The Politics of Leadership

From Roosevelt to Reagan

By Richard E. Neustadt

Free Press. 371 pp. $22.95

WHEN THE original version of Presidential Power was published in 1960, it captured the spirit of one of the most vital moments in 20th-century politics -- a brief episode of liberal dynamism extending from the inauguration of John F. Kennedy on Jan. 20, 1961, to the day Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, Aug. 5, 1965. The liberal interlude came abruptly to a close less than a week later, when rioting broke out on Aug. 11 in Watts.

These four years saw the last great flowering of liberalism, embodied in such legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare and the package of bills known as the War on Poverty. Writing in the late 1950s, Richard Neustadt, professor of government at Harvard, expressed both the frustration of the nation's intellectual and policy-making elites and the potential for a burst of pent-up liberal energy to transform the face of national politics and governance. Presidential Power, in this context, is a central historical document describing the final moments of the liberal hegemony that endured from 1930 to 1965.

"We are confronted by an evident necessity for government more energetic, policies more viable, than we have been enjoying in the fifties," Neustadt wrote, in a direct swipe at the Eisenhower years. Neustadt outlined principles and strategies for a president who wanted both to exercise power and to expand his own dominion and sent chills of anticipation down the spines of policy intellectuals when he advised: "The more determinedly a President seeks power, the more he will be likely to bring vigor to his clerkship. As he does so, he contributes to the energy of government."

The genius of Presidential Power was that it captured a historical moment; its central inadequacy is its failure to reflect the circumstances in which liberal orthodoxy is everywhere under challenge. Neustadt's strategy for the exercise of power evolved in the context of an electorate conditioned by postwar prosperity and by the successes of the Roosevelt administration, an electorate providing a strong and generally uncritical base of support to an activist, problem-solving government. Events and developments of the last 25 years -- ranging from an increasingly redistributive civil rights agenda, to an expanded rights revolution, Vietnam, Watergate and a federal tax system imposing rising costs on the working and middle class -- destroyed the consensus behind an interventionist federal government.

In the place of consensus, we have a very different national politics. The universe in which the astute president husbands and enlarges his power through tactics largely geared to Washington elites has been in part superseded by a world in which the strength of the presidency is determined by the ability of officeholders and their strategic advisers to shape an agenda that is both polarizing and coalition-building, an agenda based on a highly sophisticated understanding and manipulation of a conflicted electorate.

The only post-1964 presidential administration to approach mastery over modern governance was the early Reagan White House -- the White House of 1981 -- an interlude of mastery Neustadt recognizes, including the importance of the bully pulpit. At both a conscious and an intuitive level, Reagan and his advisers understood how to build support for a conservative agenda -- on the basis of deepening discontent over tax burdens, racial resentment, suburban growth and the decline of public trust in liberal institutions. These forces provided the opportunity to complete the fracturing of the modestly class-based New Deal alliance, and to establish a consensus -- however brief -- in favor of policies rewarding a broad range of potentially conflicting Republican constituencies: funneling tax breaks and deregulation to business and to the affluent, and rewarding working and lower-middle-class Democratic defectors with a withdrawal of federal support from a liberal social and civil rights agenda.

The Reagan administration, staffed by large numbers of persons seeking to profit personally from governance and faced with the recession of 1981-82, soon lost sight of the larger goal of conservative realignment. Although the Republican Party achieved an ideological conversion of the federal judiciary, and lessened the tilt of the bureaucracy in favor of liberal regulation and intervention -- it lapsed in its calculated drive to establish institutional and electoral support for a conservative agenda.

President Bush's recent missteps in dealing with the federal budget crisis may signal a more substantial deterioration of presidential power -- power used by the political right between 1968 and 1988 to forestall a revival of liberalism. The abandonment of the "no new taxes" pledge, and the attempt of the Bush administration to present a more conciliatory, "kinder and gentler" stand toward blacks, gays and other constituencies identified with the Democratic Party, have undermined the ability of the G.O.P. to maintain a polarized electorate. Polarization on issues of race, rights and taxes has been critical to the building of a conservative majority, empowering the right to portray liberalism as vested in the protection of minorities and as opposing the will of the majority.

Each misstep by the Bush administration on the budget and on taxes has wounded conservatism and has strengthened those who would revive economically-based political coalitions pitting the working class and much of the middle class against the affluent. In reading the updated version of Presidential Power, there is a substantial dissonance between the problems of executive leadership as defined by Neustadt, and the real difficulties facing Bush -- difficulties facing as well the Democratic Party as it struggles to regain competitiveness in presidential elections.

OVER THE years, Neustadt has added a total of five new chapters to his book, including two in the current edition. The first of these newest chapters is a case study in the failure of presidential power -- the disastrous handling of the Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan administration. Neustadt argues that a president as disdainful of detail as Reagan must rely upon others to protect his interests, essentially delegating core executive responsibilities. In Reagan's case, a range of oversight responsibilities was delegated to his wife, Nancy. Nancy, not surprisingly, was easily evaded by those who contrived the bizarre arms-for-hostages and war-in-Nicaragua plan.

The second recently added chapter focuses on two episodes of presidential success: Eisenhower's deft deflection of pressures to become involved in Vietnam after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, and Kennedy's careful dealings with Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis -- success aided immeasurably by the overlap of presidential action in each of these cases with relatively cohesive majority opinion.

Neustadt's contribution to the understanding of the presidency remains brilliant, significantly strengthened and enlarged by his additions to the current edition. In the five new chapters, including those written in 1968, 1976 and 1980, Neustadt has left intact the core of his original thesis, arguing that "{b}ooks should stand where they first saw the light of day, expressive of their settings and confined by it." In fact, Neustadt's initial premise should provoke new kinds of inquiry into presidential power: further exploration of the ways in which developments since 1965, particularly the emergence of ideological competitiveness, have made the exercise of White House leadership far more complex.

Without an underlying consensus in the electorate at large, conflict over fundamental issues -- tax incentives for investors versus policies favoring equality and redistribution, or conflict over racial and gender preferences versus the search for market efficiency -- has served in many respects to weaken the legitimacy of executive power. In that context, elite manipulation is necessary but no longer sufficient. Those who hold the presidency, and seek to hold it, must think in terms of developing real and symbolic links with the electorate as a whole.

Reagan's strength lay in his willingness to deal with a polarized electorate. Rather than seeking broad consensus -- a goal that may be currently impossible, given the conflicts within American society as a whole -- Reagan accepted a divided electorate. He sought to identify himself clearly with a continuing if slender majority, and, in a sense, ruthlessly cast off the claims of minorities. If the Bush administration falters, Bush's failings may stem from his desire to be a 75 percent president, rather than a 51 percent president. Effective leadership now may well require the strength to accept rejection and hostility from a substantial segment of the electorate, while making sure that the disaffected remain a functional minority, especially on election day.

Thomas B. Edsall covers politics for the National staff of The Washington Post. He is the author of "The New Politics of Inequality" and is at work on a study of presidential elections.

Jonathan Yardley is on vacation.