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White House Technique

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

The idea that there is such a thing as Presidential technique, by which one President is able to “handle” Congress and another President not, is without foundation. It is a theory easy to set up and quite widely held, but there is nothing in it. The general belief is that a President who knows politics and is politically astute, suave, and friendly can get along very much better with Congress than the President who knows not the ways of the politician and does not personally endear himself to House and Senate leaders. It is held that, to be successful with Congress, a President must be a politician. The facts do not bear out this theory and it is not entertained by those whose experience covers a sufficient number of administrations to justify a judgment. This is not to say that a President who stupidly and needlessly antagonized Congress, who went out of his way to make enemies, and did everything in the wrong way, would get as cheerful or as complete co-operation as one who under the same conditions had the asset of personal good feeling. He wouldn’t, of course, but the point I am making is that the difference in results, except in isolated instances, would be trivial and that the vital factors in the relations between the White House and the legislative branch are neither the personality nor the political skill of the President. I do not mean to sweep these up as altogether trivial but merely to state that they are relatively so.

For example, take the case of President Roosevelt. Since the fourth of March he has had a most extraordinary success in Congress. It has enacted by overwhelming vote a vast and complicated program, practically remaking our governmental machine, extending Federal control over industry, agriculture, and finance, lodging in the hands of the President unprecedented powers, heading the nation in a direction no one dreamed we would take, the end of which no one can guess. It is an astounding performance, amounting really to a social and economic revolution. Many of the measures passed have shocked the orthodox ideas of the men who voted for them. Some have done so in conflict with their convictions, privately asserting their disbelief in the wisdom or soundness of the administration proposals. Yet the opposition to even the most gigantic and radical of the Roosevelt bills was both feeble and futile. In three months’ time he got everything he wanted from Congress in the way he wanted. That body not only swallowed blindly every White House dose, but actually abrogated its authority, among other things, over the national purse strings. Self-abnegation could no further go.

How has it been done? How did Mr. Roosevelt achieve this amazing Congressional success? A good deal has been written about his personal charm and political astuteness. Certainly he has vastly more of both than his immediate predecessor, and there is a somewhat general disposition to attribute his results to that fact. The contrast is drawn between the smiling and somewhat arch temperament of Mr. Roosevelt with the glum and politically inept Mr. Hoover. It is said there is a different atmosphere about the White House—and there certainly is. But anyone who thinks that what Mr. Roosevelt has accomplished at his special session of Congress is a matter of atmosphere, or is due to his winsome ways, is slightly soft in the head. The truth is that Mr. Roosevelt has had, these first three months, the ideal set-up for the successful handling of Congress—such a set-up as few of our thirty-one Presidents have had; such a set-up as would have enabled any President to have done the same sort of thing. This will not be a palatable thought for the ardent Rooseveltians, who have been thrilled with the “action” at Washington, and are convinced that we have now in the White House an inspired and irresistible leader, but it is none the less true. These will consider it an effort to disparage their hero or detract from credit due. It is nothing of the sort and it is susceptible of proof.


What Mr. Roosevelt has had, and what has enabled him to put through a program startling in its character and scope, with real resistance only from a few Democrats like Senator Glass, whose intellectual integrity compelled him to say publicly what a good many others said privately, can be listed as follows:

First, he had sixty-five thousand Federal offices to distribute to a party twelve years out of power and very, very hungry.

Second, he had a party majority of regulars in both House and Senate so large as to preclude any balance-of-power group.

Third, he had a thoroughly scared country, which means a thoroughly scared Congress.

The last of these three assets is so vastly more weighty than the other two that it alone would suffice to make Congress amenable to the Presidential leadership. When to it are added the patronage and the party majorities, the White House equipment is complete. For the period the combination lasts, its force is overwhelming and opposition useless. So far as the patronage and party majorities are concerned, they are desirable and effective but not essential. There have been Presidents as personally engaging as Mr. Roosevelt and even more politically astute—Woodrow Wilson for one—who, with both patronage and party majority, found themselves blocked, baffled, and bedeviled by a recalcitrant Congress. In the first six months of his first term Mr. Wilson made a remarkable record in the handling of Congress, passed a great constructive program, and was the undisputed leader of his party. He did not have a scared country but he did have a public sentiment which, added to the patronage and party majority, made him potent during those early days, and a great war which made him a practical dictator until peace came. There have been few more winning men, personally, than Mr. Wilson, but the great legislative achievements of his first administration and the supreme power voted to him after his second election were due neither to his personal nor political gifts, abundant as they were. He might have been five times as charming and twice as skillful politically and still not have achieved any results at all. What enabled Wilson to succeed in his first term was the prestige and public sentiment a newly elected President always has, plus patronage and a party majority. What gave him control in his second term was the national crisis. There was no question of political finesse or Presidential technique. With the passing of the crisis, the exhaustion of the patronage, and the disappearance of his party majority, which occurred in 1918, Mr. Wilson was completely powerless in Congress, just as every other President has been, just as Mr. Roosevelt will be when his crisis passes and his patronage has given out.


The notion that Congress is swayed by the personality of the President and influenced by his adroitness at the political game is a joke. No one who knows Congress takes any stock in it. Members of the House and Senate do not follow a President because they like his looks, his manners, or his ways. They do not follow him because they are invited to dine at the White House or because the President calls them by their first names. They do not follow him because he grins or growls, slaps them on the back, or kicks them in the pants. When, and if, they follow him, it is because it is to their personal political interest so to do and against that interest not to. There simply is no other reason. That is the whole story. Members of the House and Senate in the main are an exceedingly practical lot. The basic idea in the minds of these men is to hold on to the jobs they have or secure better ones. So far as most of them are concerned, that is the sole idea, and their every official act is with that end in view. Nine tenths of them will, promptly and without shame, “rise above principle” at any time or on any issue in order to insure personal political protection or promotion. The great bulk of them would always follow a President they hate if following him helped them in their individual districts or states, and without hesitation would desert or oppose a President for whom they cherished affection and esteem if desertion meant votes at home.

This may seem a hard-boiled and cynical view to take of our so-called Washington statesmen, but not to those who know them. Personal political preservation is their first consideration. Against it party ties, platform pledges, principles, policies, and personal loyalties all give way. Things, big and little, are weighed by the individual Senator and Representative in terms of his “local situation.” There are, of course, a few exceptions, but they are rare and the rule is well recognized. In face of these facts—and they are facts —to believe that there is such a thing as Presidential technique in the handling of Congress, and that a White House incumbent who smiles and jollies and “old boy’s” the “gang,” and can talk precinct politics, gets better results, under the same conditions, than the grim, unattractive executive who does not know the political language, is to disregard the known character of the Congressional animal and ignore Presidential history and experience. It isn’t a question of temperament or technique. It isn’t a question of political skill or personal charm. It is a question of conditions. When the conditions are right, any President equipped with patronage, prestige, and party majorities, succeeds with Congress in his first session. Every President, under those conditions, has a “honeymoon.”

The Presidents who have no such periods are those who lack the party majority and the prestige. Then they have trouble with Congress from the start, and it is attributed, generally and ignorantly, to lack of political skill or to personal animosity. For example, take Mr. Hoover. It is perfectly true that he was politically inept and had no really effective political aides. It is also true that he was not popular with his party leaders in Congress and did not endear himself to the politicians on either side. But those were not the reasons his recommendations were rejected and he had to fight continuously and compromise to get anything at all. The reasons were entirely different. In the first place, succeeding a Republican President, he found every available Federal office already filled by a Republican, and hence had no patronage with which to operate. In the second place, he had at no time a functioning party majority. Throughout his whole term, the group of thirteen Progressives and anti-administration Republicans in the Senate held the balance of power between the parties in that body, and were able to frustrate any administration proposal. The only period when Hoover had his way with Congress came in the first part of 1932, and then, alarmed at the state of the nation, Congress abandoned politics for a time and enacted a seven-point Hoover program, the outstanding feature of which was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Except for that, he was without weapons to compel compliance.

Mr. Coolidge was in exactly the same situation and though, because of the great prosperity of the country and his own popularity, his failures were less impressive than Hoover’s, they were even more uniform and complete. Actually, I think, Mr. Coolidge was the most impotent President we ever had. Not only were his recommendations rejected and disregarded with such unanimity that it became ridiculous, but bill after bill was passed over his veto. Literally he got nothing. Yet he was considered a politically astute and successful President, and he certainly was a popular one. His non-success with Congress was really phenomenal, due not in the least to his lack of political strategy or technique, but entirely to the absence of any of the requisites for Congressional success. He did not have either Federal patronage, a party majority in both branches, or a scared country.


Mr. Roosevelt had all three. He had, as I have said, the ideal set-up. But the biggest thing he had was a scared country—and it is still scared. When he took his oath, the national crisis was in its most acute form. The banks of the country had completely collapsed and their closing by Presidential decree was automatic and inevitable. Business was flat on its back. Fear stalked through the land. Congress, self-confessedly powerless to cope with the situation, and awed out of its natural assertiveness by the public temper, looked to him for leadership. And when he supplied it, Congress followed—and at this date is still following. It has swallowed the huge legislative doses prepared by the Roosevelt professors without stopping to examine the medicine or even to consider the effect. The nature of the crisis and the character of the popular sentiment made this no time to debate or define, to amend or modify. Disgusted— and rightly so—with the stupidity, futility, and smallness of Congress, and badly frightened by the things that faced them, the people unmistakably wanted Mr. Roosevelt given a free hand and his plans not interfered with. And they did not care very much what those plans were or whether they understood them or not. The limit had been reached. The elevator was on the bottom. The time when inertia and dawdling could be tolerated had gone by. With that feeling so plain and so general in the nation, Mr. Roosevelt needed no technique or finesse or personal charm or political astuteness to get what he wanted.

Without that national frame of mind he might have exerted more of those qualities than he possesses and he never would have been able to secure from Congress consent to the huge proposals of the professors, nor induce it to abdicate its authority to the point where it has become a body of glorified recording clerks, perfunctorily registering White House decrees. It is no criticism of Mr. Roosevelt to say that, under the same circumstances, any other President would have had a similar success with Congress. It is simply a statement of fact. Other men in his position, of course, would have had other proposals. They might have been better than Mr. Roosevelt’s or they might have been worse, but they would have been accepted with just as much alacrity and with just as little opposition. Patronage and party majorities naturally help a President, but it is a genuinely frightened country, a real national crisis, a public in a panic, that gives a President real power and makes him irresistible. Under those conditions there will always be—as there is now—undercover resentment, a good deal of Senatorial grumbling, and some outspoken opposition. But there can be no effective resistance. To sum it all up, the point I make is that any President’s success in the “handling” of Congress is exactly equal to the degree in which he possesses those three assets—Federal patronage, party majorities, and a scared country. It isn’t a bad thing to have a scared country.


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