Vice Presidents Collage

Reviewing “Presidential Leadership in Political Time”

Stephen Skowronek’s Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal is an important book in the presidential studies canon and I am glad that I encountered it early in my reading.

This series on VeepCritique is an effort to warm-up as I prepare to work on my dissertation proposal. I will be reviewing most of the books I was assigned for my specialized reading exam. With each book there will be a series of basic questions:

1. What is the book’s fundamental question and argument?
2. What is the book’s methodology and analytical framework (and what can I learn from it)?
3. Is the book’s argument compelling?
4. What does the book offer my thesis, what can I take from it?

Skowronek’s 1993 book, The Politics Presidents Make won the Richard E. Neustadt Prize for research on the presidency. Presidential Leadership in Political Time revisits the his initial argument about a decade and a half (and a pair of consequential presidencies) later.

He begins by summarizes to dominant arguments about the presidency. The first is that of Richard Neustadt in Presidential Power (to be reviewed later in this series). Neustadt and his progressive generation (Neustadt came of age under FDR, worked in the Truman White House, and advised JFK) saw the presidency as an engine for reform. His book examined the limitations on the president and but how with careful strategy the President can maximize his (and one day her) effectiveness. The focus is on the personal attributes and cleverness of the president. A pair of lousy presidencies (LBJ and Nixon) led to the rise of the antithesis, Arthur Schlesinger’s “Imperial Presidency” in which an out of control presidency is the center of the nation’s biggest problem. Jimmy Carter’s term did little to inspire confidence in the future of the Presidency. Where Neustadt highlighted the president’s skill – Schlesinger worried about the impact of the president’s neuroses. But then came Reagan and also Clinton who managed to serve two terms each, leave office relatively popular, and manage some substantial accomplishments. Skowronek believes another paradigm is in order:

The outstanding question of our third look is whether these stories fit larger patterns in the politics of leadership, whether it is possible to observe across the broad history of leadership efforts something more systematic about the political impact of presidential action in time and over time.

Skowronek describes the presidency as a fundamental force of upheaval and change. The president has enormous power. The challenge is in Presidential authority – does the President have a warrant for his actions that legitimates them? When Presidents lose that warrant, their allies are discouraged and their foes are energized.

The great struggle for Presidents is to define their actions in terms of a broader purpose that is coherent and consonant with the values of their supporters. So far, this does not sound out of joint with Neustadt’s description of Presidential reputation or prestige.

But, Skowronek explains that the most important factor in a president’s efforts to legitimate his actions will be the actions of the president before him and that this relies on broader political cycles. There are four types of presidents:

Politics of disjunction: This is the period when a long-standing political order is no longer capable of addressing the challenges facing the country. These leaders are caught between the demands of their supporters and their need to take actions their supporters oppose. The most recent example is Jimmy Carter; others include Hoover, Franklin Pierce, and John Quincy Adams. Not a distinguished list, but Skowronek argues it has less to do with their limitations then the reality that they were governing in impossible times. They could not satisfy the demands of their supporters, leaving them isolated and vulnerable to electoral defeat.

Politics of reconstruction: This is for the presidents who establish new political orders. After the politics of disjunction reveals the old order as incapable of governing any longer, a new order, which overturns the old order’s commitments, takes power. These presidents have enormous freedom to establish a new order, make new commitments, and exercise the enormous power of the presidency. Reagan was the most recent example, rejecting the values and programs of the New Deal coalition and establishing a new order. Other examples include FDR, Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and of course Washington. This would seem like a Presidential all-star team, but Skowronek states that they enjoyed an advantageous time in the sequence in which the collapse of a long-standing coalition allowed them relative freedom to use the full powers of their office to pursue their goals.

Politics of articulation: After the new order is established, follow-on presidents face a different set of challenges. They are charged with continuing the vision of their great predecessor – but there is discord among factions of the governing coalition over what that vision entails. Ultimately their decisions end up alienating substantial components of their support base. There are two prominent sub-groups. The first is the President who follows the coalition founder and is often seen as unable to stand in their predecessor’s footsteps (think Van Buren, Truman, and Bush 41). The later followers often vigorously attempt to renew the founder’s vision. Examples of this group include Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, LBJ, and Bush 43. This latter group has a disproportionate likelihood of engaging in wars of choice or other forms of international muscle flexing. There is usually one faction in the coalition with an expansive view of America in the world that the president needs to appease. These are the Presidents most likely to serve only one-term or to choose not to run for re-election. Since the establishment of a consistent two-party system (in the 1820s) only three won both of their Presidential elections (Grant, McKinley, and Bush 43.)

Politics of pre-emption: While there is a dominant order linked to one party, occasionally the other party elects a president (Andrew Johnson, Cleveland, Wilson, Eisenhower, Nixon, Clinton, and Obama). These presidents usually distance themselves from the past failed order of their party – Clinton, claiming to chart a third way and avoiding the designation as a liberal. These presidents are less hemmed in by ideology and readily adopt policies from the dominant order. These presidents are frequently tarred as dishonest or tricky by their political opponents because of their ideological inconsistency (and consequent effective freedom to govern). Impeachment and other confrontations with the legislature appear more likely under these Presidents (Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton for example.) However many of them have served two terms. But, just as Clinton sought a “legacy,” many of this type of President try to find an over-arching issue with which to define their Presidency.

As for methodology, I have no idea how this argument works. I probably should have read his original book, The Politics Presidents Make, but it seems intuitively strong. The patterns appear to hold up. Impeachments and wars of choice are not, as Skowronek says, randomly distributed.

How does this help me for my thesis?

Notes: There have been 44 presidents, but this list excludes Presidents who served a very short time (such as William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, along with Gerald Ford who was an anomaly.) The modern vice presidency began with Mondale, since then every vice president has played a significant role. Quayle however is not considered a significant policy player, although objectively he was more involved then the vast majority of vice presidents that preceded him. Of the modern vice presidents he played the least significant role. Vice Presidents who played substantial roles prior to Mondale include Martin Van Buren, Henry A. Wallace, and Richard Nixon. Rockefeller played a substantial role, but is not included since the Ford presidency is an anomaly.

The n here is far too small for any statistical significance, but do any patterns appear?

Reconstructive and pre-emptive presidents would appear most likely to make use of their vice presidents, while the presidencies in periods of disjunction and articulation (is there some irony that the two Bushes had presidencies of articulation?) appear least likely to give their VPs opportunities. But, pre-emptive Presidents include Nixon who actually despised Agnew (despite Nixon’s own opportunities as VP under Eisenhower.) Meanwhile Presidents in periods of disjunction include Jimmy Carter, who initiated the modern vice presidency with Mondale. Presidents in periods of articulation include Bush 43, who gave his vice president the most expansive policy role of any VP.

The item most relevant from Skowronek’s schema is that Reconstructive presidents appear most likely to give their VPs a policy role. The great monadnock of the pre-modern vice presidency was Martin Van Buren, who had been Andrew Jackson’s top political operative and was a member of Jackson’s kitchen cabinet. The next significant VP (with the limited exception of John Nance Garner who did some lobbying for FDR, before turning against him) was Henry A. Wallace who ran a 3000-person agency for a bit over a year – for FDR. This does reflect an important point – these presidents were powerful enough that they could select their VPs, rather than having the party force someone onto the ticket to satisfy the opposing wing. Most VPs were clear rivals to the President and kept far away from the White House.

Outsider Presidents refers to Presidents who are not DC insiders. Carter highlighted the phenomenon (although Eisenhower before him wasn’t a career DC politician). Except for Bush 41, every President from Carter on has been an outsider. I’ve written on this before, but there is a strong correlation between outsider Presidents and Vice Presidential influence and opportunity. However, for my purposes, there doesn’t appear to be any particular correlation between types of presidency and insider/outsider status.

I’m not sure if Skowronek’s thesis has much direct impact on my work – but it raises profound questions. The first is whether my thesis is worth doing at all. Skowronek argues that structural factors define presidencies. Bureaucratic politics would argue that the machinations of individuals matters a great deal in shaping outcomes. Fundamentally, my thesis is routed in Neustadt: Presidents need to look like they know what they are doing to be effective and VPs can be helpful, both as advisors and messengers. Clever use of a vice president can be a force multiplier for the president.

Even if Skowronek’s specific argument does not hold, what of the importance of structural factors in shaping a Presidency? For starters, “It’s the economy, stupid.” If the economy tanks just before an election a President will probably lose, whereas if the economy does well the President is likely to be popular. Presidents can do some things to affect the economy, but they are far from all-powerful. I am reminded of Voltaire’s line, “Medicine is the art of humoring the patient while nature cures the disease.”

Under those circumstances, is there any purpose in studying the presidency, if the outcome of the game is shaped by broader, structural factors?

My “gut” response is that it is impossible to ignore the vast power of the presidency itself. Even very weak presidents can often get what they want – and this goes doubly in national security policy where the President has a dominant role. Jimmy Carter, a politically weak and unskilled President, still obtained Senate approval on the Panama Canal Treaty. There was no major constituency supporting this treaty domestically and if anything it was politically unpopular. It was a real foreign policy achievement (regardless of its merits – we are studying process here.) However, Carter later admitted that he didn’t do much of anything else while working on this. How did the President decide to focus on this issue, and what was not achieved because of this focus. Bush 43, at the lowest ebb of his Presidency still had the unquestioned authority to order the troop surge into Iraq.

There are numerous examples of costly Presidential failures as well. Maybe American politics made the Vietnam war inevitable under LBJ – but Bay of Pigs was not. Nixon did not have to have Watergate and a stronger policy process could have prevented Iran-Contra (although Reagan’s political strength saved him from impeachment.) Bush 43, of course, could have reacted competently to Katrina – there is no question he had the authority, he had a poor process in which the issue was lost in the shuffle. I recently reviewed a fine book on non-kinetic counter-terror measures that the US should deploy. I observed that there was nothing preventing the Bush administration from deploying many of them except that its decision-making process was dominated by the conduct of the war in Iraq and by immediate counter-terror measures.

It is extremely difficult to accept that argument that presidential choice and intervention is without significance. Yes, the US economy boomed in the 1990s and Clinton was well positioned to achieve push NAFTA forward. Nonetheless, his skill in doing so contributed to the boom, as did his careful management of relations with Russia. Only Nixon could go to China – but there was nothing inevitable about the trip. It still required political vision to conceive of it and political acumen to carry it off without

Bigger picture, northern victory in the Civil War and US victory in WWII seem inevitable – particularly due to the massive economic advantages the US possessed. But were they truly? Could a President less capable then Lincoln have held the Union together? What if Grant had been killed at Vickburg and Lincoln continued to be saddled with inept generals. Theoretically the southern army still would have been worn down even if it won every single battle. But would the north have tolerated another two years of bloody fighting?

Not every President is Lincoln, but every President has a fair amount off autonomy and can get a substantial portion of what he wants. He can’t have all of it. Supposedly FDR said of Lincoln, “He was the saddest man there ever was. He wanted it all and couldn’t have it. No one can.” Even the greats face limits. At the same time, even the weakest Presidents (the Carters and Hoovers) can achieve some useful things if they so choose.

The question is how to choose and maximize these opportunities? Put another way, can .275 hitter, buy careful study and diligence improve his batting eye and hit .285 (alternately can .300 hitter who is lazy and unfocused only end up hitting .290)?

This brings up an important point that Neustadt and Skowronek seem to have in common. Presidents need to control the narrative. Reagan and Lincoln, among others, were great storytellers. Neustadt discusses it in terms of reputation and prestige. Skowronek notes that Reagan and Lincoln seemed like such effective communicators because the politics of their times in effect made us ready to listen. Nixon and Clinton were both effective pre-emptive Presidents – one was an exceptional communicator and one was not. The most important thing for a Presidential legacy is to seem to know what you are doing and this is achieved by controlling the narrative. Real world events can limit this – if the economy bottoms out or there is a military defeat, it is awfully tough to “spin.”

What About Vice Presidents?
Much of what I have written questions the extent to which specific Presidents are masters of their destiny. If the President’s own skill determines very little then vice presidential activity matters less. Can Vice Presidents help expand (or reduce) the areas where Presidents can successfully exercise their authority (either by giving the President advice or by serving as a messenger to the bureaucracy, the public, or foreign governments)? If it is all structural, then probably not. But, at least on the margins it must make some difference – for better or for worse.

Share this post


Featured Stories



Subscribe To the Newsletter