Prepared for GVPT 475
Instructor: James M Curry

There are three theories of presidential power…
 Neustadt’s “Power to Persuade” Theory
 Kernell’s Theory of “Going Public”
 Skowronek’s Theory of “Political Time”

Argues that presidents cannot lead directly. In other words,
just because a president says he wants something done does
not mean it will be so.

Instead presidential power is a function of his or her ability to
persuade relevant Washington actors that it is in their
interest to cooperate.

Assumes a small Washington community with identifiable
leaders who the president can negotiate with directly. These
leaders (whether legislative, bureaucratic, or from an
interested group) can then marshal their followers in support
of the president. This arrangement is known as
“institutionalized pluralism”.

The system of “institutionalized pluralism” hinges on a
couple of norms:
 Comity/Honor: Actors in the policy-making process are expected to keep
their promises, act amiably, and general try to work out compromises. No
one, including the media, is out to get anyone else. It is understood that
everyone is working towards a common good, even if there are
disagreements.
 Seniority: More senior members of Congress and of the bureaucracy are
expected to be deferred to. These institutional leaders can marshal the
support of others.

Powerful, or successful, presidents are those that can
bargain effectively with the relevant actors. FDR is portrayed
as the most successful president in the world of
institutionalized pluralism.

Kernell’s theory is a response to Neustadt’s theory. Kernell
argues that the Washington community has changed since
the time Neustadt wrote, and as a result changes in
presidential strategies were necessary.

Kernell argues specifically that the Washington community
has become more individualistic, less hierarchical, less
amiable, and harder to win the support of. Rather than being
able to bargain with just a few members of Congress, a few
relevant bureaucrats, and a few relevant interest group
leaders, presidents now must interact with all 535 members
of Congress, a vast bureaucracy, and an innumerable number
of interested groups and lobbyists. Kernell labels this
arrangement as “individualized pluralism”.

As a consequence of this new arrangement, Kernell argues
presidents cannot effectively bargain within the Washington
community. Instead, it is in their interest to “go public” or
take their case directly to the people. The logic is that if
presidents can win over public support they will pressure
other actors, particularly members of Congress, to support
their initiatives.

Of course, Kernell does not believe that “going public” will
always work. He presents numerous examples of failed
attempts. Power, or successful, presidents are those who can
effectively communicate their message and sway public
opinion. Ronald Reagan is seen as the archetypical powerful
president under this theory.


Skowronek’s theory of presidential power differs
dramatically from Neustadt’s and Kernell’s. Rather than
looking to presidential activity for indicators of presidential
power or success, Skowronek looks to the political
environment a president faces.
Skowronek envisions American history as cycles of political
time. Each cycle is marked by the rise and fall of political
regimes. A regime, in this sense, is a party or faction that
rises to power in what Skowronek calls “reconstructive
elections”. In these elections, a faction or party soundly
defeats the opposing party with a mandate to make
dramatic and sweeping changes to public policy. Some
reconstructive elections were the elections of 1800, 1828,
1860, 1932, and to some degree 1980.
Presidents elected as reconstructive presidents have the most
leeway to take dramatic action and have the best opportunity to
be powerful and successful. Subsequent presidents will have a
harder and harder time finding success because either the
platform the regime was elected to implement will slowly be
completed, or the regime fall out of favor with the public.
Eventually, the regime will fall by being soundly defeated by a new
regime. Presidents at the end of a regime’s time will have the
most difficulty finding success.
 To Skowrownek, presidents do not have complete control over
their destiny. Their ability to be powerful is, to a large degree, a
consequence of what has happened before their time and the
political environment they face in office. Jefferson is portrayed as
the most powerful president by this theory. Other powerful
presidents were Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and to some degree,
Reagan.
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Three Theories of Presidential Power