It's a Bird! It's a plane! No, It's a President

By Richard Harwood
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 6:25 PM

[Editor's note: This op-ed was originally published on June 8, 1993.]

The text for the Kennedy administration was Richard Neustadt's "Presidential Power." Its thesis was that "presidential weakness {is} the underlying theme of presidential power . . . Weakness in the sense of a great gap between what is expected of a man (or someday a woman) and assured capacity to carry through." A president may be a "constitutional monarch," but acting alone there is little he can do. The constitution that creates the office also imposes a form of gridlock on Washington by dividing power among the branches of government and the "interests" thrown up by our brand of democracy.

The power of a president to break this gridlock and impose his will on the system, Neustadt wrote, has three sources.

First is the status of the office and its formal powers, many of them clerical, conferred by the Constitution, laws or historical precedents and customs.

Second is "professional reputation, amounting to impressions in the Washington community about the skill and will with which {a president} puts these things to use."

Finally, there is prestige -- meaning the president's "public standing, amounting to impressions in the country generally about how well or badly he was doing as president."

What keeps presidential power uncertain, Neustadt argued, is the need of every president to bargain with the other power centers of government: "His strength or weakness depends on his capacity to influence the conduct of {those} who make up government. His influence becomes the mark of leadership."

John Kennedy understood this. The articulated goals of his administration were modest. He was cautious. He bargained patiently with the legislative barons of Congress. And he was attacked by lobbyists and the impatient left wing of his party, described later by Robert Kennedy as "sons of bitches . . . interested only in their own singular course of action and who do not take into consideration the needs or requirements of others or what can ultimately be accomplished." Robert Kennedy in his own campaign for president put the country's social problems at the center of his agenda. He preached a spare theme, demanding of all citizens an effort to "make a difference," insisting that "we can do better." But there were no promises of painless revolutions or overnight reinventions of government.

In our fiction and in our journalism, however, we contribute mightily, as James David Barber has written, to "the popular fantasy of the President as Superman. The moralizing tales find their way into the textbooks and movies, teaching the young to expect miracles from the White House. The regularity of disillusionment follows as the night follows the day. Instead of miracles come halting progress and/or crashed hopes, as the President discovers how short a distance his independent powers can take him. His moralizing sponsors find him disappointing . . . As the country runs through that cycle of uplift and downfall again and again . . . skepticism sets in. In reaction to the romantic version of the discovery of the best natural American for president, journalists turn to the equally romantic notion that every candidate is a secret crook."

This scenario is being played out in Washington today. Bill Clinton's first 100 days have turned sour. His relations with Congress are mixed. His approval score with the public has sunk to 36 percent. The press is at his throat. The "Incredible Shrinking President" was the subject of Time magazine's cover last week. Newsweek asks, "What Has Gone Wrong?"

He has stumbled and shown signs of incompetence. He has not jump-started the economy, reformed the welfare system, overhauled the foreign policies of the past 45 years or made good on the hundreds of specific promises made in the course of his presidential campaign. He has committed some gaffes, "our era's prime example of symbolic politics run wild": the haircut, for example. Some of his nominees have caused him problems.

But none of this adequately accounts for his loss of professional reputation in Washington or his loss of prestige in the country. John Kennedy's standing with the public was 74 percent approval after four months in which he had ordered the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and had been treated with contempt at Vienna by Nikita Khrushchev. He had achieved nothing of note legislatively.

Clinton, to borrow Lloyd Bentsen's put-down of Dan Quayle a few years ago, is no John Kennedy -- meaning their characters, styles, life experiences and personalities are not alike. That is part of the problem.

But the larger problem is the irrational expectation of "change" and "progress" that followed the election last fall. The press is partly to blame. Journalists may not believe in the silly notion that a president is Superman. But we often behave as if we do, creating, Leon Sigal has written, portraits of the presidency that lead the electorate to believe that "once the president says he wants to do something, it is as good as done. Americans may be especially prone to this form of rationalist fallacy." Candidates, as in Clinton's case, contribute to this myth.

But journalists should know, as Neustadt has shown, that presidents from Truman and Eisenhower to the present are rarely instant winners. They spend their first year or two learning about the job and its limitations as well as its possibilities. "A president's behavior in those years," he wrote, "is an uncertain source of clues to what will follow. It is unreliable in indicating what will be the pattern of performance 'on the job.' "

There are no crises in this country that are cause for panic. The economy is not booming, but it is producing a gross domestic product of more than $6 trillion annually. The world does not move in ways we might always desire, but the threat of a general war or nuclear extinction is more remote than at any time in the modern era. Governments from Washington to Little Rock may complain of inadequate resources and "mounting problems" (a favorite journalistic phrase) but in comparison with any earlier period in our history they are in fat city, suffering far more from bureaucratic glut than poverty of means.

The opening play of the Clinton presidency may have some of the appearances of amateur night. But the ninth inning is a long way off.

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