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The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton, Revised Edition

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Stephen Skowronek's wholly innovative study demonstrates that presidents are persistent agents of change, continually disrupting and transforming the political landscape. In an afterword to this new edition, the author examines "third way" leadership as it has been practiced by Bill Clinton and others. These leaders are neither great repudiators nor orthodox innovators. Th Stephen Skowronek's wholly innovative study demonstrates that presidents are persistent agents of change, continually disrupting and transforming the political landscape. In an afterword to this new edition, the author examines "third way" leadership as it has been practiced by Bill Clinton and others. These leaders are neither great repudiators nor orthodox innovators. They challenge received political categories, mix seemingly antithetical doctrines, and often take their opponents' issues as their own.


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Stephen Skowronek's wholly innovative study demonstrates that presidents are persistent agents of change, continually disrupting and transforming the political landscape. In an afterword to this new edition, the author examines "third way" leadership as it has been practiced by Bill Clinton and others. These leaders are neither great repudiators nor orthodox innovators. Th Stephen Skowronek's wholly innovative study demonstrates that presidents are persistent agents of change, continually disrupting and transforming the political landscape. In an afterword to this new edition, the author examines "third way" leadership as it has been practiced by Bill Clinton and others. These leaders are neither great repudiators nor orthodox innovators. They challenge received political categories, mix seemingly antithetical doctrines, and often take their opponents' issues as their own.

30 review for The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton, Revised Edition

  1. 4 out of 5

    Austin Barselau

    The Power of the Presidency Political scholars have long debated the precise boundaries of presidential authority and responsibility. Are presidents’ forceful agents of change, or are they subjects to the conditions of their institutional environments? In The Politics Presidents Make, Stephen Skowronek comes down forcefully on the side of the former, describing the executive office as an instrument of political disruption and organization. Presidents have the seismic power to reorder, alter, and The Power of the Presidency Political scholars have long debated the precise boundaries of presidential authority and responsibility. Are presidents’ forceful agents of change, or are they subjects to the conditions of their institutional environments? In The Politics Presidents Make, Stephen Skowronek comes down forcefully on the side of the former, describing the executive office as an instrument of political disruption and organization. Presidents have the seismic power to reorder, alter, and rehearse political possibilities, define institutional commitments, and chart courses of action. In this masterful and entirely novel work of political genius, Skowronek has rewritten traditional definitions of presidential authority while casting the office of the presidency as one that ideally prizes independent action and originality. The thesis of Skowronek’s 1997 political treatise is that presidents are indicators of institutional changes over time. The historical pattern of political disruption, motivated by changing commitments to organizational responsibilities, frames a cycle of founding, fracturing, and decaying political regimes. Embedded within these recurrent patterns is the nature of the office: Skowronek defines the position as a “battering-ram” used to shatter preexisting arrangements while also fostering new warrants for power. “Time and time again the lesson is the same: the power to recreate hinges on the authority to repudiate it,” he writes. The American presidency has proven itself over time to be “an instrument of negation” aimed at “dislodging established elites, destroying the institutional arrangements that support them, and clearing the way for something entirely new.” What emerges is a messy battlefield of discarded political arrangements and new reconstructed commitments. Categorizing the Politics Presidents Make Skowronek shoehorns presidential action into four categories. Reconstructive presidents, emerging in times of weak political resistance or governmental disrepute, formulate new political arrangements and novel bases of action. They seek to reclaim distant mythic values that have been discarded in previous political regimes. They merge what Skowronek calls the “order-shattering” and “order-affirming” obligations of the presidency, casting aside the preexisting political order and paving a new course of action rooted in “ancient truths.” Reconstructive presidents include Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. The second type of politics is disjunction, which is marked by the expiration of established commitments and their inability to meet the challenges of current problems. Disjunctive leaders undergo what the author calls a “reification of technique,” reproducing the commitments of the past in the form of hollow and inauthentic rituals. They serve as foils for reconstruction and provide a premise of repudiation. Disjunctive presidents include John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter. Thirdly, Skowronek defines the politics of articulation to be an affirmation of the resilience of political commitments; presidents of articulation elaborate on the faith pioneered by reconstructive leaders, making constructive elaborations on received orthodoxy. They are tasked with balancing past commitments with the imperatives of the present. Skowronek calls these leaders “orthodox-innovators” because they blaze the path already traveled. James Monroe, James Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and George H.W. Bush are considered to be leaders of this type. Finally, Skowronek defines preemptive leaders as presidents who intrude on resilient political commitments, undermining the dominant party and playing spoil to the existing order. By making accommodations to the received order of things, preemptive leaders are often criticized for their political plasticity and lack of principle. As a result, they are often prime targets of character assassination. These leaders include Zachary Taylor, John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. The process described by Skowronek is recurrent, producing the continual formation and steady decay of political regimes. Within this process is the pressure to seek an independent course of action, to pull up the stakes of the received order and chart a new course. Presidential action always moves against pre-established beliefs; as current circumstances change, previous warrants for action become stale and outmoded. Presidents who seek to uphold the status quo ante repeatedly end up undermining it, tying themselves in knots and loosening the bounds of political coalitions. Old tropes, he admonishes, die hard. By continuing to insist on their relevance and authenticity, presidents mislead and obfuscate the changing conditions of power and responsibility. Jeffersonian Reconstruction Through the Age of Jackson and Partisan Politics Skowronek traces the cycles of political organization in detail. He starts with the patrician politics of Thomas Jefferson, who cleared room for a new Republican order defined by a country-party conscience, separation of powers, and an invigorated domestic market of commerce and manufacturing. This order was upheld by James Monroe, who had to grapple with changed with economic, social, and political changes in the country. Monroe struggled to reconcile a fragmenting sectarian divide, and repeatedly violated preexisting power arrangements in fights over territorial expansion and internal improvements. When John Quincy Adams ran for office in 1825, the Jeffersonian consensus was deeply frayed. Adams sought awkwardly to maintain patrician propriety, a standard of what he called “talent and virtue alone," in an era of partisan politics. Adams’ personal political ambitions, in addition to his muscular use of federal power to promote economic improvement, were the proverbial nails in the coffin of Jeffersonian politics. The stage was set for a new figure who could recast these expired commitments in new hues. Andrew Jackson would be the person to usher in a new political order. By relieving the executive branch from legislative supremacy, organizing a competitive two-party system, and using patronage to shore up his support, Jackson defined a new era of partisanship. The signature issue which defined his crusade was the fight to kill the national bank. By rejecting the bill to reauthorize the bank, Jackson made Jeffersonian deference to the legislature a sham. His way was the only path to the restoration of order and stability as there was no alternative. James Polk followed to the presidency in this era of mature partisan engagement and well-oiled political machines, affirming Jackson’s political imperatives while also asserting personal control over the office. His struggle to bridge widening divides produced congressional rebuke and criticism. The thorny issue of slavery complicated his domestic program of land reform, internal improvements, and Manifest Destiny. By the time Franklin Pierce became president, these sectarian rifts became too much to bear. The compromise of 1850 gutted Jacksonian nationalism, and the issue of slavery was torn open in debates over whether new states should be either free or slave. The policy initiatives of Polk, and to a greater extent Pierce, were drowned in inevitable sectional agitation and competing interests. Republican Leadership: Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt These difference could only be papered over for so long. A civil war would be waged to settle opposing differences. It was in this fractious climate that Abraham Lincoln rose to power. A party professional well-versed in the distribution of patronage, Lincoln shined less through personal authority than by his command of the Republican party. When the South seceded, Lincoln was given the room to impose a northern consensus for saving the Union and eradicating slave interests. Lincoln reached back to the distant myths of the Republic, invoking the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution to muster a warrant for pragmatic action. Lincoln not only rallied the support of his party and saved the Union, but also established a new relationship between society and government in commerce, finance, industry, and agriculture. Sometimes the elaborator of received commitments pushes hard against the boundaries of articulation and blurs the line between wholesale reconstruction and affirmation of the past. Nowhere is this more evident than in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. By the turn of the twentieth century, Roosevelt had defined an order of “conservative-radicalism” elaborating on established commitments. Roosevelt leveraged the new powers of the federal government to establish a direct presidential relationship with the public and more room for the executive to promulgate and manage policy. His vision was not reconstructive, but rehearsed the same tunes of the preexisting order. Roosevelt, assured that his legacy was secured, handed the reigns to his chosen successor William Taft in 1908. When Taft proved to be a mediocre successor by contradicting Roosevelt’s chosen course of action, Roosevelt launched a third-party movement in the guise of a reconstructive insurgent. While Roosevelt’s independent bid failed, he never succeeded in becoming a true reconstructive leader. His vision was too wound in traditional Republican orthodoxy and he drew too few distinctions between the present and the past. In the end, he had nothing to repudiate. The Rise of the Modern Presidency Franklin Roosevelt rose to prominence on the contradictions of the Hoover presidency. Herbert Hoover shepherded a program of “cooperative management” between the public and private sectors, a technocratic appeal that masked a lack of substance. When that synergy broke down Hoover called for more vigorous government intervention, thus breaking his commitment to voluntarism, limited government, and local autonomy. Unwittingly, the Hoover administration anticipated Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt launched a systematic reframing of priorities, calling attention to a wider range of economic interests and concerns. Roosevelt rubbed hard against the boundaries of reconstructive action, impinging on separation of powers. His aggressive view of national priorities lost him the support of business leaders, unions, and the Supreme Court. But after the Court rejected his recovery plan, Roosevelt regained his footing and sponsored new legislation with a more determined government thrust. Roosevelt’s legacy was defined more by the institutional checks and restraints he faced than the policies he endorsed. Like Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson challenged the distinctions between reconstructive leader and orthodox innovator. Johnson strove to complete the legacy of the New Deal, while also pushing his own expansive agenda. He maintained continuity with the pre-existing order in his military support of South Vietnam and through his domestic initiatives like health care and civil rights legislation. Yet Johnson became tangled in a skein of opposing interests, including some who disagreed with his rendition of the received faith. His civil rights legislation earned him the scorn of southern Democrats; affirmative action for federal employees was opposed by union members; his defense of Vietnam complicated his domestic policy agenda; threats to his legacy were leveled by John Kennedy’s brother Bobby over who was the rightful heir of the previous course. Yet the liberal regime did not fall. Its death finally came under the aegis of Jimmy Carter, who like Hoover sought to conceal contemporary divisions over policy with a technocratic appeal. Carter could not reconcile his program with the establishment; he was charged with incompetence and caricatured as a prop of old regime bankruptcy. Carter’s bid for a new political order was lacking in appropriate warrants for actions and an appropriate premise for action. His became a presidency of disjunction. The Reagan Revolution and the Clinton Third-Way The final regime Skowronek describes was incomplete at the time of writing. He traces the reconstructive period of the Reagan presidency, the elaborations of the faithful son Bush, and the preemptive politics of Bill Clinton. Reagan fastened new warrants for action, yet was troubled by the increasing restraints faced by the modern presidency. While Reagan proposed a program of budget reform, including tax and regulatory concessions, he was met by the resilience of the current situation. Reagan’s expansive vision eventually dissolved in a fit of self-delusion and wild-eyed speculation. Under his time, the trade deficit ballooned, the federal debt exploded, exports fell, and a crisis formed in the savings and loan industry. Reagan grappled with the problems that swept him into office; he proposed novel warrants for action, but fell victim to the restraints imposed on a more powerful presidency. George H.W. Bush was faced with reconciling these irreconcilable differences. As the times called for raising taxes and expanding the safety net, Bush abandoned his Reaganesque commitments and found himself isolated. Skowronek’s compendium of the presidency ends with that of Bill Clinton. Clinton exercised power amidst a resilient, not yet disjunctive, political regime. Reagan’s warrants were still valid, and the elaborations of the Bush presidency were still relevant. Clinton played the politics of preemption, formulating a “third way” politics by accommodating established arrangements. He supported deficit reductions, welfare reform, trade policy, and a crime bill. He deemed the era of big government to be over, and sought to synthesize a critique of prevailing political categories with support for the resilient regime. His was what Skowronek calls a “mongrel politics,” defined by exploiting factional discontent within the dominant coalition and accommodating the preexisting order. Clinton’s “new” Democratic party was drawn out to the precipice of vulnerability; his overtures were branded as a covert liberal conspiracy and his character was called into question. The preemptive president faces the steepest incline, and is often branded as unprincipled, unscrupulous, and cynically manipulative. Conclusion Skowronek’s documentation of the continual rise and fall of presidential regimes demonstrates the perils of presidential insistence on the authenticity of warrants that have grown stale over time. By relying on outmoded standards of action, later-regime presidents draw themselves into contradictions and create a course of action without ill-situated for current conditions. In keeping with the increasing strategic power of presidential office, Skowronek pines for an executive that disrupts the status quo ante and pushes hard for independent action. The cycle of reconstruction, elaboration, and disjunction should be discarded; in its wake, an office that reserves the right to authorize its own commitments. “This is the untapped promise of modern American government,” he writes, “not some dismal politics-as-usual, but a politics that is less familiar and more open-ended.” If, as Skowronek argues, the presidency is to be a battering-ram for change, it should not be rendered ineffectual by chaining itself to a past paradigm. It should be oriented towards the present, not situated in deference to past constructions. A modern presidency is powerful, dynamic, and especially relevant. Note, this review was reproduced from my personal blog, which can be located here: https://gristforthemull.wordpress.com

  2. 5 out of 5

    Keith

    Details a very useful categorization scheme for analyzing the challenges and outcomes of U.S. Presidential administrations in the context of overarching political themes across eras. Specifically, Skowronek sees Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan as "reconstructive" in the sense of establishing a new model of presidential politics in the wake of the "disjunction" of their immediate predecessors and the concomitant discrediting of the former ideological era. He further Details a very useful categorization scheme for analyzing the challenges and outcomes of U.S. Presidential administrations in the context of overarching political themes across eras. Specifically, Skowronek sees Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan as "reconstructive" in the sense of establishing a new model of presidential politics in the wake of the "disjunction" of their immediate predecessors and the concomitant discrediting of the former ideological era. He further defines two additional stylistic categories: the "articulative," in which presidents generally sharing the party of the former reconstructor attempt (and generally must fail) to articulate a continuation of the existing policy (e.g., both Bush presidencies in Reagan's wake), and the "preemptive," in which a president of the opposing party must rule within a contrary political environment and must therefore lay claim to some of the policy positions of the controlling culture, which is detailed only in the example of Clinton in the "Afterword" in this second edition. The text is a bit dense, so this is neither an easy nor a quick read (unless maybe you're a presidential history buff or a political science major). Skowronek uses numerous examples from history to illustrate his points, but at the same time he seems to presume a familiarity with U.S. history that is perhaps a bit more detailed than the casual reader is likely to possess unless they just got done with a good college-level class on the subject, so be prepared to supplement with some web searches or just keep Wikipedia handy while you go. Or, if you like being more of a completist, the references are rather thorough, so you could simply go to primary and secondary sources if you have a good political and historical library handy—but I suspect you'd need a college library, not your local public branch, to find most of this stuff. The whole strikes me as pretty solidly targeted to grad students and up, though I am not in that demographic either and I made it through in about nine months.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sean Chick

    Skworonek's prose has certainly improved and his ideas are solid. His sins are what you would expect: shoe-horning presidents into categories, not discussing presidents from Johnson to McKinley, the failure to explain in clear language the president's declining political powers and rising administrative powers, and his false optimistic conclusion similar to that in Building a New American State. Yet I do think he has seen clearly the overall pattern of presidential leadership, making this an ori Skworonek's prose has certainly improved and his ideas are solid. His sins are what you would expect: shoe-horning presidents into categories, not discussing presidents from Johnson to McKinley, the failure to explain in clear language the president's declining political powers and rising administrative powers, and his false optimistic conclusion similar to that in Building a New American State. Yet I do think he has seen clearly the overall pattern of presidential leadership, making this an original if flawed argument.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Dex

    Haven’t read all the example chapters. But the theory is great re reconstructive/disjunctive. I’m not sure I’m as on board with articulative/preemptive. Plus, it feels like it fits most perfectly in the current moment so the theory is strongest now. The gap between Lincoln/TR/Hoover is so dramatic it makes one wonder a bit how accurate the articulative/preemptive labels are.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mrs Sarah

    An absolute must-read for anybody interested in the presidency.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Michael Anderson

    A very interesting book which attempts to describe cycles in the American Presidency based on cultural, social, and political changes in America.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Brett

    This is a great book that makes explicit a sort of vague feeling that many people that follow politics have about our political culture. Essentially, it seems as though we are moving through multi-decade cycles where a particular paradigm rules until it is thoroughly exhausted and is replaced by a new paradigm. Most recently, this question has been asked with the election of President Obama in 2008--are we coming to the end of the decades of conservative dominance of our politics that began with This is a great book that makes explicit a sort of vague feeling that many people that follow politics have about our political culture. Essentially, it seems as though we are moving through multi-decade cycles where a particular paradigm rules until it is thoroughly exhausted and is replaced by a new paradigm. Most recently, this question has been asked with the election of President Obama in 2008--are we coming to the end of the decades of conservative dominance of our politics that began with Reagan's election in 1980? Or is the Obama presidency just a blip on the radar, an aberration in the middle of an ongoing period of conservative rule? The Politics Presidents Make takes that idea and begins at our nation's founding, looking for ways the pattern asserts itself. Skowronek makes a relatively convincing case that this in fact happening in several historical circumstances, though we can quibble about some of the details. It is books like this that also remind me how hobbled I am by my lack of serious historical knowledge of our politics as they existed prior to 1960 or so. Though I'm completely absorbed my modern politics, I've always had trouble focusing on events that occurred prior to the Sixties, and I don't think alone in that, even among the population that is actively interested in politics. So, it's readable and convincing and important, and considered something of a modern classic among political scientists. For what it is worth, I endorse that opinion as well.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    A brilliant thesis on the cyclical development of Constitutional Law through the prism of the Presidency. There are some gaps - i.e. what happened between the Lincolnian/Republican post Civil War cycle and the New Deal -- and you're left trying to piece together some continuation of the pattern through the George W. Bush and Barak Obama presidencies. But overall, this is an amazing read for any Constitutional enthusiast or American historian.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    This was the only book from the poli-sci side of my college major that I've ever subsequently referred back to and the only one that has had ongoing predictive power. Everyone should read it and think through its lessons for whom to support in future elections. It tells you a lot about who can run effectively, when, and how. Seriously, check it out.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jodi

    Another book from the ol' syllabus that I never got around to reading.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Yama Rahyar

    This study of the American presidency will take everything you assume about the nature of presidential power and punch it in its unexamined face.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Matt

  13. 5 out of 5

    Arminius

  14. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

  15. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  16. 5 out of 5

    Zara Halimi

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ponderiv

  19. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Platt

  20. 4 out of 5

    Gregory Koutnik

  21. 5 out of 5

    Zheyao Li

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sultan Alamer

  23. 5 out of 5

    Samuel Franklin

  24. 4 out of 5

    Joe Stack

  25. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jen

  27. 4 out of 5

    Adam Warber

  28. 5 out of 5

    Wes

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jack

  30. 5 out of 5

    Eric Uecker

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