The American President and the Power to Persuade

The presidential power of persuasion, which was first described by Richard Neustadt, is a thoroughly important one. It is by this method that the president politicks to have Bills of his choosing pass in Congress. It is by this method that the president secures his authority in matters such as the running of the federal bureaucracy. But there are those who suggest that, contrary perhaps to the wishes of the Founding Fathers, the president has acquired many powers extra to any persuasive facility.

The president could be seen to employ persuasion in influencing his Cabinet, and those who run the administration’s departments and agencies. He appoints the Cabinet and, since there is no honours system, which might have served as sufficient government patronage to guarantee affection and loyalty, he has to maintain his influence on these individuals. An example of this is the state of US secretaries of defense during the Obama years. Leon Panetta was Obama’s defense secretary in from 2009 to 2011, and it was partially on his orders that the mission to kill Osama bin Laden was undertaken. But he required persuasion from the president to do so (though even if that were not necessary, he could not have ordered the operation entirely without recourse to his superior). Similarly, the administration has often had difficulty with the actions of federal employees and contractors. Since the president has little direct power over these officials, he must rely on persuading his departmental heads to act. In any case, it is certain that loyalty to a president – and the charismatic persuasion this requires to a certain extent – could be seen to keep those employees or contractors with errant impulses in line.

Since the Cabinet is not as central an institution in the US as it is in the United Kingdom, the fact is that the president can ultimately disagree with or even refuse to summon its members; President George W. Bush held 49 full Cabinet meetings in the course of his time in office. With the absence of regular meetings, and a lack of a Cabinet tradition to resemble the British equivalent, the president does not need to persuade his Cabinet as the British Prime Minister might have to do. He can also largely dictate the functions of his Executive Office (EOP), for example.

The president frequently needs to intercede in Congressional matters in order to secure the outcome he favours. He does so by persuasion. Bill Clinton personally phoned Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky in 1993 in order to insist that she vote his way on the budget. Similarly, the existence of this power can also be seen in the instances when it falls through or does not work. When the Senate wishes to filibuster Obama’s judicial appointments, for example, it can take months for the president to get his way. There have been a remarkable number of judicial filibusters in Obama’s time in office. This could be seen to stand testament to his powers being limited to that of persuasion.

The president has many other powers, however; they are greater than persuasion alone and can be especially effective in combination. While he does have to go to Congress in order to declare war (and may have to persuade the legislators to do so), he does have substantial powers in relation to aerial campaigns, for example, which do not require Congressional authorisation because the numbers of soldiers committed are generally low. A current example is Operation Inherent Resolve (the much-criticised aerial campaign against ISIS), which did not require Congressional authorisation.

Other military matters, though, can be seen to have fallen flat when the president in office at the time has been unable to persuade. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, President Bush was held up from sending in the National Guard because to do so he needed the authorisation of governors. He did not receive this authorisation for a time, and was unable to do anything about it; and furthermore, the bureaucratic implements of the governmental bodies associated with deploying the National Guard were slow to act. Similarly, President Obama was unable to enact a no-fly zone over Syria in August 2013 because he was unable to persuade a sufficient number of members of Congress ahead of time; they did not pledge him support, and he withdrew the potential vote (though it must be noted that he did this not only because he worried about losing a potential Congressional vote – in practice the machinery was in place but the president himself was unwilling).

This military state of affairs exists largely by convention, however. The US president has already been granted the power to deploy forces of indeterminate size to deal with any potential future threat to the United States. This was the power which was invoked in the run up to the Iraq War in 2003, and it is the same one Obama used to back up his airstrikes on the Islamic State in September 2014. The existence of this power gives the lie to the notion that the president’s only power is that of persuasion.

The president is limited, however, in how he acts on many matters; he must secure the support of the Senate when ratifying treaties, for example, and cannot indefinitely delay legislation. His ‘line veto’ was declared unconstitutional in the 1990s, and a Congressional supermajority would override any veto on a piece of legislation. In this respect, he is limited by the powers allotted to him, and the political operator must resort to persuasion in order to have his way. The Kyoto Protocol was never put before the Senate, despite the intentions of Bill Clinton. The president in this case had no power to enforce his will on an unhappy Congress; the only tool he had was persuasion, and it did not work.

It must be seen, however, that the president still has a significant number of other powers in the realm of legislation. His power is in no way limited to persuasion when he can kill bills with his pocket veto – provided they reach his desk in the last ten days of a Congressional session. The use of the pocket veto is falling – Franklin D. Roosevelt used over 100 to Obama’s 30 – but it still represents a power beyond that of mere persuasion.

It seems clear that the president’s powers are not limited to persuasion alone. He has a federal bureaucracy behind him; the ability – as The Nation might have it – to make war, sometimes on grounds which Congress might disagree with, or find suspect; the continuing power of veto; and the ability to dismiss or clip the wings of his departmental heads. These are not insignificant, and they amount to far more in the realm of powers than mere persuasion.