Predicting the Presidency: The Potential of Persuasive Leadership

Predicting the Presidency: The Potential of Persuasive Leadership

by George C. Edwards


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691172019
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/22/2016
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 829,883
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

George C. Edwards III is University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. His many books include Overreach: Leadership in the Obama Presidency and The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership (both Princeton).

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Predicting the Presidency

The Potential of Persuasive Leadership

By George C. Edwards III


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-17037-4


Asking the Right Questions

It is natural for new presidents, basking in the glow of an electoral victory, to focus on creating, rather than exploiting, opportunities for change. It may seem quite reasonable for leaders who have just won the biggest prize in American politics by convincing voters and party leaders to support their candidacies to conclude that they should be able to convince members of the public and the U.S. Congress to support their policies. Thus, they need not focus on evaluating existing possibilities when they think they can create their own.

Campaigning is different from governing, however. Campaigns focus on short-term victory and candidates wage them in either/or terms. To win an election, a candidate need only convince voters that he or she is a better choice than the few available alternatives. In addition, someone always wins, whether or not voters support the victor's policy positions.

Governing, on the other hand, involves deliberation, negotiation, and often compromise over an extended period. Moreover, in governing, the president's policy is just one of a wide range of alternatives. Furthermore, delay is a common objective, and a common outcome, in matters of public policy. Neither the public nor elected officials have to choose. Although stalemate may sometimes be the president's goal, the White House usually wishes to convince people to support a positive action.

In sum, we should not infer from success in winning elections that the White House can persuade members of the public and Congress to change their minds and support policies they would otherwise oppose. The American political system is not a fertile field for the exercise of presidential leadership. Most political actors, from the average citizen to members of Congress, are free to choose whether to follow the chief executive's lead; the president cannot force them to act. At the same time, the sharing of powers established by the U.S. Constitution's checks and balances not only prevents the president from acting unilaterally on most important matters but also gives other power holders different perspectives on issues and policy proposals.

Persuasion and Presidential Power

The best-known dictum regarding the American presidency is that "presidential power is the power to persuade." It is the wonderfully felicitous phrase that captures the essence of Richard Neustadt's argument in Presidential Power. For more than half a century, scholars and students — and many presidents — have viewed the presidency through the lens of Neustadt's core premise.

In Neustadt's words, "'powers' are no guarantee of power" and "[t]he probabilities of power do not derive from the literary theory of the Constitution." Presidents would have to struggle to get their way. Indeed, it was the inherent weakness of the presidency that made it necessary for presidents to understand how to use their resources most effectively.

Power, then, is a function of personal politics rather than of formal authority or position. Neustadt placed people and politics in the center of research, and the core activity on which he focused was leadership. Indeed, the subtitle of Presidential Power is The Politics of Leadership. In essence, presidential leadership is the power to persuade.

To think strategically about power, we must search for generalizations. According to Neustadt:

There are two ways to study "presidential power." One way is to focus on the tactics ... of influencing certain men in given situations. ... The other way is to step back from tactics ... and to deal with influence in more strategic terms: what is its nature and what are its sources? ... Strategically, [for example] the question is not how he masters Congress in a peculiar instance, but what he does to boost his chance for mastery in any instance.

Thus, Neustadt encouraged us to focus on the strategic level of power when we examined presidential persuasion. In broad terms, persuasion refers to causing others to do something by reasoning, urging, or inducement. Influencing others is central to the conception of leadership of most political scientists. Scholars of the presidency want to know whether the chief executive can affect the output of government by influencing the actions and attitudes of others.

What did Neustadt mean by persuasion? "The essence of a President's persuasive task, with congressmen and everybody else," he argued, "is to induce them to believe that what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their interest, not his. ... Persuasion deals in the coin of self-interest with men who have some freedom to reject what they find counterfeit." Thus, "The power to persuade is the power to bargain."

In other words, the president is not likely to change many minds among those who disagree with him on substance or have little incentive to help him succeed. Although Neustadt did not focus extensively on public opinion, we can generalize beyond public officials to their constituents. His endorsement of the findings in On Deaf Ears that presidents rarely move the public in their direction reflects his skepticism about changing public opinion.

In his important work on the Politics Presidents Make, Stephen Skowronek maintains that the presidency's capacity to transform American government and politics results from its blunt and disruptive effects. Andrew Jackson forced the submission of the nullifiers and undermined the Bank of the United States, Franklin Pierce deployed the resources of his office on behalf of the Kansas Nebraska Act, and Lincoln bludgeoned the South into submission. All were transformative acts that changed the landscape of American government and politics. I agree. And Skowronek agrees that persuasion was not central to any of these actions.

In addition, Skowronek argues that presidential failures can be as transformative as their successes, with retribution for failure driving political change, jarring loose governing coalitions, opening unforeseen alternatives, shifting the balance of power, and passing to successors an entirely new set of opportunities and constraints. Again, I agree. My focus, however, is on presidents attempting to obtain support for policies that they want.

A Less Restricted View

Not everyone has such restrained views of leaders, and few are blessed with the penetrating andnuanced understanding of the presidency of a Richard Neustadt. Many political commentators suggest that all the president has to do to obtain the support of the public or members of Congress is to reach into his inventory of leadership skills and employ the appropriate means of persuasion. Most presidents, at least at the beginning of their tenures, seem to believe them. In other words, these observers and participants believe presidents can create opportunities for change.

For example, many liberals could not understand how the White House could fail to win stricter gun control laws following the Newtown massacre on December 14, 2012. They, like the White House, thought the president could rally the public and twist enough congressional arms to achieve policy change. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd complained that Obama had "not learned how to govern" — he did "not know how to work the system ... or even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him." She advised her readers that the president "should have gone out to Ohio, New Hampshire and Nevada and had big rallies to get the public riled up to put pressure on Rob Portman, Kelly Ayotte and Dean Heller, giving notice that they would pay a price if they spurned him on this." Thus, the president's failure was his own fault.

Presidents are not immune from the belief that they can create opportunities for change. For example, Bill Clinton's aides reported that he exhibited an "unbelievable arrogance" regarding his ability to change public opinion and felt he could "create new political capital all the time" by going public. Similarly, Barack Obama believed in the power of rhetoric to rally the public on behalf of policy change. As he proclaimed while running for president in 2008,

Don't tell me words don't matter. "I have a dream" — just words. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" — just words. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" — just words, just speeches. It's true that speeches don't solve all problems, but what is also true is that if we can't inspire our country to believe again, then it doesn't matter how many policies and plans we have, and that is why I'm running for president of the United States of America, ... because the American people want to believe in change again. Don't tell me words don't matter!

It is not surprising, then, that the president dismissed the advice of his top assistants and pursued health care reform in his first year, confident that he could win the public's support.

The president's own staff may also buy into the myth of presidential persuasiveness. One White House aide recalled how a few of his colleagues considered highlighting some pages of Robert Caro's book about Lyndon Johnson as Senate majority leader and leaving it on Obama's desk. "Sometimes a president just needs to knock heads," the aide declared. As he saw it, Johnson "twisted their arm, they had no choice — he was going [to] defund them, ruin 'em, support their opponent ... and the deal was cut."(I will address this misremembered history of LBJ in chapter 9.)

Getting it Right

The underlying premise of such appraisals is that the system is responsive to presidential will, if only the White House exercises it skillfully. Such a view is naïve, however. An extensive body of research in political science has found that even the most skilled presidents have great difficulty in persuading the public or members of Congress to support them.

Because presidents are not in strong positions to create opportunities for success by persuading members of Congress or their constituents to change their minds about supporting their policies, recognizing the opportunities that already exist is particularly significant. For presidents, it may be the most important skill of all, because they typically engender change by exploiting existing opportunities rather than creating them. It follows that understanding the president's opportunity structure is the key to solving the puzzle of presidential leadership.

It is important for all of us to understand how successful presidents actually lead. What are the essential presidential leadership skills? Under what conditions are they most effective? What contributions can these skills make to engendering change? The answers to these questions should influence presidents' efforts to govern, the focus of scholarly research and journalistic coverage, and the expectations and evaluations of citizens. Thus, we must seek a better understanding of presidential leadership in order to think sensibly about the role of the chief executive in the nation's political system.


Influencing others is central to most people's conception of leadership, including those most focused on politics. In a democracy, we are particularly attuned to efforts to persuade, especially when most potentially significant policy changes require the assent of multiple power holders. Thus persuasion seems to lie at the heart of leadership.

Yet, leadership is an elusive concept. James MacGregor Burns's contention that "Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth" is as true now as it was when he asserted it in 1978. Writers and commentators employ the term "leadership" to mean just about everything a person who occupies what we often refer to as a position of leadership does — or should do. When we define a term so broadly, however, it loses its utility.

The Constitution and federal laws invest significant discretionary authority in the president. Making decisions and issuing commands are important, and doing them well requires courage, wisdom, and skill. At times, the exercise of unilateral authority may lead to historic changes in the politics and policy of the country. In the extreme case, the president can choose to launch a nuclear attack at his discretion. The consequences would be vast. Most people, however, would not view such an act as one of leadership. In exercising discretionary authority, the president, in effect, acts alone. He does not have to lead anyone to do something.

Making tough decisions, establishing an administration's priorities, and appointing able people to implement policy are core functions of the presidency. Yet these activities differ substantially from obtaining the support of the public and the Congress for the president's policies.

Similarly, an important element of a chief executive's job may be creating the organizational and personal conditions that promote innovative thinking, the frank and open presentation and analysis of alternatives, and effective implementation of decisions by advisers and members of the bureaucracy. We may reasonably view such actions as leadership, and there is no doubt that the processes of decision making and policy implementation are critical to governing. For purposes of this book, however, I focus on leadership of those who are not directly on the president's team and who are thus less obligated to support his initiatives.

Different Questions

We have seen that there are contrasting perspectives on presidential leadership. One emphasizes creating opportunities for success through persuading others to change their minds and support the president. The other perspective is more modest and puts exploiting opportunities for success that already exist at its core. Each perspective leads analysts to ask different questions about presidential politics. We will see in chapter 4 that each perspective also leads to different answers for explaining the results of presidential leadership.

The belief that presidents not only need to persuade but that persuasion will be central to their success has encouraged journalists, commentators, some scholars, and other observers of the presidency to focus on the question of how presidents persuade rather than the more fundamental question of whether they can do so. In other words, there is more emphasis on description than analysis and too little attention given to the essential question of, what difference do efforts at leadership make?

An emphasis on the personal in politics, based on the assumption of the potential success of persuasion, has led some to overlook the importance of the context in which the president operates as well as his institutional setting. Doing so encourages ad hoc explanations and discourages generalizations about the strategic level of power. Reaching such generalizations should be central to our enterprise, however.

If the fundamental premise underlying one's approach to presidential leadership is that presidents can persuade the public or members of Congress to support of them, then it follows that certain questions will be at the core of research. One set of questions would deal with the impact of the president's characteristics on his persuasiveness. Such questions might focus on the president's personal persuasiveness, skill as a public speaker, and ability to relate to both average Americans and members of Congress. Other questions would focus on the means of persuasion such as the use of various rhetorical devices, the quality and frequency of speech making, the venues of speeches, and the investment of time in socializing with members of Congress.

If the core of presidential power is not the power to persuade, however, scholars should ask a different set of questions. Understanding the nature and possibilities of leadership puts us in a better position to evaluate both the performance of presidents and the opportunities for change. Equally important, we have a better sense of where to look for explanations of the success and consequences of presidential leadership. If there are significant limits on presidential persuasion, it follows that major changes in public policy will not necessarily turn on a president's persuasive skills or his willingness to use them.


Excerpted from Predicting the Presidency by George C. Edwards III. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

List of Tables xi

Preface xiii

Chapter 1 Asking the Right Questions 1


Chapter 2 Strategic Position with the Public 15

Chapter 3 Strategic Position with Congress 34

Chapter 4 Different Questions, Different Answers 53


Chapter 5 Reinforcing Opinion 77

Chapter 6 Exploiting Existing Opinion 107

Chapter 7 Cross-Pressuring

Opinion 138

Chapter 8 Reaching the Base 160

Chapter 9 Exploiting Partisans in Congress 183


Chapter 10 Leadership, Opportunity, and Strategic Assessments 203

Notes 215

Index 255

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