Bruce Bartlett, domestic policy adviser under Reagan (and Georgetown alum), wrote a recent article in which he proclaimed President Obama “a Democratic Richard Nixon,” not because he has demonstrated any of the personal flaws one immediately thinks of when the 37th president comes to mind, but because the president has thus far followed Nixon’s tempered endorsement of his opponents’ core agenda. After all, Bartlett reminds readers:
“Richard Nixon accepted the legitimacy of the Great Society. His goal was to make it work efficiently and shave off the rough edges. Nixon even expanded the welfare state by expanding its regulatory reach through the Environmental Protection Agency and other new government agencies.
Bartlett, as well as Obama’s critics on the left who see in this comparison confirmation of the president’s betrayal of their principles, seem to conclude that the similarity between the two men is one of personality or temperament. However, I suspect something more systemic better explains the similarities between the two administrations.
Stephen Skowronek, in The Politics Presidents Make, limns four different presidential types, which recur cyclically through American history. The first and the rarest are the reconstructive presidents. These individuals, like Lincoln or FDR, assume the office in the midst of a crisis, with a large warrant to remake certain norms of American policy and a diverse and often unique coalition to solidify their vision. Subsequent presidents, according to Skowronek, tend to come from the same party and are supported by an analogous coalition of interests. These presidents, like Grant or LBJ struggle to adapt the vision their predecessor outlined to current problems and their own warrant for independent actions until finally, after successive frustrations, the old prescriptions are no longer adequate and the system collapses in on itself (as it did under Hoover or Carter, for instance) and another reconstructive president steps into the void to articulate a new vision.
The fourth type corresponds to the few presidents who win while representing a party opposite the currently dominant coalition. Skowronek labels these administrations “preemptive” and declares that:
“Like all opposition leaders, these presidents have the freedom of their independence from established commitments, but unlike presidents in the politics of reconstruction, their repudiative authority us manifestly limited by the political, institutional, and ideological supports that the old establishment maintains…
“The distinctive thing about preemptive leaders is that they are not out to establish, uphold, or salvage any political orthodoxy. Theirs is an unabashedly mongrel politics…These leaders bid openly for a hybrid alternative. Their leadership stance provides them with considerable license to draw policy positions and political commitments from different sides of the issues of their day and to promote their recombination in a loosely synthesized mix. (Skowronek 43, 449)”
Thus, Barack Obama has so far traced an analogous course to Richard Nixon not out of some personal similarity between the two men or because the president harbors crypto-conservative sympathies, as his detractors occasionally suspect, but because both occupied the White House at similar points in political time. President Obama has adapted the positions and poise he has, as well as won the meager victories he has, because he is largely constrained from acting otherwise, barring, as Skowronek warns, “a showdown crisis of constitutional proportions.” Recognizing the president’s moderation as a systemic feature rather than a personality quirk should as preclude those from assuming that other politicians, in a similar position, could have effected more progress and hopefully induce some greater modesty amongst future politicians who promise widespread hope and change.
Finally, I want to share two additional tidbits from Skowronek about preemptive presidents which could influence the current incumbent’s future. He writes that these presidents have a higher than average reelection rate (since they have greater independence to maneuver to counter challengers), but that they also have a high likelihood of being impeached or running afoul of Congress (all three presidents who have faced impeachment proceedings have been preemptive presidents). So it seems we can look forward to both a 2012 Obama win and a very messy subsequent four years.