Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Reconstructive President? Not in this Political Time.

A recent editorial from the McClatchy new service opined that Barack Obama was on the verge of missing his chance to be the next FDR or Ronald Reagan… in truth, Obama never had such an opportunity. Presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek argues that American political history is marked by the rise and fall of regimes. The strengths of these regimes ebb and flow, but all will ultimately fray and collapse. Every president comes to office either affiliated with, or opposed to, a given regime. Weak or strong, affiliated or opposed – each combination affords a unique set of opportunities or limitations to a president. With the exception of the reconstuctive opportunity, each places significant limitations on what a president can accomplish. Table One presents Skowronek's opportunity structure typology.

Table One: Skowronek's Opportunity Structure Typology

President’s Political Identity

Previously Established




“Politics of Reconstruction”

“Politics of Disjunction"


“Politics of Preemption”

“Politics of Articulation”

Reconstructive presidents come to power opposed an existing coalition at a time when its regime is weakened and its legitimacy questioned. Such leaders face a fortuitous opportunity structure and the rare chance to create a new political order. Disjunctive presidents come to office affiliated with an existing regime at a time when its legitimacy has come into questions. These presidents may in fact have only the most tenuous connection with their regime as originally constructed. This “regime drift” is a natural result on ongoing decay of a long established coalition and the actions of the disjunctive president will likely serve to further fragment the regimes existing coalition – thus setting the stage for a reconstructive opportunity. Articulation presidents represent the vast majority of American presidents; they enter office affiliated with a still resilient regime. To them falls the often challenging task of maintaining a political order established by the president that constructed the present political order. Preemptive presidents enter office in what Skowronek refers to as the “most curious of all leadership situations.” Such presidents are opposed to an existing, but still resilient, regime but they seek to manipulate and aggravate existing “cleavages and factional discontent” within a regime.

I cannot do justice to Skowronek's theory here, but in short, Barack Obama came to office facing one of two possible opportunity structures - Reconstruction or Preemption - as he was opposed to the electoral regime created by Ronald Reagan, the most recent Reconstructive president. For Obama to have inherited a reconstructive opportunity structure, like Reagan, FDR, Lincoln, or Andrew Jackson, one must accept that the Reagan regime met its demise under George W. Bush. If this is true, then history tells us that there should have been some indication of electoral upheaval in the 2008 election - as every reconstructive president has entered office during such episodes of upheaval. No such upheaval occurred in 2008.

Indeed, an examination of state by state election results shows that 2008 election was highly correlated with the election of 2004, 2000, 1996, 1992, and 1988 - as odd as it may sound, the election that sent Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 was little different from the elections that twice sent George W. Bush there (I will present the statistical analyses that verify my assessment at the Midwest Political Science Association's annual meeting in Chicago on April 22nd). This suggests that the Reagan regime is still strong, but that enough of a cleavage existed for an opposed president to be elected - much as Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, or Eisenhower in 1952 during the FDR regime. So Obama joins the ranks of the preemptive presidents. Men whose tenure in office served to galvanize the existing regime; presidents who while personally popular had little lasting impact on American politics.

If Skowronek’s theory is solid and if my assessment that Obama has inherited a preemptive structure is also correct, then his tenure in office will serve to re-galvanize the Reagan regime. Obama may, and if history is a guide likely will, serve two terms as the elements of the Reagan coalition seek a new leader to articulate the movement's vision, but Obama's impact on national politics will be limited, his legacy not too far reaching. He will be a Cleveland, an Eisenhower, a Clinton – but not a Jackson, an FDR, or a Reagan. This is the reality of President Obama's place in political time and he would do well to heed the lessons of Eisenhower and Clinton - presidents who came to embrace their place in the political order and enjoyed reasonable success in office. If, however, Obama believes that he can effect transformative change he is likely to be very disappointed.