The 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 politics stands opposed to the analysis advanced in Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power in that they advance competing conceptions of “political time.” I think, to the contrary, that Skowronek accepts that something like Neustadt’s premodern / modern divide operates in tandem with his own cyclical conception of political time. But Neustadt got the implications of presidential modernity and premodernity exactly backwards.
Neustadt, at least on Skowronek’s telling, argued that there was a fundamental disjunction between the premodern presidency (the presidency prior to the 1940s) and the modern presidency. Premodern presidents could adequately discharge their responsibilities by acting like clerks. Because “vital national interests were only sporadically to the fore,” the president was not called upon to decide between a number of (contested) programs of political action; he could, instead, simply administer a political system on whose legitimacy and shape there was basically a consensus. By contrast, modern presidents were confronted with a politically contentious landscape, and were therefore called upon to “strik[e] bargains among independent interests and institutional actors who were themselves possessed of a stubborn tendency toward gridlock.”
The crib sheet has it that Skowronek, by contrast, articulates a cyclical conception of political time. The presidency is not divided into the “modern” and the “premodern.” Instead, our constitutional commitments entail that presidents have both an “order-affirming” and “order-shattering” function: as chief magistrate of the United States, the president is tasked with maintaining the stability of the nation, but, as the most visible focal point for politics, his job is to blaze a new trail. Out of this dynamic, Skowronek argues, recurring patterns arise. Sometimes, when a set of ideological understandings and interest-alignments is robust, order-affirmation calls for a president who acts as a steward of the predecessor who presided over the construction of those understandings and alignments (this is the “affiliated” president). Other presidents (“disjunctive” presidents) are in power during the demise of an outmoded calcification of interests and ideologies; they are followed by a president who “reconstructs” a new political consensus, carrying out his constitutionalized order-affirming purpose by reaching back into history for a (perhaps mythologized) ethos, which, he will argue, his reconstruction serves to restore. Finally, “preemptive” presidents are presidents who are opposed to, but operate within, the prevailing political consensus, securing what gains they can within the contextual limits of their mandate.
On this telling, Skowronek’s theory stands opposed to Neustadt’s in positing a continuity between the presidency’s present and past. But this telling elides a noteworthy, and I think correct, passage in which Skowronek assimilates the insights of Neustadt and his epigones to his framework. Skowronek argues that the growth of the administrative state — a central fact of modern American politics — has given rise to a “paradox . . . As the power of all presidents to get things done has expanded, the authority of those best situated to reproduce political order has constricted. The “rise” of the presidency as an instrument of government has delimited its political range as an instrument of reconstruction.” There appear to be two interrelated reasons for this. First, as presidential administration has expanded, the ability of a single agent — the president or the office of the president or whatever unit is capable of acting coherently — to control it has diminished. Whereas Thomas Jefferson could ensure that the vision he articulated was actually implemented, the last reconstructive president, Ronald Reagan’s, reconstruction “was, relatively speaking, more rhetorical than institutional.” He controlled only his voice. Second, and related, the expansion of presidential administration has resulted in the accretion of, to borrow a phrase from the law, “reliance interests.” As the presidency expands, more constituencies become more invested in the presidential status quo, and effective political action becomes commensurately more challenging.
So, even on Skowronek’s telling, there is a premodern / modern divide in the presidency. But, politically, modern presidents are impotent relative to their premodern counterparts — the opposite of Neustadt’s view that the premoderns were mere clerks.