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How Does Kernell’s Theory Update Neustadt’s Idea?

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Presidents are expected to do much more than their authority allows them to do. Persuasion and bargaining are the means that presidents use to influence policy. Not only do presidents need to bargain to influence other branches of government (particularly Congress), but presidents also must bargain to influence the executive branch itself; cabinet secretaries, agency heads, and individual bureaucrats all have leverage that they can use against the president, requiring presidents to persuade even the executive branch, not merely command it.

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It is Presidents Day – a time to repost my traditional column commemorating the late, great Richard E. Neustadt. This year the post seems particularly timely, given the controversy surrounding our current President – especially the fear that his authoritarian tendencies will undermine the presidency and the Constitutional order. As I hope becomes clear by reading this post, I suspect Neustadt would have a different, but not less worrisome, reaction to Trump’s presidency. Until his death in 2003 at the age of 84, Neustadt was the nation’s foremost presidency scholar. In his almost six decades of public service and in academia, Neustadt advised presidents of both parties and their aides, and distilled these experiences in the form of several influential books on presidential leadership and decisionmaking

Perhaps his biggest influence, however, came from the scores of students (including Al Gore) he mentored at Columbia and Harvard, many of whom went on to careers in public service. Others (like me!) opted for academia where they schooled subsequent generations of students in Neustadt’s teachings, (and sometimes wrote blogs on the side.) Interestingly, Neustadt came to academia through a circuitous route that, unfortunately, is rarely used today. After a brief stint in FDR’s Office of Price Administration, followed by a tour in the military, he returned to government as a mid-level career bureaucrat in President Harry Truman’s Bureau of the Budget (BoB) in 1946, gradually working his way up the ranks until he was brought into Truman’s White House in 1950 as a junior-level political aide.

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All things considered, presidential power is not easy to come by and even the most skillful of presidents will have to be flexible, always sensitive to the need for multiple channels information, always frugal in using power resources to get their way, and always employing the art of persuasion in a bargaining situation, thereby avoiding at almost all cost the direct issuing a confrontational command.

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