But this narrative, of a commander in chief dependent on using the bully pulpit to save his presidency from a potentially crippling defeat, is only one way to think about the coming showdown in Congress. In fact, it might mischaracterize the way presidential power is exercised while overlooking other factors that ultimately will determine whether Obama succeeds in winning lawmakers’ support.
That, at least, is the implication of a paper written by George C. Edwards III, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. The paper, “Persuasion Is Not Power,” was presented at the American Political Science Association meeting last weekend in Chicago. Written before Obama announced that he would go to Congress ahead of taking military action, it nonetheless offers insight into what powers of persuasion presidents do and do not have.
Edwards begins his analysis with a useful reminder. He quotes a line from presidential historian James MacGregor Burns, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” Taking action, for example, is not necessarily leading.
“At its core,” Edwards wrote, “decision making represents a different dimension of the job of the chief executive than obtaining the support of others.” Obama has decided that action is needed in Syria. Having chosen not to move on his own, although he said he has the power to do so, he must try to bring others around to his position.
Edwards also points to the seminal work on presidential leadership of the late Richard Neustadt. It was Neustadt who said that “presidential power is the power to persuade,” and he offered some caveats about how checks and balances inhibit that power.
But, as Edwards argues, many scholars and commentators nonetheless “have fallen prey to the personalization of politics” and therefore have “an exaggerated concept” of the potential for a president to sway public opinion or bend lawmakers to his will. “Faith in the persuasive presidency also simplifies the evaluation of the problems of governing,” he adds.
It is against that backdrop that Obama will be speaking Tuesday.
Reagan, LBJ and FDR
Through much of his presidency, Obama has suffered from criticism that he lacks the power to persuade, especially on Capitol Hill. During his 2012 reelection campaign, his own focus groups reported criticism from sympathetic voters, who wondered why he couldn’t be more like Lyndon B. Johnson, who was famous for his ability to twist arms in Congress.