Monday, September 28, 2015

Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power: Chapter 11, "Hazards of Transition"

Neustadt starts this further reconsideration with the question, "is the presidency possible?" -- and then looks at some different ways this question could be understood.

Physically. He thinks the demands and the stream of duties are taxing, but in some ways better controlled than in earlier decades.

Morally and emotionally. He thinks the responsibilities of nuclear force weigh heavily on presidents, but no more so than has been the case for several decades.

Intellectually. He thinks the policy environment has recently grown more confusing, with disagreements even between experts, but that this is not at an unprecedented level -- not as pronounced as the 1930s, for example.

Operationally. This seems to be Neustadt's main doubt about the continued feasibility of the presidency, and the subject of the balance of the chapter.

Neustadt describes two competing standards for the operational success of the presidency. The first, which he dubs the Truman standard, is a minimal one: "Can a President keep the presidency going, turn out the work that keeps the government going, and hand both on, reasonably intact, to his successor" (210)

He notes that political and professional professionals judged President Carter according to the selectively recalled specialized talents of presidents of the preceding decades -- Kennedy for television, Johnson for dealing with Congress, Nixon for strategy, for example.

While Neustadt admits that the first standard is too low, he finds the second unrealistically demanding.

Several trends, loosely grouped under the concept of "atomization," have made governing more difficult for presidents.

1. Congress is less cohesive. Parties and leaders are weaker. Subcommittees have proliferated. Members have grown more apprehensive about and sensitive to home constituencies.

2. Administrations are also less cohesive. There is a larger number of appointees and a greatly expanded range of programs and responsibilities.

3. Interest groups have proliferated and become more institutionalized.

4. The professional class of political staffers -- employed in Congress, the administration, or interest groups -- has greatly expanded and networks formed by people in this class have become a significant factor in forming coalitions around issues.

Neustadt notes that, in theory, the President's standing and relative power could be enhanced by the dissolution of political institutions. But it did not work that way for Jimmy Carter. He gives four reasons for this.

1. The scope of his legislative program (although, really, the issue seems to be that the strategically well-positioned Senator Long of Louisiana opposed so many elements of his program).

2. His dependence on actors outside American government -- that is, either in the pirate sector or abroad -- to execute key elements of his agenda (fighting inflection, securing international agreements).

3. His relative obscurity.

4. Mistakes due being a new President -- the "hazards of transition."

Neustadt thinks it is likely that "atomization" increases the hazards of transition, but that these hazards could still be decreased by greater care and awareness.

Neustadt implicitly focuses on the hazards of transitions that occur when an election changes the party of the administration.

Two senses of transition:

1. Narrow. From election to inauguration.
2. Broad. Better part of the first two years in office.

Transition in the narrow sense is extremely compressed in duration -- about 11 weeks as a result of FDR's reform -- and many hazards follow from that. In this short time, the President-elect must make staff and cabinet appointments, sketch out a legislative program, establish a point of view on the outgoing administration's budget and its foreign and defense initiatives, and plan for the public presentation of the new administration.

Problems with Carter's pre-inaugural transition:

1. Conflicts between his dedicated transition planning staff (which he formed before the election) and his campaign staff delayed decisions.

2. Lack of outgoing Ford administration hampered planning.

3. Large size of post-transition staff led to more conflicts and delay and also favored increased size and prominence of permanent presidential staff in order to satisfy conflicting interests within the transition staff.

4. Inordinate time was devoted to selecting cabinet chiefs, given that governing through the cabinet would be incompatible with a large presidential staff.

5. Carter remained i Plains, which was too remote to keep on top of the transition and also annoying to the press.

It would have been better to have kept pre-election planning informal, to have used a smaller transition staff which consulted with OMB careerists and to have delegated work of filling cabinet appointments to them, to have personally connected with experienced Washington hands, and to have stayed someplace with closer contacts with Washington (or to have travelled there frequently).  These are all things that the Kennedy transition did serendipitously.

Neustadt thinks that the hazards of broader transition actually loom larger.  These entangled Kennedy, for example, even though he managed narrow transition well.

Neustadt organizes his account of the hazards of broad transitions through linked pairs of characteristics of new administrations: ignorance/innocence and hopefulness/arrogance.

Illustrative example from Kennedy administrations: the Bay of Pigs incident. Kennedy's staff was new to Washington and to each other. They were not aware of compartmentalization within the CIA that limited critical review of the invasion plan. They did not understand that the informal way that the Joint Chiefs were consulted had a similar effect by preventing them from consulting their planning staff. They allowed themselves to be pushed by deadlines that were apparent more than real. They placed excessive trust in the chief CIA planner, Richard Bissell, because of previous (college-era)connections when their roles needed to be more adversarial. They were not aware of the background of arguments in the previous administration that led to the plan, either. All of this ignorance was exacerbated by a hopefulness due to the team being self-consciously smart and accomplished, and thus supremely confident of their ability to accomplish things.

Example from the Carter administration: the Bert Lance controversy. Lance was a Georgia banker who Carter wanted as budget director. A setback at his bank left Lance facing a catastrophic loss if he divested his stock promptly, as required. He had also been under investigation before his appointment. But he was well-regarded and considered vital by Carter's staff. They decided to risk asking the Senate committee (Neustadt neglects to mention which one, but it was apparently the Government Affairs committee) for a time extension for the divestment, which was initially approved. This set off a series of attacks by the press and renewed investigations by the Comptroller of the Currency. Among other things, this exposed Lance's habitual use of bank overdrafts and use of bank deposits as collateral for his own debt. After a damaging summer of controversy for the Carter administration, he resigned.

Carter's team was ignorant about several key factors in the Washington scene. They did not understand that the press had been invigorated by Watergate and that government agencies had been set on edge by it. The former would be eager to pursue a new scandal, and the latter would be wary of appearing to cover up wrongdoing. They also did not see that the focus on Lance would be higher in a summer otherwise devoid of news. Furthermore, they did not know that the staff of Senator Ribicoff, the committee chair, could not be counted on for thoroughness, so that initial approval by the committee was not a guarantee of success. They were further hampered by a hopefulness based on the assumption that they were not of the Washington crowd, and thus not prone to its corrupt ways.

Neustadt's counsel is for new presidents to delay any action that is unusual or novel, because that is where there ignorance and arrogance are most likely to see them exposed. He also suggests that more realistic expectations of new administrations from the press and the public might ease the transition process. Confession and avoidance is a technique that could also be used by presidents to recover from mistakes during transitions, but it requires a high degree of trust from the public.

Neustadt notes that television, along with the growth of professional Washington, is a factor that has increased in importance since he wrote the first edition of this book in 1960. Other than JFK, the presidents during that time have not been skilled at using the medium. He thinks that television may be a more difficult medium for presidents to sue in order to mobilize the public, not least because of the competing distractions it provides.It is generally only useful to presidents in the course of compelling events. It also works best if the president is a familiar and trusted figure (both rare in an era of frequent presidential transitions and public mistrust).

Television has also reduced the autonomy of professional reputation and public prestige as factors in a president's power. Television increasingly transmits professional Washington's assessment of a president to the public at large. There is also the prospect that a president who is known to be effective at communicating to the public through television will gain an enhanced professional reputation.

Opportunities for a president to create consensus are limited by by the atomization of politics, but Neustadt thinks they still exist. He thinks that a president may be able to create consensus in response to certain crisis situations -- particularly terrorism, energy shortages, and urgent, catastrophic  environmental problems. Because the solutions to these are largely technical, however, it would not be enough for presidential action just to rally public support. Neustadt also sees increasing scope for "consensus without crisis" due to the shared professional outlook in Washington creating common ground on some issues. This can work as long as the public acquiesces, but that is harder to count on in an era where inflection is creating widespread discontent.

A president who is talented in using television is also prone to be less thoroughly prepared for the difficulties of administration. This kind of president should be especially careful at the outset of his term.

Neustadt concludes with a reflection that the United States increasingly has a professional political establishment like what already exists elsewhere, but without the clear career paths that exist in such establishments in UK and France. Balancing and working with this establishment is a growing challenge for the presidency. He holds out some hope that this might be bridged by a growing number of individuals who have followed a hybrid administrative-electoral career path.

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