Many scholars and academics have claimed that Richard Neustadt’s book Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, a brilliant and insightful commentary on not only the workings of the office of the president but also the pitfalls any president can encounter as well as the way personality and leadership fit into the making of a president. In short, Neustadt almost gives us a model for what a president must be and what he must and must not do. He relives decisions and actions made by past presidents that have affected presidential leadership and power. It is easy to see why many attribute this book the status that it well deserves. It is easy to see why Kennedy reportedly kept a copy of the first edition of this book with him in the oval office. This book is a classic introspective study of the presidency that is unparalleled in quality.
For the most part, Neustadt does not look at presidents individually. Rather he takes situations that relate to his arguments and discusses how different presidents or depending on the situation a certain president dealt with that situation. He begins with what he calls three cases of command that he falls back on continuously through the work. He uses Truman’s tenuous relationship and eventual dismissal of MacArthur, the decision of Eisenhower to use troops to enforce integration of schools in Arkansas, and the seizure of the steel industry by Truman. He repeatedly refers to the first two of these but uses the latter very little to illustrate his points after initial discussion. The basic structure is very effective because it provides for a study of the presidency as an institution, not a study of presidents.
Neustadt does not underemphasize the role that personality and style plays in term of each president. He uses it to support many of his assertions. He correctly points out that personality and style contributes to all aspects of how any man serves as president but it is not everything. Personality and style do not account for experience, intellect, and temperament. Neustadt does n excellent job of showing how all of these factors relate and combine to form a president and a presidential style. He shows how these factors influence presidential decision making as well as contribute to presidential inadequacies and pitfalls of administrations.
Neustadt also discusses everything that he believes attributes to presidential power. In doing so, he is constantly referring back to the original three cases studied, commenting on them and introducing other relevant experiences. His topics range from the power to persuade, reputation, prestige, and personalities of men in office. In the course of this he reveals what he believes to be the most important traits of any president. He feels that presidents need not necessarily be a genius, but rather somewhat intelligent with outstanding temperament, which I take to mean personality, as well as the experience in government to understand the duties and effectively serve as president.
Neustadt then examines subsequent presidents in situational terms. He begins with Kennedy and the final president he examines in Reagan. He examines Ford, Carter, and the one aspect of Reagan’s presidency on transitional terms and speaks on the problems that presidential transitions can cause. He also uses the experiences of Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs as excellent background and primary information in this study.
Neustadt concludes his examination of presidential leadership with what is without a doubt the best example of all of his main points wrapped together and effecting presidential decision making and leadership. Neustadt looks at the Iran Contra affair and the involvement of Reagan in the affair. The scandal and Reagan’s involvement or lack thereof illustrates and gives life to all of Neustadt’s assertions and arguments. It is almost as if the Iran Contra Affair is a case study in presidential leadership and power that illustrates and gives life to all of Neustadt’s main points. It fits in with his arguments almost flawlessly.
Overall, this book can almost be viewed almost as a “how to” book for the presidency. It is very comprehensive and would give any president or candidate for that matter direction in how to be an effective president. I don’t think that is the author’s underlying purpose for this examination. I am in no position to say for sure what the purpose was but it clearly transcends the presidency itself and permeates all levels of leadership, no matter how large or small the scope. Leaders at all levels can benefit form this examination of the presidency. All presidents should read this book. Practically it can be put to very good use by any president not only in times of crisis but at any juncture. However, he must not completely immerse himself in the book and the practice of past presidents because a major facet of presidential leadership is personal personality of the president. There is no way to construct a great president by simply reading a book. However, knowledge of the past and of one’s predecessors can surely improve job performance. That is what this book accomplishes. Even though it can not create a great president, it can contribute to the development of a president as an effective leader.
A study of the modern presidency is definitely beneficial for scholars and academics but I don not know how beneficial it is to the general public. It is without a doubt a very important piece for any person studying American politics or the presidency, However, beyond that, its value is questionable at best. That is not to say that this work does accomplish anything because it can be an invaluable tool to many.
I do not question the value of the work but I do question how beneficial it can be. It seems that Neustadt has taken a small number of occurrences and analyzed the past sixty years of presidential leadership in this country. If there is any weakness in the book, that is it. I find it hard to connotatively and collectively analyze presidential leadership since Franklin Roosevelt based on such a small sampling of occurrences. In my eyes, that aspect detracts heavily form the analysis. The situations chosen by Neustadt are major, policy shaping events that happen maybe once in every administration. They have value because they show how a president reacts when faced with a tough situation but they do not show the day to day operations and leadership of a president. That is where the real power of a president is created and that is where the power of a president is undermined and destroyed.
The major policy shaping events just clarify and display the power or lack thereof that a president possesses. These are the times when president need to be able to rely upon their power and their subordinates the most but without success and consistency on all aspects of the job, that power and credibility will not be there when the president needs it most. Neustadt does a good job of describing the factors that contribute to how a president exhibits his power through the major events of an administration and how a president can lose credibility and power as result of a major issue. The exception to this is when he is discussing Reagan and the Iran Contra affair. He spends a great deal of time discussing how Reagan’s individual style contributed to the whole scandal but even that discussion does not address in detail how Reagan ran the day to day operations of the presidency which heavily contributed to the effects and ramifications of the Iran contra affair.
To turn that around, the best part of Neustadt’s analysis is the way he applies the major policy shaping issues to presidential power and ultimate effectiveness. The major events that Neustadt’s devotes most of his analysis to are the events that shape the way history will view that president’s power and effectiveness.
He uses the example of Lyndon Johnson to illustrate this. Before Johnson ascended to the presidency, he had a long and glorious career in politics and political life. He worked his way up through the system. He knew politics, he knew how government worked, and he knew how to get things done in Washington. Johnson had the makings to be one of our greatest presidents. The early part of his administration was characterized with success. Johnson’s abilities and clout are displayed by the mere fact that he was the first southerner elected president since the Civil War and that he was the man who signed civil rights legislation into law.
It is very ironic that a Johnson, a Texan, of all people was the man to initiate civil rights and equality in this country. If anything should be Johnson’s legacy, it should be civil rights, but unfortunately it is not and probably never will be. The Johnson administration was successful in many things but the one thing he will be remembered for by history was one his few and biggest failures. That was Vietnam. Vietnam forced Lyndon Johnson into retirement of sorts. It ended his presidency, his career, and changes the way history will view him. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the beast. Neustadt recognizes this and thus devotes much of his attention to major events that not only shape policy but also shape the way that history will look upon a president. That is mot likely the reason he discussions situations first and presidential responses and actions second. To some degree the situation is more important than the presidency even though no two presidents will have the ability or option to deal with identical situations in identical ways due to differences in perceived and actual power, personality, style, and overall effectiveness. Neustadt does a good job of realizing and communicating that the presidency is an intensely personal experience that goes trough a transformation every time a new president takes that office.
On the whole, Neustadt’s work is an important work that can benefit any president or scholar. It is an insightful piece on presidential power that contributes to the understanding of the entire executive branch. However, the book is not without its flaws or rather oversights by the author. The battles that establish a president’s ultimate effectiveness and power are won in the everyday conflicts and decisions a president must make, figuratively speaking, they are won in the trenches. In essence, the everyday actions of the president are what empowers him and what gives his office that legitimacy that he needs to rely on in crisis situations. The situations Neustadt focuses on reveal the presidents strengths and weaknesses that are fashioned in the every day workings of the presidency. However, that may be an entirely different study and approach to critiquing presidential power.
The development of presidential power and the way a president exercises that power is extremely complex. Entire volumes could be devoted to each and every situation or president Neustadt examines. He does it in relative brevity that appeals to diverse audiences without watering down any of the content. That is what makes this book a classic in American government and leadership. That is why presidents and scholars should read this book. That is why Kennedy had a copy of this book in the oval office and that is why every president should have a copy of this book in the oval office. It doesn’t give them a blueprint per se but each person can and will get something different out of it and they will get ideas of not necessarily how to be president because there are too many factors that effect how one should act as president but they will get ideas of how not to be president. That is the real value of this bo