Sunday, May 6, 2012

Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power: Chapter 9, "Appraising a President"

In this first supplementary chapter added to the original text, Neustadt tries to assess Kennedy's mastery of presidential power.  He argues that there is a special difficulty in making judgments about Kennedy's term.  He concludes from the record of other modern presidents that it takes a year and a half for a new president to come to grips with his predicament, and that the decisions one makes during this learning period may not be telling indicators of a presidency as a whole.  Kennedy only had about a year more than that initial eighteen-month tutelary period as president, however.

Neustadt concludes that the third, fifth, and sixth years are actually the most reliable guide to a president's approach and priorities, because running for re-election and the lame-duck period at the end also distort the picture.  It strikes me how this much this runs against the grain of the conventional view that the first 100 days of a presidency are decisive, largely because that it is when it is easiest to pass new legislation. I don't think that the conventional view is wrong, except with respect to timing -- 100 days is an arbitrary and indeed too short a period for significant legislation. Nor do I think it conflicts with Neustadt's analysis.  But I think that, put together, these insights bring out the key tension of the modern presidency: a president's greatest potential power coincides with the period when a new president is still learning how to exercise that power and, to some extent, deciding what to exercise that power for.

Neustadt identifies four core commitments undertaken by Kennedy as president: avoiding a blunder into nuclear war, promoting civil rights, overcoming ideological obstacles to rational economic management, and combating poverty.  He concedes that there isn't much of a case for including the last of these.  The evidence for the second is also less clear than even Neustadt admits: while he notes that Kennedy made no real progress on new legislation, he overlooks the more serious issue of Kennedy's persistence in appointing pro-segregation Southern judges.  Moreover, Neustadt dubiously claims Kennedy was not deeply committed to pursuing conflict in Vietnam, which is hard to square with his approval of the 1963 coup to overthrow Diem.

Neustadt finds that Kennedy developed a keen sense for exercising the executive power of decision effectively.  After his early blunder with the Bays of Pigs invasion, he learned to reach down deep for information to understand his options, to keep his options open as much as possible, and to follow up on the implementation of his decisions very closely -- micromanaging, we would call it. He also had an unusually fine sense for the predicament of fellow world leaders and their motivations.

Neustadt argues that Kennedy never had a comparable feel for how to make use of his influence to pass legislation.  He did not enjoy cultivating relationships with members of Congress that were necessary for legislative success.  Given the intractability of Congressional opposition to his legislative agenda, however, particularly on civil rights, Neustadt doubts that Kennedy could have done much better even if his feel for influence in this arena had been better.  On the other hand, he related well to the broader public and created a strong sense of attachment, even though he was wary of emotional appeals.

According to Neustadt, Kennedy was well served by remaining calm, collected and engaged under the pressure of events. Neustadt is sure that some of this confident disposition can be attributed to Kennedy's service as a junior officer in the Second World War.  He diffidently points to Kennedy's success in achieving electoral victories previously thought improbable (winning senatorial and presidential elections at an early age and, in the latter case, as a Catholic) and his brushes with mortality as other possible factors informing Kennedy's attitude.

Regarding Kennedy's legacy, Neustadt notes that, in the first place, he left a Vice-President who was unusually well-prepared to take over.  He left a generally more flexible defense and foreign policy, but also a deepening engagement in Vietnam with which Johnson partially squandered that flexibility.  He left a simmering controversy over civil rights which Johnson was able to make good use of in order to push through landmark celebration.  ( I can't see how Kennedy deserves any credit for this, since the controversy was generated by forces outside his administration.)  Finally, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, he left the example of successfully navigating a nuclear confrontation.  Neustadt does register the dissenting view that Kennedy took an unnecessary risk in the first place by bringing us to the brink of nuclear war with this confrontation.  I would add that Kennedy's failure to fully disclose the compromise that made a peaceful conclusion of the crisis possible also had a lasting effect, by setting an unrealistic standard for apparent presidential firmness in future Cold War confrontations.

Neustadt concludes his analysis by commenting on how the prospect of mutual nuclear annihilation has changed the exercise of presidential power.  In the first place, to an even greater extent than was true before, the president has no peers with comparable responsibility.   The exigencies of potential nuclear conflict focus more importance on decisions the president alone can make.  Furthermore, consciousness that even small conflicts can build dangerous momentum toward a war with irreparable consequences means that a president will feel compelled to monitor the conduct of military and security operations much more closely than had been true before.  Micromanagement, so to speak, has become an occupational necessity.

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