What is the True Power of the Presidency?

Guardian: In the 1950s, a number of biographies of strong presidents and academic treatises on the institution had stressed its powers and the variety of the president’s roles, for example as head of state, head of government, commander in chief, party leader and “leader of the Free World.”

Richard Neustadt, who was for more than 40 years the pre-eminent scholar of the American presidency, took a radically original view. His seminal book, revised for the last time in the 1990s, was ”Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership From Roosevelt to Reagan.”

The president, he believed, had to grab “for just enough power to get by the next day’s problems.” He quoted Truman, at the end of his time in the White House, as saying about his successor, Ike Eisenhower: “He will sit there, and he will say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike – it won’t be a bit like the army.”

Neustadt argued that “the power of the presidency is the power to persuade.” To be precise, he said, the government has three assets: the power to persuade, its professional reputation, and its public prestige. In a government like that of the United States, where powers are shared between Congress, the judiciary and the executive branch headed by the president, the president must do his best to bargain with rival power centres to get what he believes to be needed…

He predicted that presidents “will less and less have reason to seek solace in foreign relations from the piled-up frustrations of home affairs. Their foreign frustration will be piled high too.”

He quoted Harry Truman: ““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.”


When Mr Neustadt’s career began, just after the second world war, presidential power was seen in a very different way. Years of sycophancy and political theorising had convinced incoming presidents that they wielded near-total authority. Victory in the war had given them something close to universal sway, in the free world at least. Yet their power, in Mr Neustadt’s devastating phrase, amounted in fact to a “clerkship”. They could not force or order change. Instead, they more or less had to seek it from Congress “on their knees”.

In what, then, did their authority consist? Three things, said Mr Neustadt:

  • public prestige,
  • professional reputation, and most of all
  • the power to persuade.
  • The three were linked. If the public liked a president, Congress (assuming, as so often, that it was of the other party) would go along for a while, granting him a brief honeymoon. The slightest sign of unease in the country, however, would remove the smiling mask, and Congress would pounce to destroy him.
  • The answer, therefore, was not to act like a campaigner or a commander, but to be conciliatory. A new president had to learn that power in America was wielded most effectively by the separated branches acting together. He had to get Congress on his side, and concentrate on going where his opponents might be willing to follow. That way lay the prospect of impressive shows of power.


Mr. Neustadt’s most influential work on the presidency was first published in 1960 under the title ”Presidential Power,” and periodically revised over the years until it was published in 1990 as ”Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership From Roosevelt to Reagan.”

His work was widely celebrated by scholars as a modern version of Machiavelli’s Renaissance study of power, ”The Prince.” Mr. Neustadt said his intent was to explore ”the classic problem of the man on the top,” that of ”how to be on top in fact as well as in name.”

”Presidential power is the power to persuade,” he said…

‘Mr. Neustadt’s texts are intended to be analyses of exercises in power,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in 1990 in a review in The New York Times, ”and as such they are acute and informative whether comparing Truman’s Korea with Johnson’s Vietnam, or figuring out why Kennedy was able to overcome the Bay of Pigs fiasco.”

Amazon.com reviewer: “This is one of the three seminal works available on the Presidency. There are others but this is one of the big guns. If you read this book, along with Corwin’s “Presidential Power” and Rossiter’s “The American Presidency”, you’ll understand all three theories of presidential power: the weak President (Neustadt), the strong President (Corwin) and the President wearing many hats (Rossiter). In reality, all three are correct.”





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