks involved. “The general reputation of a President in Washington will not reflect the views of every Washingtonian. There is usually a dominant tone, a central tendency, Washingtonians appraisals of a President” In order for the President to be able to persuade more easily, he has his past reputation to bring to bear. A President with a pattern of failures, mistakes or errors is likely to have a low reputation and Washingtonians less inclined to help him.
The second concept is Public Prestige. This refers to a Presidents popularity with the electorate and abroad. It is how the Washingtonians anticipate a reaction from the electorate from them doing or not doing something advocated by the President. This can be measured and judged in many different ways – from the percentage of votes the incumbent received at the last general election to passive toleration of a decision. This concept is becoming harder to judge.
Both public prestige and professional reputation can be drawn from the same sources. In 1960, Neustadt argued that it could be judged by Washingtonians talking to each other and taxi drivers, reading newspapers and opinion polls, sample opinions of visitors, friends or constituents. Listen when they travel the country. Above all, they could watch Congress. More recently, this has become more difficult. Whilst they may still be able to talk to each other, the rise of immigrant taxi drivers makes conversations difficult, columnists have become less reliable, the increase of unsafe seats in Congress has made it a less reliable gauge. The increase in opinion polls has given more detailed information, however Neustadt argues that many times it causes more confusion as polls ask different questions and use many different techniques which can give different results both between polls and over time.
The ultimate end of this chain of situations is concerning choices. Each day, the President is faced with a number of choices to make. Each choice made will have an effect on the way Washingtonians perceive his professional reputation and public prestige. A number of choices which are shown to be good will improve reputation and prestige for the President. An increase in reputation and prestige enhances status and authority and the ability of the President to persuade Washingtonians of future choices.
Present choices have an effect on the future in three important ways: firstly, what choices come up in the future -whether they arise at all, when, in what contact, and how easy it is to decide them then. Secondly, the present choice made will be judged by Washingtonians in how effective the President is in making that decision and whether it was the best choice. A pattern of either good or bad choices will respectively enhance or diminish professional reputation which in turn affects status and authority and the ability to carry out further choices. Thirdly, the present choice affects Public Prestige; which in the same way as reputation affects the ability to carry out future actions.
Linked to the central theme of the book already discussed, are a number of general pieces of advice given by Neustadt to a President. In no particular order, these involve the following: ‘Watch peoples attitudes and behaviour which may affect your standing.’ Generally, it means to watch those you are in contact with in case they have any ulterior motives, or if the hold any views or have a history which could affect the way a President does a job or carry out an action. ‘Presidents must do their own thinking on their own terms to be fully informed and able to make choices.’ The President is in a unique position, it is only he who can bear the ultimate responsibility for everything – Truemans slogan “the buck stops here” adequately shows this points meaning. Failure to do this can lead to wrong choices being made and a fall in the level of professional reputation.
Linked to the first two points is; ‘Be wary of expert advice.’ it is not correct to take an experts word on face value or on account that they are an expert. It must be challenged and questioned before accepted. The expert may have ulterior motives for advising in such a way, omitting some facts, or skewing the information to a particular view. They may also be attempting to do the Presidents job and make the decision for him without holding the same responsibility or seeing it from the Presidents view. The forth piece of advice is ‘Start as you mean to go on.’ from the outset, the President should use the skills and tenacity to create a favourable impression. For example, it may be a good idea to pick an uncontroversial policy and be seen to get this passed by Congress. Or, as Nixon did, pick up policies early which look like they are going to be passed by Congress and support them – thereby giving the impression of having a high proportion passed, which will improve public prestige (assuming that the policies are favoured by the public).
Fifthly, ‘make sure there is an operating chain of communication whereby any information that the President needs to know is actually given to you.’ This essentially has two parts to it, people, mainly White House staff must know that it is their responsibility to pass information upwards, towards the President: secondly, there will be some form of retribution on the staff if information is not given to the President in time and as a result, a choice is made wrong or an undesirable outcome is not averted. Sixthly, ‘the President must attempt to lead, setting own agenda and deadlines and not be dictated to by others.’ If he is lead, then there will be a diminishment in his professional reputation – being seen as ‘not his own man’ or lacking a personal agenda.
Lastly, ‘when persuading, make use of all bargaining advantages possible.’ Use the standing of the White House – it is harder to say ‘no’ to the President in the Oval Office ; Borrow the prestige of others to enhance your own – improve the credibility of the argument by having other highly respected individuals appear to be in favour of the action. This will make persuasion either possible or easier, once a policy is enacted, it may improve bargaining advantages in the future – giving the impression that the President is successful and influential in getting policies passed.
Ronald Reagan was inaugurated President on 20th January 1981 and was the first President to complete both full terms since Eisenhower (1953-61). His record in office as being able to ‘make a difference’ is overall considered good, “more impressive than that of most modern Presidents” despite a number of defeats and disasters. He is somewhat intriguing as he came to the post with no experience of Washington, “He was an ex-actor, an ex-professional after dinner speaker. He had no direct experience of national government before becoming President, and he had no experience of international politics.”
Reagan came to power with a broad set of coherent ideas based in the New Right at roughly the same time as Mrs Thatcher in Britain, Reagans administration advocated free economy and strong state ideas to the United States. He was a very popular President with the electorate, emphasised by the massive majority he commanded in his second general election and high approval ratings in opinion polls. He argued against ‘big government’ and for free market principles based on a control of inflation. The Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) better known as ‘Star Wars’ is an example of increased defence spending. Reagans use of rhetoric is important when analysing the style of his premiership. He infused the moral of freedom in everything he advocated, as opposed to equality and the ‘paternal’ state. He used his acting skills to great affect, appearing in photo opportunities, stage managed presentations to the nation, and speeches.
Neustadt identifies four key aspects to the Reagan presidency which offer commentary on his analysis of power. The first is the influence of Roosevelt on Reagan. Until the 1950s, Reagan had been a supporter of Roosevelt and admired the style in which he carried out the role of President. Reagan to wanted to change the nations consciousness of what government should do – albeit in the opposite direction, making it smaller. His ‘human touch’ and degree of warmth, friendliness and humour was similar to that of Roosevelt. On the personality level, Reagan was well liked , in 1982 his approval ratings soaring to above 65% and remaining there until Iran-contra, and then returning to their original level soon afterwards.
The second comment offered by Neustadt is Reagan was the first professionally trained actor and television spokesman to become President. His use of charm, ability to appear concerned to visitors, and dominate conversations with anecdotes which filled up time and prevented debates becoming too heated, raised his prestige and popularity ratings. ‘The Great Communicator’ had a degree of public confidence and portrayed an image that he was capable of the role.
His Director of Communications managed to manipulate the media to Reagans advantage. The advancement of technology, giving national live news coverage allowed the managers of the news to package Reagan in a way so he would be shown on television in a preferential light by the news hungry journalists, using concepts as the theme of the day and photo opportunities. This increased the publics awareness even further and when portrayed constantly in a beneficial way, could only but enhance his public prestige. This fresh opportunity for influence can be seen to have been exploited greatly by Reagan and his people.
The third comment is that Reagan combined less intellectual curiosity for detail with more initial and sustained commitments to policy independent of current events or their outcome. He in this respect, is certainly unique, “Reagan, it seems, wanted happy endings on a few major story lines and thus was unconcerned about details except to be told what to know by the time he needed to know it.” He held four essential commitments – cutting income tax, increasing defence spending, reduction of the possibility of nuclear war and retracting the ‘Great Society.’ As stated earlier, Reagan set the broad tone of the policy but left the detail to his aides. There appears a number of consequences to this outcome. It led to the perception that Reagan was not fully in control of his administration. For example, the result of reducing revenues in 1981 by tax cuts was done on the advice of an aide – Stockman. The result of a ballooning federal deficit was disastrous.
The forth comment is the risk Reagan took by not knowing enough about his aides, what they were doing and why. By far, the biggest example of this is Iran-Contra. This situation appears to have arose out of Reagans desires without interest in detail, and the lack of communication between him and his aides concerning such detail. “Sometimes our right hand doesn’t know what our far-right hand is doing,” is a phrase said by Reagan in the early years of the Presidency and came back to haunt him later on. Despite Reagan taking the high moral ground about not dealing with terrorists or Iran following the hostage situation of 1979, he did have two objectives – to get American hostages out of Libya and to support the Nicaraguan Contras, despite Congress banning the use of public money to fund them.
Reagan delegated the responsibility of these commitments to his aides who constructed a plan which linked the two commitments together. Simply stated, Arms were sold to potential successors of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran as a goodwill gesture who in return helped negotiate the release of American hostages. However, the Iranians were being overcharged for the weapons and the extra money made was used to fund the Contras. This was mainly done without Reagans knowledge of the situation. The situation has been aptly summed up by James Ceaser as, “the Iran arms sale, widely judged to be stupid, although not illegal, and the contra aid diversion, widely considered to be illegal, but not altogether stupid.”
What Iran-contra shows is what can occur if the President forgoes choices and delegates to his aides without a clear form of communication between them. Reagan lost prestige and reputation over the two commitments which were largely unnecessary. He also lost the option to make further choices which may have prevented the whole situation arising. He lost the option of further choices for a number of reasons. Firstly, he delegated much of the work to people below him. Secondly, he wished only to be informed about the things he needed to know – people such as Casey, North, and Poindexter obviously felt that the President did not need to know. Thirdly, Reagan was not interested enough in detail and so could not position himself in the position where he would be ‘on top’ of the situation.
The analysis of Reagan shows a number of findings on Neustadts original thesis. Iran-Contra appears the textbook example of many of his pieces of advice. From this, it can be inferred what could happen if the advice is not followed. If Neustadts theory is taken as it is explained in the first part of the essay and now put into context with Reagan, we can see some interesting findings. With Neustadts golden rule, “A President has nothing….save present choices,” Reagan seems to have restricted this to the ‘big picture’ and delegated too much away. His lack of interest in detail almost brought him down on a number of occasions. For example, soon after his re-election, he agreed to visit a war cemetery in West Germany where some Nazi SS members had been buried, “the preparations for this visit had been handled with no forethought given to this problem. What was to have been a triumphant state visit turned into a highly damaging incident.” Reagan should have been able to see the potential problem and acted accordingly.
Professional reputation and public prestige are probably the most interesting aspect of Reagans Presidency. His stage management of the television journalists, with a theme of the day and photo opportunities enhanced his public prestige. Also of importance was the ‘administrations newspaper’ – the Washington Times. Begun in Reagans second year and financed by Korean businessmen, the Washington Times had dozens of “eloquent and experienced conservatives” writing its columns.
It was read by virtually all of the Reagan administration , especially its three page commentary, “ideas from one column would be discussed in some one else’s column the next week and sooner or later would appear in some officials speech.” It discussed how best to enact the Presidents ideology and was quoted, discussed and ideas reinforced by the administration. This paper, whilst not directly in the control of the President, could be used as another bargaining advantage by him. It appears that someone being persuaded to follow an action which is also advocated by the newspaper they read must influence them more to do that action.
More specifically related to public prestige, Reagan was of the most popular Presidents of the modern era. referred to as the ‘Great Communicator’, and reaching an approval rating of up to 68% obviously gave him a great lever to persuade. He gave the impression of the ‘tough cowboy’ capable of fighting off the ‘bad guys’ – the USSR, Libya and Grenada being just three. Reagan dealt with rhetoric and nostalgia to convince the United States it was great, “People feel good about Reagan, and they want to hear that the positive trends will continue. To them, Reagan is Dr. Good News.” Washingtonians must have been hard pressed not to agree with an individual who to them commanded so much public prestige – dare they face the ‘public wrath’ for not following Reagan?
With reference to the associated pieces of important advice Neustadt gives, examples can be found in Reagan of where it was either ignored or taken to heart and the resultant outcomes. The first one discussed was ‘watch peoples attitudes and behaviour which may affect your standing.’ An example of this was Iran-contra, here Casey, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had an ulterior motive of rescuing one of his men from Libya. The failure of Reagan to realise this and Caseys decision to act upon his own initiative was one of the causes of Iran-contra, the creation of a ‘secret’ foreign policy and causing much damage to Reagans prestige and reputation. Iran-contra can be used again in the second piece of advice, “Presidents must do their own thinking.” Reagan delegated this away to his staff who then made the decisions for him creating the final situation.
The third piece of advice, “Be wary of expert advice,” could also have been heeded by Reagan in his transition period in 1980-81. The advice of Stockman – Reagans first budget director during this period advised the President on tax cuts, his calculations however were found to be subsequently inaccurate, after Reagan was firmly committed to the policy. This created the subsequent deficits in the second term. The damage suffered to the country for Reagan taking the advice and not examining it as closely as he should have done (if he had, then the miscalculation should have been evident) is a misjudgement on behalf of Reagan. He was lucky not to have been penalised more, he effectively managed to maintain his popularity throughout his two terms.
The forth piece of advice, “start as you mean to go on,” is shown positively by Reagan. Between January and May 1981, Reagan managed to push his tax cuts through Congress and his poll ratings soared from 51% to 68% – the so called Reagan, revolution. This policy certainly gave a boost to public prestige and professional reputation – he was shown to be a President capable of achieving something, against many expectations. Nicholas Von Hoffman, when describing Reagan said it was “humiliating to think of this unlettered, self assured bumpkin being our President.” Not a lot was expected of Reagan as he entered office and his first attempts at passing legislation exceeded what they thought of him and greatly improved his status.
Fifthly, the operating chain of communication, the failure of which appears to have caused Iran-contra. However, in a perverse way, it may have saved his presidency. Reagans well known lack of interest in detail made his defence that he did not know of the actions of North et al, plausible and accepted by the Congress hearings and the public. The lack of communication certainly damaged Reagans credibility, seen sometimes as a person not in control and out of touch with his closest people who were following electorally unpopular (Iran) and uninterested (the Contras) policies which if successful would not gain the administration any political advantage. The final point is of bargaining advantages. The biggest one used here by Reagan seems to have been media management. His appeals on television to write to congressmen certainly worked the first time he used it.
Neustadt provides a detailed analysis of what a President needs to do to enhance their influence within their administration. His chain of thought concludes that the most important thing a President can do is to make choices with a view of what will occur in the future. Reagans presidency was certainly unique, which had two distinguishing features, the lack of interest in detail combined with large policy commitments, and the successful manipulation of the media.
Whilst the former diminished his professional reputation, his public prestige was greatly enhanced by the latter. Iran-contra is the textbook example of what can occur if Neustadts advice is not heeded, the delegation and lack of interest in detail prevented Reagan from being informed or able to make choices, the result was a highly dangerous policy which could have brought the downfall of the administration. In the light of Reagan, it appears that Neustadts advice has been reinforced. One advancement is with respect to public prestige and the manipulation of the media. it shows the degree with which a President can enhance his public prestige and the subsequent benefits gained from such a bargaining advantage.
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