Listening to Jon Meacham made me want to review Stephen Skowronek’s book that I read a number of years ago for a workshop.  Skowronek combined and revised five individually presented essays (written from the early 1980s to 2006) into this 2008 volume entitled Presidential Leadership in Political Time.  His basic thesis about political time reduces personality and style as secondary factors in defining a presidency and rather focuses the study of presidential leadership on “what its capacities are and how it operates in political circumstances variously configured” (xi).  While Presidents obviously exist in different historical times, Skowronek argues there are parallel moments in political time, which he defines as:

“the medium through which presidents encounter received commitments of ideology and interests and claim authority to intervene in their development.  Political time has a narrative structure.  Presidents bid for authority by reckoning with the work of their predecessors, locating their rise to power within the recent course of political events, and addressing the political expectations that attend their intervention in these affairs” (18).

Skowronek also explains in this first chapter of the book (“The Presidency in American Political Development: A Third Look”) that there have been numerous attempts to study the presidency in American political development:

  1. During the Progressive era around the turn of the 20th century, people looked to the presidency as the branch of the federal government best suited to serve the needs of the people.
  2. In the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate investigations, scholars began identifying the modern presidency as the “imperial presidency” (a phrase first used by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.).  This period of disillusionment swung the pendulum back to Congress as the body most capable of reining in excessive power and moving the democracy forward.
  3. Skowronek’s third look at the presidency takes this form:

“It attends to the peculiar ways in which the presidency operates politically, to the different sorts of political contests it sets up over time, and to their typical political effects.  It offers thereby some insight into the sequence of political change unfolding in our time” (5).

The third essay (“The Politics of Leadership at the End of the Twentieth Century”) provides an analysis of the structures of political authority.  Skowronek identified the political configurations of these structures based on whether the president is affiliated with or opposed to the “dominant ideological and programmatic commitments of the era” and whether the commitments of the regime at the time of the president’s rise to power are vulnerable or continue to hold out “credible solutions to the problems of the day” (85).

Among recent presidents, Skowronek identified Jimmy Carter for the politics of disjunction, Ronald Reagan for the politics of reconstruction, George H.W. Bush for the politics of articulation, and Bill Clinton for the politics of preemption.

  • Affiliation with a vulnerable regime leads to an “impossible leadership situation” because the president can neither repudiate nor embrace their political inheritance, thereby tending “to plunge the nation deep into a crisis of political legitimacy” (90).
  • Candidates who oppose vulnerable incumbents set themselves up for what Skowronek identifies as “the situation that has traditionally proven the most favorable to political mastery in the American presidency” (93).  These are the great repudiators.
  • Presidents who come to power affiliated with a resilient regime tend to become orthodox innovators, “pledged to continue work on an agenda that was his rightful inheritance” (99).
  • Preemptive leaders “are far less beholden to their political allies than are orthodox innovators or late-regime affiliates, far less constrained by standards of doctrinal purity or by the expectation of acting in ways consistent with established part priorities.  What sets preemptive leadership apart is just this: It is not designed to establish, uphold, or salvage any political orthodoxy; it is an unabashedly mongrel vision, an aggressive critique of the prevailing categories and a bold bid to mix then up” (106).