Menu Adam R Brown

Notes navigation: Browse by titleBrowse by authorSubject index

Neustadt: Presidential power

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Neustadt. 1960. Presidential power.

In Brief

Key Point: "Presidential power is the power to persuade." (11) 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.

Neustadt's conclusion is a good summary:

"Effective influence for the man in the White House stems from three related sources: first are the bargaining advantages inherent in his job with which to persuade other men that what he wants of them is what their own responsibilities require them to do. Second are the expectations of those other men regarding his ability and will to use the various advantages they think he has. Third are those men's estimates of how his public views him and of how their publics may view them if they do what he wants. In short, his power is the product of his vantage points in government, together with his reputation in the Washington community and his prestige outside.

"A President, himself, affects the flow of power from these sources, though whether they flow freely or run dry he never will decide alone. He makes his personal impact by the things he says and does. Accordingly, his choices of what he should say and do, and how and when, are his means to conserve and tap the sources of his power. Alternatively, choices are the means by which he dissipates his power. The outcome, case by case, will often turn on whether he perceives his risk in power terms and takes account of what he sees before he makes his choice. A President is so uniquely situated and his power so bound up with the uniqueness of his place, that he can count on no one else to be perceptive for him" (150).

Place in the Literature

Like Madison (1787), #10 and Truman (1951), Neustadt uses a pluralist view to understand politics. In the pluralist world, competing factions mobilize and counter-mobilize, persuading and arguing until policy ultimately arrives at what the typical citizen would want. (For critiques of pluralism, see the summary of Truman.)

Kernell (1997) later argued that presidents have shifted from Neustadt's bargaining model to a more confrontational tactic that he calls "going public."


Presidents must persuade/bargain, not command

The president's primary power is to persuade and bargain, not to command. When a president has to resort to commanding people, he is showing weakness. Commands only work in very special circumstances. "The essence of a President's persuasive task is to convince such men that what the White House wants of them is what they ought to do for their sake and on their authority" (30).

Shared, not separated powers

The American system is one of shared, not separated, powers (see Madison 1787, #51). The president is only one of several masters of the bureaucracy, and even the White House staff have independent sources of power (34-6). People in all positions cannot do much without persuading others to help them, and this applies even to the president. However, more people need favors from the president than from any other person. This gives the president bargaining power.

President's sources of power

The president's resources include the bargaining powers that come with the position, professional reputation, and public prestige.

  1. The president's professional reputation involves how others expect him to react. Isolated failures are not a problem, but if the failures form a pattern, this will weaken him. In addition to anticipating what the president wants, others also have to assess how hard he will try to get it. Tenacity is important. If a president cannot convince others that he will inevitably win, at least he needs to convince them that it will be costly to cross him. You can't punish everyone, but you need to selectively punish your enemies and reward your allies.
  2. Public prestige deals with the president's popular support outside Washington. (With reputation, people anticipate the reactions of the president; with prestige, they anticipate the reactions of the voters.) Most politicians and bureaucrats do not watch poll numbers directly; they watch Congress. Prestige conveys leeway because low prestige encourages resistance.
  3. The president must safeguard his power personally. No one else sees politics from the same vantage point, and so no one else can do this for him. Everyone else has the institutional pulls of their position tinting their judgment. "Yet nobody and nothing helps a President to see, save as he helps himself" (127).


Executive bargaining

When the president needs to do something entirely within the executive branch, his power may be weak. After all, agency heads must think about Congress, their clients, their staff, and themselves in addition to the president. Agency heads have been delegated enough authority that they can have substantial influence over policy. Their power is almost equal to the president's, at least within their policy realm. Even though agency heads nominally belong to the executive branch, the president may actually have less influence over them than their other principals. Thus, since the president has less power over them, he cannot bargain as effectively to get them to do what he wants--and getting what he wants always requires bargaining and persuasion, not simple commanding.

Congressional bargaining

When bargaining with Congress, on the other hand, Congress needs the president to do certain things: submit a nomination, sign a bill, etc. Oddly enough, the president sometimes has a stronger hand persuading Congress than persuading agency heads within the executive branch. The president's increased power gives him an increased ability to persuade and bargain. Failing to go along with a president can be damaging to members of Congress if the president is popular; see Kernell's (1997) development of this point.

Research on similar subjects


Neustadt, Richard (author)American PoliticsPresidency (US)Pluralism

Wikisum home: Index of all summaries by title, by author, or by subject.