Sunday, September 8, 2013

presidential power to persuade

Dan Balz, veteran political reporter for the Washington Post, has a column indicating how hard it will be for President Obama to rally public opinion in support of his Syria policy. He also quotes presidential scholar George Edwards decrying the "personalization of politics" and "an exaggerated concept" of the power of the bully pulpit.

I agree with those points, and with these additional ones quoting Edwards:
“The most effective presidents do not create opportunities by reshaping the political landscape. Instead, they exploit opportunities already present in their environments to facilitate significant changes in public policy. . . . Effective facilitators are skilled leaders who must recognize the opportunities that exist in their environments, choose which opportunities to pursue, when and in what order, and exploit them with skill, energy, perseverance, and will.”

When I talked to Edwards about this on Friday in the context of Obama’s coming speech, he said, “There’s a broad, fundamental point, which is that presidents rarely move public opinion.” He also noted that the default position among the public is to do nothing. “The default position doesn’t advantage the president,” he said.
The trouble with a lot of faulty analysis is a belief in the bully pulpit and a misunderstanding of Richard Neustadt's famous point the presidential power was ultimately only the power to persuade. Presidential speeches can focus public attention -- 'framing' issues -- but rarely change public opinion.

Neustadt's point was first of all to contrast real presidential power with formal legal authority. His actual argument was that presidential power was only the power to persuade others that it was in their interest to do what the president wanted. That, he said, was the product of legal authority, public opinion, and the president's "professional reputation," meaning his skills at what Edwards called exploiting opportunities. Persuasion wasn't an intellectual result, but a power calculation that an official had more to gain by agreeing with than by opposing the president.

In this case, President Obama is in trouble, in Neustadtian terms, because of his falling overall level of public approval and because of congressional views that he is indecisive, uncertain, not tough, and not very skilled at using presidential tools.

While the public relations blitz is on for the Syria policy, it remains to be seen whether it can actually "persuade" enough members of Congress.

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