SUCCEED or fail, presidents are formidable political actors. They are continually remaking our politics, changing the terms of debate and the conditions of maneuver. The wonder is that we so seldom think about them this way. We know far more about the obstacles that frustrate presidents’ efforts to become masters of American politics than about what those efforts do to American politics. The ineffectiveness of our leaders has become a consuming preoccupation; there is little stepping back to take stock of their political effects. We approach each new administration flush with ideas about what is wrong but short on explanations for the variation in what is wrought.
Taking the alternative tack, I found that historical examination of the presidency’s political impact has a lot to tell us about where things stand today. My objective in this book has been to understand the different kinds of politics that presidents make. I treat leadership efforts, shortfalls and all, as politically formative; my interest lies in how they shape the American political landscape and drive its transformation. From this has come a different view of past experience and what we need to be concerned about now.
The book ranges the whole course of presidential history, retelling along the way the leadership struggles of a dozen or so incumbents.1
I returned to the old stories to rethink fundamentals in light of what I saw as the limitations of familiar analytic strategies. The tendency has long been to compartmentalize the study of government institutions on the side of order, system, and routine in politics, to identify them with “politics-as-usual” and look outside of them for the “real” forces of change.2
But the presidency has never fit this frame very well.3
It conflates these categories and distinctions, and much of its political
significance is lost on them. Array the stories of the presidents in succession—each in his turn endowed with broad constitutional powers and determined to exercise them in his own right—and the blunt disruptive force of this institution instantly comes to the fore. Together these stories tell of an office that regularly reaches beyond itself to assert control over others, one whose deep-seated impulse to reorder
things routinely jolts order and routine elsewhere, one whose normal activities and operations alter system boundaries and recast political possibilities.
Disruption of the status quo ante is basic to the politics presidents make and, beyond that, to the dynamics of American political development in the largest sense. Rather than filter it out as background noise, I propose to fashion an institutional analysis that brings it center stage.4
The first step is to redirect the signposts which we use to make sense of presidential history.
The Limits of Our Search for Order
It is easy to get lost in presidential history. Each story presents itself as baldly idiosyncratic and therefore defiant of any quest for generalization. The subject matter tends at once to wander outward, encompassing the operations of the federal government as a whole, and to collapse in upon itself as a study of individuals. Patterns stretch over long spans of time, more often than not obscured by the immediate twists and turns of personality and circumstance.
To show us the order of things, scholars have divided up the history of the presidents into periods. They have grouped historically contiguous incumbents together and gleaned from the shared elements of their situations a sense of the parameters of the political system at that time. From this they derive the characteristic demands that the system places on the presidency and the characteristic resources available to meet those demands. Once the problem of political action within the period has been set in this way, presidential leadership becomes a function of relative skill at manipulating politics-as-usual.
Take, for example, Richard Neustadt’s classic study of the politics of leadership, Presidential Power
(1960). The centerpiece of Neustadt’s analysis was his description of a new political/institutional system that had taken shape in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His portrait of “the presidency at mid-century” identified incumbents after Franklin Roosevelt as a distinct and coherent group facing similar challenges in
Neustadt argued that in this period central direction and control of national affairs had become for the first time a routine imperative. Modern presidents had
to be leaders. The prior choice of mere clerkship, of simply fulfilling the constitutional responsibilities of the office, had been rendered moot by recent, dramatic events (the New Deal and World War II) that had made crisis management a normal state of affairs and concerted action a matter of striking bargains among independent interests and institutional actors who were themselves possessed of a stubborn tendency toward gridlock. From his portrait of this new system, Neustadt derived the skills and strategies requisite to making it work, and he sustained within that frame a thematic evaluation of the performances of Truman and Eisenhower.
This was no mean achievement. Neustadt’s periodization of presidential history—his distinction between modern and premodern contexts for the exercise of power—introduced a sense of coherence into the relentless succession of incumbents and raised the study of leadership efforts above the idiosyncrasies of the case at hand. But simple periodization schemes impose severe limits on the analysis of leadership, and Neustadt’s was no exception. Note first that Neustadt set the modern incumbents apart from their predecessors with a mere caricature of the past. The notion of a prior age when presidents did not have to be leaders—an age when vital national interests were only sporadically at the fore and most presidents could rest content with mere clerkship—is nothing more than a conceit of modern times. While the imagery groups the modern presidents together on common ground and cordons them off from prior experience, the question of just how different the politics of leadership in modern times is or whether the mid-twentieth-century presidents individually share more with one another than they do with presidents in earlier periods is never really explored.
Second, in describing the system that midcentury incumbents had to manipulate, Neustadt constricted the political significance of the exercise of presidential power to what he called “operational” questions. His concern was with how presidents could make this new system work, and he evaluated their effectiveness accordingly. But Neustadt’s presidents do not change the political system in any significant way. The political and institutional parameters of the system appear impervious to the exercise of presidential power; they are transformed by great external forces like economic depression or world war. Indeed, to compare Truman and Eisenhower by the same standard, Neustadt had
assume that Truman did not do anything to alter Eisenhower’s political challenge or leadership prospects. This is really the crux of the periodization problem: to sustain comparisons within a given time frame, the systemic political impacts of successive leadership efforts must be filtered out, and no sooner are those impacts filtered out than the standards of evaluation themselves begin to ring hollow. The assumption that a system is given and that presidents make it work more or less effectively is bound to render the requisites of success elusive, for in their most precise signification, presidents disrupt systems, reshape political landscapes, and pass to successors leadership challenges that are different from the ones just faced.
Finally, and to bring this full circle, by assigning priority to those aspects of the political situation that Truman and Eisenhower shared, Neustadt elided obvious differences in the political purposes they brought to action in the moment at hand. He speaks of the “tasks” of leadership at midcentury in generic terms, but Truman and Eisenhower set out with manifestly different objectives in view. After all, one was a Democrat, the other a Republican. Truman was politically affiliated with his predecessor and out to elaborate upon the received agenda, while Eisenhower, the first Republican to come to power since the advent of the New Deal, was the leader of a resurgent opposition out to find an alternative course that could still stand the test of legitimacy.6
To think thematically about tasks such as these, we have to be willing to break down the historical demarcations which Neustadt’s analysis sets up and look back to presidents his analysis would seem to consign to irrelevance. Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson’s vice president and successor, might be a better reference for Truman’s political dilemma than Eisenhower; William Henry Harrison, the popular general who took the Whigs to their first victory over the Jackson Democrats, a better guide to Eisenhower’s political situation than Truman.
Notwithstanding the limitations of the method, simple periodization schemes and modern-traditional dichotomies structure most of what we think and write about presidential leadership today. Indeed, a sampling of current opinion suggests that we are taking our period constructs more and more seriously. One leading authority describes the changes made in American government during the New Deal as the founding of a “Second Republic,” a system of government so radically different from what preceded it that all prior presidential experience pales into insignificance.7
Another writes in a similar vein that “the transformation
of the office has been so profound that the modern presidencies have more in common with one another in the opportunities they provide and the demands they place on their incumbents than they have with the entire sweep of traditional presidencies from Washington’s to Hoover’s.”8
This segmentation of presidential history is reinforced on the other side by scholars working on earlier periods: “The conceptions of leadership of the pre-1829 presidents,” writes a leading authority, “largely distinguish them from … latter day models. Because the first six presidents, quite simply, had different valuations of partisan motivation and of the reality of the public interest, they had different standards of executive leadership.”9
By calling attention to the historical demarcations that currently order this field, I do not wish to dismiss the important insights that have been gained. What we have learned about the distinctiveness of the presidency in different periods and about how changes in the office have accommodated transformations in the nation at large is in fact integral to the analysis to be undertaken here. My point is simply that the politics of leadership is neither as coherent within these periods nor as disparate across them as our current approach to the subject matter would suggest, and that we stand to sharpen our insights into what is actually going on inside these periods if we resist caricatures of those outside the time frames given. Indeed, leaving the history of presidents in pieces—with incumbents in one period having little in common with, or relevance to, those in the others—would seem to be counterproductive on its face. There are only some forty-odd cases in all, and with the experience as varied as it is from one incumbent to the next, none can be dismissed out of hand as a potential source of insight into the significance of the rest.
Consider some recent incumbents. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush may be distinguished as a group of late-century presidents sharing certain resources and constraints and pursuing certain characteristic strategies.10
But just how similar were the leadership tasks these presidents undertook? Was Reagan simply a better politician than the others, more skilled than they at using the tools of the modern presidency? Or was he, at some yet unattended level, engaged in a different kind of politics altogether, a politics more like Andrew Jackson’s than either Carter’s or Bush’s?
Similarly, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson shared a set of institutional resources and presumptions about leadership that distinguish
them in important ways from presidents in later periods. Yet, Adams’s presidency ruptured the political regime and shattered the previously dominant governing coalition, while Jefferson forged a new regime, one that would stand as the font of political legitimacy for decades to come. More curious still, Adams’s shattering effect came in a rather desperate attempt to avoid national disaster and prevent his own compatriots from usurping the basic constitutional powers of his office, while Jefferson exercised extraordinary prerogatives throughout his tenure and passed power along to a hand-picked successor in the midst of a national disaster of his own making. These are stark differences in the politics presidents make. Are they idiosyncratic? Or are there other patterns at work, patterns that cut across our periods, which might help us specify the range of political possibilities further?
Multiple Orders and Political Mixes
Certainly it is no accident that the presidents most widely celebrated for their mastery of American politics have been immediately preceded by presidents generally judged politically incompetent. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan—this repeated pairing of dismal failure with stunning success is one of the more striking patterns in presidential history, and accounting for it forces us to alter the way we have been thinking about that history. In the first place, we are prompted to think about what incumbents in very different historical periods have in common with one another and not with their immediate predecessors or successors. What conditions for leadership did the latter presidents in each of these pairs share; what could they do that their predecessors could not? Conversely, what conditions for leadership did the first presidents in each pair share; what did they do to open the door to greatness for their successor?
Note further that by accounting for the pattern in this way, we place the leaders themselves in a different light. A search for the typical effects that presidential action has in differently structured political contexts takes us behind the familiar portraits of individual incompetence and mastery. If it turns out that the “great” political leaders have all made the same kind of politics and if that politics is only made in a certain kind of situation, then our celebration of their extraordinary talents and
skills will be seen to obscure more than it clarifies. Indeed, if it is the potency of the office in different situations that is being picked up in historical judgments of effectiveness, then this historiography is less a description than an extension of the politics presidents make.
Finally, no sooner do we become aware of signposts directing us toward alternative assumptions about institutional politics and presidential history than we are prompted to think about how the different patterns before us relate to one another. It will not do merely to substitute this pattern for that, presenting an alternative synthesis that tells the stories of the presidents according to a different view of order in history. Choosing one among several patterns that we know to exist is precisely what overstates the regularity and derivative character of institutional politics. At the very least, we should want to know how the recurrent pattern we have just noted has been affected by the secular changes that others have described so clearly in the operations of the government generally and in the evolution of institutional resources in the presidency in particular.
This last question points the way to a different understanding of institutional politics in all its various dimensions. When presidents act, they engage several institutional “orderings” simultaneously.11
Three are implicit in what we have observed in presidential history already. In making them explicit, we see that each ordering has distinct institutional referents and that each frames a distinct pattern of change over time. More important still, we see that these different patterns of change overlay one another in
time. Drawing them out together exposes the layered structure of institutional action.12
First, of course, there is the constitutional ordering of institutional prerogatives. It frames the persistent pattern
of political disruption, as each new president seizes control of the formal powers of his office and attempts to exercise them in his own right. Behind that lies an organizational ordering of institutional resources. While all presidents have had the same basic constitutional prerogatives, the practical organization of institutional relationships and responsibilities has changed several times over the course of American history as national politics itself has grown more complicated. These working modes of governmental operation frame the emergent pattern
of expanding resources and greater independence in presidential action. Finally, there is a political ordering of institutional commitments. The government’s basic commitments of ideology and interest have tended to congeal institutionally
around relatively durable partisan regimes, and these orderings frame the recurrent pattern
of founding, fragmenting, and disintegrating governing coalitions and party systems.13
Presidents are deeply implicated in all the various kinds of changes marked along these different orderings. Distinguishing the layers thus goes a long way toward helping us specify and compare what they do to our politics. Abraham Lincoln fought a civil war and reconstructed the government’s most basic commitments of ideology and interest, but he did not change the patronage-based, partisan mode of governmental operations that had organized institutional politics since the time of Jackson. Theodore Roosevelt made some extraordinary changes in this partisan mode of governmental operations, and yet in his efforts to replace the patronage-ridden, locally oriented organization of government with a more bureaucratic and nationally oriented one, he aimed at preserving commitments of ideology and interest long established...