Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan famously won over Congress with charm and strong, skillful negotiating. Until they couldn’t…. (More)

The Strategic Presidency, Part II: The Great Negotiators?

This week Morning Feature considers George Edwards’ The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership. Yesterday we began with whether “great communicators” like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan could push public opinion. Today we see whether “great negotiators” like FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan could sway and cajole reluctant members of Congress. Saturday we conclude with how “great facilitators” – including President Obama – took advantage of existing conditions to enact transformative change.

George C. Edwards III is the University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. He has served as both the Winant Professor of American Government and the Olin Professor of American Government at Oxford, as a visiting professor at numerous universities around the world, and was the founder and from 1991-2001 the director of The Center for Presidential Studies. He has written 25 books on the presidency, and the American Political Science Association’s annual dissertation prize is named in his honor.

The “charm offensive”

On March 6, President Obama treated several Senate Republicans to dinner, hoping to win their support on upcoming gun safety and budget bills:

The president’s new charm offensive underscores the limitations of his earlier attempts to use public pressure, rather than direct engagement, to win Republican cooperation. That strategy proved futile in recent weeks, as the White House and Congress failed to prevent $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that both sides said they wanted to avoid.

Ten days later the “charm offensive” had produced no breakthroughs, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) was openly skeptical, saying “This charm offensive needs to be sincere, and needs to last throughout the summer.”

A month later, Senate Republicans said President Obama should continue his “charm offensive” despite their having shredded his gun safety bill. By early June, after he made a public case for his judicial nominees and criticized threats to block student loan reform and shut down the government, Republicans wondered aloud if the “charm offensive” was over, and Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) said it was too late:

The charm offensive should have started in January of 2009. And the fact that all of a sudden we’re in June of 2013 and we’re just talking about a charm offensive, and trying getting to know Congress? [It’s] your fifth year of the presidency. It’s a little bit late in the dating game to start to get to know somebody.

Of course that ignores the Republican plan to stonewall the president that began on on the night of his first inaugural, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 2010 declaration that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Could an earlier “charm offensive” have defused such bitter opposition? The history of presidents changing minds in Congress is not promising.

“The milling representatives could hardly wait to act”

President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous first 100 days are often cited as a hallmark of presidential leadership. Yet Dr. Edwards notes that FDR hardly had to lead:

The first piece of legislation Roosevelt proposed was a bill regarding the resumption of banking. According to James MacGregor Burns, “The milling representatives could hardly wait to act.” Even during the forty-minute debate in the House, shouts of “Vote! Vote!” echoed from the floor. The Republican leader, Bertrand H. Snell, exclaimed in support, “The House is burning down and the President of the United States says this is the only way to put out the fire.” The president did not have to persuade anyone to support his bill, which passed unanimously in the House after only thirty-eight minutes of debate and without a roll call vote … and by a margin of 73-7 in the Senate, which simply adopted the House bill without waiting for printed copies. An hour later, the bill arrived at the White House for the president’s signature. The whole affair took less than eight hours.

Yet the very next day, 90 House Democrats rejected FDR’s deficit control bill. He had to rely on conservative Democrats and Republicans – and a Senate amendment to modify the Volstead Act to allow 3.2 beer – to get the bill passed.

Over the coming months and years, FDR learned that he could easily get members of Congress to vote for bills they already liked – most of ‘his’ 100 days’ legislation was proposed by members, not by the president himself – and could almost never get them to vote for bills they didn’t like. Historians have described the start of his second term as “the Deadlock on the Potomac” and “the Stalemate” … terms that ring eerily familiar today.

“The Johnson ‘treatment'”

Pundits often argue that President Obama should be more like Lyndon Johnson:

Without presidential leadership in the trenches, there is no chance that Congress, particularly a divided Congress, will step on the third-rail politics of raising taxes or cutting popular programs such as Medicare, much less deploy the federal government to reduce the number of Americans living in poverty. These are the same folks who haven’t been able to agree on a budget for almost three years.

LBJ is renowned for his insider negotiating, as Dr. Edwards writes:

A good example is President Johnson’s efforts at obtaining the support – or at least the neutrality – of the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Harry Byrd of Virginia, for what became the 1964 tax cut. Byrd had resisted a tax cut because of his concern for increasing the budget deficit. Hubert Humphrey reported in his memoirs that Johnson cajoled Byrd into letting the tax bill out of committee, relying on Lady Bird’s charm, liquor, and his own famous ‘treatment.’

But Dr. Edwards notes that two other first-hand sources weighed in on that same event:

Presidential aide Jack Valenti told a different story, however. He wrote that the president obtained the senator’s cooperation by promising to hold the budget under $100 billion.[…]

To confuse matters further, Henry Hall Wilson, one of the president’s congressional liaison aides, indicated that both eyewitnesses were wrong. According to Wilson, when the president proudly told his chief congressional liaison aid, Lawrence O’Brien, about his obtaining Byrd’s agreement to begin hearings on the tax cut on December 7, O’Brien replied, “You didn’t get a thing. I already had a commitment for the seventh.”

Rather than relying on dueling anecdotes, Dr. Edwards turns to data. He compiled voting records in the House and Senate on bills backed by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. Despite LBJ’s reputation for legislative skill – not to mention his renowned “arm-twisting” – JFK actually garnered more votes in Congress.

Even Jimmy Carter found more support than LBJ from Republicans and southern Democrats, and he faced a far more difficult challenge. By 1976 the Senate and House had grown scores of new committees and subcommittees, meaning the Carter White House had to round up support from even more committee and subcommittee chairs. Other changes in the House weakened the clout of party leaders, allowing individual representatives to demand favors or outright refuse to toe party lines.

With diminishing support within and outside his party, in 1968 President Johnson decided not to seek renomination. While he signed landmark bills that majorities in Congress already supported, his reputation for corralling difficult votes simply does not fit the historical evidence.

“Only an incompetent administration could have lost the tax-cut battle”

President Ronald Reagan is the Republican touchstone for ‘leadership’ in Congress, yet Dr. Edwards finds the same pattern:

Similarly, David Stockman, a principal architect and proponent of Reagan’s budgeting and tax proposals, remembers that when the president announced his “Program for Economic Recovery” to a join session of Congress in 1981, “the plan already had momentum and few were standing in the way.” Reagan was “speaking to an assembly of desperate politicians who … were predisposed to grant him extraordinary latitude in finding a new remedy for the nation’s economic ills … not because they understood the plan or even accepted it, but because they had lost faith in the remedies tried before.” Paul Craig Roberts, a founder of supply-side economics and a principal advocate of it in the administration, recalled “By the time Ronald Reagan entered the White House, only an incompetent administration could have lost the tax-cut battle.”

Two years later, President Reagan’s budget proposals were routinely dismissed by House Democrats as “Dead on Arrival,” and indeed they died quickly. President Reagan tried personal appeals and found they were self-defeating. A personal call may sway a senator or representative, but others would then balk:

As a former legislative aide at the White House remarked, if a president calls a member of the House regarding a vote, 434 members cry out, “Why didn’t he call me?”

Dr. Edwards also compiled data on votes in Congress for bills backed by Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Yet again, President Reagan does not stand out. In fact, the data reveal a steady trend in partisan polarization that continues today: each Republican president won more votes from Republicans – and fewer from Democrats – than his predecessors.

Dr. Edwards’ findings emphasize that members of Congress are independent actors who can and routinely do reject presidential ‘leadership.’ Party majorities and trending levels of partisan cooperation – not “arm-twisting” or “charm offensives” – determine whether a president’s agenda will result in bills he can sign.

Tomorrow we’ll see that the transformative presidents have been ‘facilitators’ who skillfully seize on existing opportunities … and that includes President Obama.

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Happy Friday!