How Presidents Make Decisions

I have a new column up over at The American Prospect about the presidency, about how the presidency we have isn’t particularly Constitution-based. It goes along with last week’s column there, which was about why the myth of the magical heroic-king presidency is so persistent; this one is about how our ideas about the presidency gain strength because the Constitutional version is such an empty shell.

I used an example at the end about how George W. Bush’s program to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, PEPFAR, was in part a reaction to the “need” for him to have something feel-good to say in his 2003 State of the Union speech. As it happens, I also use that initiative as an example of something else about the presidency, so I’ll use this excuse to tell that one, too.

What I find in explaining the Neustadtian presidency is that the hard part for people to grasp is the part about how the bargaining presidency needs to do “persuade” people and groups to do things across the board. Everyone understands that Congress doesn’t have to do what presidents want (even if they often forget it; see, again, that magical hero-king), but the rest of it seems less intuitive to many people. Sometimes that’s because there’s a basic assumption that, say, the executive branch has to do what presidents say…that’s one of the reasons I find Watergate so interesting, since it’s chock full of examples of executive branch agencies and departments ignoring what Nixon wanted.

Then there’s the president’s political party, and party-aligned interest groups. Here, I think the assumption is again too often that they will do whatever the president says; presidents are the “leaders” of the party. But that’s wrong; parties, and party-aligned groups, are autonomous, and there’s little inherent hierarchical structure. It’s often in the interest of the party to go along with the president, but any president who thinks he can just issue edicts and have the party fall in line will be very disappointed — as George W. Bush was when he tried to put a buddy on the Supreme Court.

Anyway, to PEPFAR: I really like this example, but I do have one problem, which is that I’m not entirely sure it’s true. I always include that disclaimer when I use it….at one point, I wasted a few hours trying to track it down in sort of a half-assed way, and failed, and concluded that I might as well just keep using it as long as I always remember to mention that I’m not sure whether it’s correct or not.

The point of the story is that presidents are always asking people for things that those people are free to refuse. In this case, the president was George W. Bush, the people were Christian conservatives, and what Bush was asking for was for them to look the other way. Why? Bush, for various sensible presidential reasons (oh, and perhaps also because it was a Good Thing, I suppose) wanted to do something about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. The problem? Doing something about the epidemic was going to mean US money paying for condoms, and a lot of Christian conservatives really don’t like condoms. If they opposed the initiative, then the Republican Congress probably wasn’t going to pass it, at least not in a form in which it could actually work.

Bush didn’t need Christian conservative groups to support the program. He just needed them to look the other way. Which they didn’t have to do!

Again, whether that’s fictional or not, it’s not unusual. Think, for example, about same-sex couples (and the groups who lobby on their behalf) and the current immigration bill.

The point is that Bush couldn’t order Christian conservatives to look the other way. He had to “persuade” them. Usually, that’s going to take the form of bargaining of some sort, either in particular deals, or more generally keeping a group “on board” enough that it will go along.

Presidents, as Neustadt says, have more things to bargain with than anyone else in the political system; they also, however, have more things to ask for, and more people to ask, than anyone else.

At any rate, the Prospect column isn’t very newsy, but it does get at one of the core issues with the presidency, I hope. It’s just a very difficult office to nail down, and it has been from the start.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.