Many Americans view the President as an unquestioned, ruling body of the executive branch. In reality, the executive branch of government encompasses thousands of people, all having some input in the decision making process. Despite this, the President remains the focal point of the executive branch; he is unique in his position of power. Robert Neustadt, in his book Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, argues that the presidency is better characterized in terms of weaknesses. He states several factors that contribute to the weakness of the President. Although some points made by Neustadt seem to be valid, they also have a sense of being too clear cut, win or lose. The fact that the President’s duties and situations differ must be taken into account when looking at the true power of the presidency.
“The same conditions that promote his (the President) leadership in form, preclude a guarantee of leadership in fact,” according to Neustadt, there is a difference in the clerkly powers and the actual enforceable powers of the presidency. It is now a custom to expect the President to have a say about everything. These expectations have lead to the increase in the executive branch and, according to Neustadt, the weakness of the presidency.
Although there is no guarantee that the president is the leader in fact, increasing the clerkly tasks of the president does guarantee that the President has some say in a variety of issues at hand. A far reaching executive branch is much better that a confined one. The mere fact that the presidency is so large statistically increases the chance for failure, in the sense of not obtaining a desired outcome. Neustadt does not consider that increasing the executive branch increases the bargaining power of the president, which he himself states as a key issue for success of the President. Simply because the executive branch is becoming larger, and more fragmented does constitute weakness of the presidency. It is the duty of the President to control, or care to control the increasing branch. The president must stay informed and demand to be informed to make the right decisions. Weakness lies rather with the individual rather than the presidency in general. If a president chooses not to pay attention to detail, that is his error, case in point Iran-Contra.
Our political agendas are filled with crisis and war. Every issue in today’s society is considered a war on something or other; drugs, crime, terror. It is clear that the President must set priorities, but Neustadt states his lack in carrying out priorities is a weakness. The presidency may consist of thousands of people and interests, but the rating of the presidency falls solely on the President himself. The President’s approval rating, “public prestige” is a factor in his bargaining power. Neustadt feels that “public prestige” is only a secondary factor looked at by Washingtonians, members of the political “Washington community” as a whole, to make decisions. According to Neustadt, ” (public prestige) is a factor operating mostly in the background as a conditioner, not the determinant, of what Washingtonians will do about a President’s request.”
The President’s approval rating is very important, not just secondary as Neustadt contends. If he is to bargain, he needs to show that he has support. What better support than from the American public. Because his constituents are cross sections with varied interests and demands, the President must turn to the public in time of need. In today’s society “public prestige” plays a larger role than ever in many outside decisions made about the presidency. It is not only a great bargaining tool, but can also be a useful “get out of jail free card.” When the public likes the President they can shift blame away from themselves with greater ease.
The American political system is set up as a “government of separated institutions sharing powers.” Neustadt states that “what the constitution separates, our political parties do not combine.” Yet, he also lists the decline of political parties as a weakness of the President. The President must then draw on his ability to persuade rather than having outright political affiliation support. As congress becomes more decentralized, the Presidents influence becomes weaker.
Congress has always had its own set of interests and constituents so it is only a matter of time until they clash with the President. The decline of political parties should not have an effect on the presidency because according to Neustadt they do not combine what the constitution separates. How the President deals with unavoidable hesitation from congress shows his true leadership. If there was only smooth sailing with bills being passed left and right, there would be no contributions to the President’s “professional reputation”. Everyone needs to know where the President stands and how far he is willing to go to defend his views, public and Washingtonians alike. Only in a perfect world would there be true leadership of the President, not needing to persuade in order to get what he wants. It can not be expected that the President automatically has a sense of “don’t cross me or else” sometimes muscles must be flexed to get others’ attention, but these instances should not be seen as moments of full fledged weakness. As with any sharing situation there must be a give and take attitude.
Neustadt wrote Presidential Power as a sort of handbook for the President. Neustadt views the presidency from a strategic stand point. He feels that in order for a president to be successful, they must balance all their decisions based on maintenance of personal power. The President essentially has to think as if though in a chess game, where every move he makes must have some stance to the ultimate goal. A president’s primary concern should not be one of personal power. He must understand that his power is an accumulation of separate interests working with him to achieve different goals. The President is not an entity unto himself.
Preservation of personal powers is important to his “professional reputation” but it is not essential to his “public prestige.” These concepts go hand-in-hand when discussing the powers of the presidency. The President can not control the entire executive branch by concentrating on conserving and applying his personal powers. He must focus on strengthening the branch as a whole, in order to maintain his power. We do not have a weak president as Neustadt claims. The very fact that the executive branch is so large, and its formal description is so vague, gives the President freedom to exercise his power in different areas.