Friday, February 11, 2011

Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power: Chapter 6, "Two Matters of Choice"

Since presidential power depends on the president's ability to make choices, preserving that power means not getting boxed in by previous choices. (This is not Neustadt's metaphor, but I think it is apt.) Neustadt analyzes two presidential choices that went bad in this way: Eisenhower's decision to allow his own Treasury Secretary, George Humphrey, to speak against the budget plan of 1957 and Truman's acceptance of complete conquest of the North as a war aim of the Korean War in the fall on 1950. Eisenhower's decision robbed him of bargaining power because his own budget couldn't be taken seriously as a starting point. Truman's decision undermined his ability to persuade the public that a lesser war aim -- cease fire on a defensible line -- was acceptable.

Neustadt contends that the burden of seeing the stakes of presidential choices for his future power falls on the president alone. The way that his power could be restricted later by his choice may not be obvious from the situation, and his advisers will be of no help because they will see things only from the perspective of their expertise. I think Neustadt overstates this. First, at least some of every president's advisers are not policy specialists, and hence not prone towards blindness to consequences outside a narrow domain of expertise. Second, a president's lost leeway for action on any issue will affect the interests policy specialists in that area, so they would have some reason to be aware of the stakes of decisions for presidential power.

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