Posted by: captainfalcon | October 30, 2012

Three Thoughts on Pop-Skowronek

I just got around to reading Jack Balkin’s Skowronek-lite.  I think it was one of the better examples of that pitiable genre.  Three thoughts:

1. I wonder if it’s possible to have a disjunctive-preemptive president, who comes from the opposition and presides over the demise of the prior reconstruction while still implementing policies that bear its mark.  I’d think Obama could be one of those, such that it’s up to the next president(s) to reconstruct.

2. I wonder whether it is helpful to categorize presidents, as opposed to slices of time, as disjunctive or reconstructive.  Why does a reconstruction (or disjunction) need to be accomplished during a single presidency?  It seems equally possible, maybe more likely, that a period of oscillating affiliation and preemption could shade into a period of disjunction, which could, in turn, shade into a period of reconstruction.  While it gives me pause that Skowronek’s book always focuses on single disjunctive or reconstructive presidencies, thinking about it like that would refocus Skowronek’s epigones on what their majordomo himself wanted to concentrate: the politics the presidency makes as opposed to the politics presidents make.  An added benefit: by making it more difficult to assimilate routine political commentary to a political science framework, decoupling Skowronek’s theory from election-cycles would also make it more difficult for academics who want to try their hand at commentating on the horserace to pretend they are doing something highbrow.

3. To my point that Skowronek’s theory is not meant to aid in the inferring of facts about where we’re situated in political time from the politics of the moment, I think it is notable that Skowronek has never tried to do this.  (Bleg: is this true?)



  1. I think you are largely correct.

    1. It may be possible, but that person would also have to de-legitimize his own position as well (or else there’s no vacuum for the reconstructive president(s) to fill). Moreover, if Skowronek’s framework is to be believed, the necessary element to enable a reconstruction is the incumbent regime proving incapable of dealing with the current problems, paralyzed by warring factions and anachronistic policy preferences. This makes sense to me, and thus I suspect we will still need another Reagan Republican in office before the disjunction occurs. Though, I agree that the Obama era GOP is quite ripe for an implosion.

    2. I think this has a lot of merit to it. Skowronek’s framework is well-suited to be re-organized into a broader theory of the presidency rather than of presidents, with long stretches of stasis punctuated with disjunction/reconstruction. It would lose little of its analytic merit while, like you said, reducing the trivial parlor-game applications. More importantly, in my book, a recasting of this nature would make clearer Skowronek’s central point, that presidents are constrained by cyclical circumstances and would avoid the routine misperception that each officeholder chooses the leadership posture they ultimately assume (the Daniel Larison post I linked to earlier: is a good example of this).

    3. Eh, this one is iffy. It depends on how narrowly you define “the moment.” For instance, in his epilogue, he looks back on the first Clinton term shortly after Clinton won and makes some predictions for what the second Clinton term would look like. Also, one of the things that supposedly prompted the book was grousing amongst the chattering classes that Bush was failing where Reagan succeeded, which, to Skowronek, seemed obviously due to deeper constraints on the office.

  2. Another I noticed while rereading Balkin’s article: he hasn’t given up on the idea that Barack Obama will be a reconstructive president. Only now, it’ll happen during the second Obama term!

    This is exceedingly unlikely. One: preemptive presidents win second terms frequently (Skowronek even goes so far as to say they are more likely to win reelection than others). But none have leveraged that into a major reconstructive opening (the lack of a preceding disjunction might be dispositive, see above). So there’s no reason to think Obama the exception here.

    More importantly, second terms are usually not ripe for sweeping reforms even for presidents with sizable reconstructive warrants. Reagan, FDR, Jackson, even Lincoln (giggles) ran into problems during their second terms. Those of preemptive presidents are even less auspicious. The likely Obama second term will consist of some small bore center-right policy reforms and a whole metric shit ton of scandal/inquiries. These are not the things a grand, regime shaping legacy are built on.

  3. 1. Mmm, I think Skowronek’s motivation basically cancels my point #3. Less so the Clinton epilogue; understanding past presidencies is a different project, to which Skowronek’s theory is better suited, than predicting the specifics of future presidencies. Distance from the past presidency is not as important as that it is a past presidency.

    2. “[The] person would also have to de-legitimize his own position.” Aren’t there other possibilities, like the person doesn’t have a position (at least in the sense of a position that could form the basis of a reconstruction) because he is all about practicing pragmatism within the waning prior reconstruction?

    3. Yeah, Balkin was not (and never has been) so good at Skowronek-lite analyses of Obama. I thought his description of the fractures in the Reagan coalition was pretty good, and he obviously has a working knowledge of Skowronek’s theory. You are also correct that Larrison’s post is quite embarrassing.

    4. One final thought I have about Skowronek, and I think he may actually have addressed this exact point in the introduction to his book but I haven’t read that in a while and I don’t have it with me, is that maybe the least misleading title he could have selected is The Presidencies that Politics Make. (I know he talks about how he should have called his book The Politics the Presidency Makes, but I think the other way round is more accurate, and better foreshadows the time-slice conception of Skowronek’s theory.)

  4. […] crib sheet on Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make, a book on which we periodically post, would have it that Skowronek’s theory of the presidency’s role in American […]

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