The story line for this coming week is set: President Obama, facing a critical test of strength, will go before the nation to try to rally public opinion and persuade a reluctant Congress to give him the authority to launch military strikes against Syria.
The construct is familiar and appealing. It puts the focus almost singularly on the president as the decisive actor in a drama that has Washington and much of the world in suspense. It speaks directly to the stakes for Obama’s presidency if Congress rejects his appeal. And it renews questions about the president’s leadership skills that have followed him at other crucial moments.
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.
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.
Edwards looks at three presidents who are viewed as having had exceptional persuasive skills, in part because of major shifts in public policy during their presidencies: Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, Johnson in the 1960s and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
All three produced historic policy successes. Roosevelt launched the New Deal in a flurry of action during his first 100 days as president. Johnson, after his landslide election victory in 1964, created the architecture of the Great Society and engineered the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Reagan, after winning the presidency in 1980 by a margin that suggested a resounding popular mandate for conservative governance, pushed a Democratic Congress to pass significant tax cuts.
But, as Edwards notes, all of them ran into significant resistance to their policy initiatives later in their presidencies. He argues that their early successes owed more to their ability to take advantage of favorable conditions than to their powers of persuasion. Of Roosevelt’s later years, he writes, “Either Roosevelt had lost his persuasive skills, which is not a reasonable proposition, or other factors were more significant in determining congressional support.”
Edwards writes that “we must not assume the power to persuade” and at one point states flatly, “There is not a single systematic study that demonstrates that presidents can reliably persuade others to support them.”
Instead, he writes, “The most effective presidents do not create opportunities by reshaping the political landscape. Instead, they exploit opportunities already present in their environments to facilitate significant changes in public policy. . . . Effective facilitators are skilled leaders who must recognize the opportunities that exist in their environments, choose which opportunities to pursue, when and in what order, and exploit them with skill, energy, perseverance, and will.”
When I talked to Edwards about this on Friday in the context of Obama’s coming speech, he said, “There’s a broad, fundamental point, which is that presidents rarely move public opinion.” He also noted that the default position among the public is to do nothing. “The default position doesn’t advantage the president,” he said.
The Gallup organization put out an analysis Friday that said support for taking military action against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons “is on track to be among the lowest for any intervention Gallup has asked about in the last 20 years.”
If anything, Obama’s task looks more difficult today than it did when he announced that he would seek congressional authorization. Obama has been effective in making the moral case for responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. He has been far less effective in making the case that military strikes represent the best response.
A week of presidential rhetoric and closed-door meetings with world leaders has produced no demonstrable rise in support for his position. Public opinion, backing from other countries and congressional whip counts have not moved in his direction. Based on Edwards’s analysis, the president’s speech Tuesday will produce minimal changes overall in public opinion.
The president will talk to ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN and Fox News Channel for interviews that will air Monday night, White House officials said.
With the Republican rank and file generally opposed to Obama’s position, despite support from GOP congressional leaders, the president must hope he can sway members of his own party to overcome their doubts and back the resolution for the use of force. The situation is not static, and Obama’s skills as a leader will be important between now and when Congress votes.
Still, if presidents have far less power to persuade than is popularly assumed, and if the default position of a war-weary nation is to oppose what is seen as a potentially risky intervention in Syria, and if many Republican lawmakers are steadfastly against almost anything Obama proposes, the larger question about presidential leadership in this case is why Obama chose the course he took.
Certainly his argument that there are constitutional reasons to seek congressional approval for military action is valid. But if the key to leadership is less the power to persuade and more the capacity to understand the conditions that exist and to exploit them when they are favorable, then Obama’s sudden move to throw the decision to Congress appears all the more risky.
In the end, presidents often get their way on these matters. For Obama, falling short would come at an enormously high cost.
For previous columns by Dan Balz,
go to postpolitics.com.