Dwight Eisenhower and the New Deal: The Politics of Preemption

Article excerpt

In The Politics That Presidents Make, Stephen Skowronek argues that presidents should be compared as a result of similarities in their historical/political circumstances rather than their proximate time in history. Specifically, Skowronek places presidents into a typology in which both the strength of the existing political regime (established by a previous president) and the affiliation of the president with or the opposition of the president to the existing regime arc considered. This typology produces four types of presidential politics: the politics of reconstruction, the politics of articulation, the politics of disjunction, and the politics of preemption.(1) Presidents who are opposed to vulnerable existing regimes have an opportunity to change political discourse and reconstruct American politics. Reconstructive presidents have the most impact on American politics. Presidents who are affiliated with resilient regimes practice the politics of articulation in which they hope to stoke the fires of the reconstructed rhetoric and coalitions with which they are affiliated. Presidents affiliated with vulnerable regimes are disjunctive presidents. Constrained by their affiliation with existing coalitions and programs which are being questioned and losing their relevance in the broader political system, disjunctive presidents attempt to keep this faltering regime together. Finally, presidents practicing the politics of preemption are opposed to resilient regimes, but in the difficult position of searching for reconstructive opportunities where reconstruction is neither warranted by mandate nor sufficiently supported by segments of society.

Using a historical approach, Skowronek explains the ways in which a number of presidents fit into the first three categories, but he gives little attention to the politics of preemption. This relative neglect of preemptive presidents is unfortunate in that, being "opposition leaders in resilient regimes," the politics of preemption represents "the most curious of all leadership situations,"(2) How do opposition leaders ascend to the presidency if the regime to which they are opposed is still strong? And, what are the opportunities and limitations of presidents in this situation? Moreover, this neglect of the politics of preemption is puzzling in that Skowronek's conclusions suggest that the future of presidential politics will be dominated by preemptive presidents.(3)

Certainly the politics of preemption deserves more attention than it has received. I selected Dwight Eisenhower for several reasons. First, there is some controversy over the relationship of Eisenhower to the New Deal regime established by Franklin Roosevelt. And with a few notable exceptions, the scholarship has ignored Eisenhower's motives in regard to the New Deal as well as his eventual impact on the New Deal regime.(4) Second, Skowronek is ambiguous about where Eisenhower fits in political time. Although he suggests that "Eisenhower is, perhaps, the most remarkable of the preemptive leaders," Skowronek refuses to include Eisenhower among the ranks of preemptive presidents. He opts instead to put Eisenhower with Presidents Coolidge and Cleveland as "hard cases."(5) I argue that the Eisenhower case is not hard at all. On the contrary, Eisenhower is the most successful of the preemptive presidents. And third, as a result of his atypical success as a preemptive leader, the Eisenhower case may provide a blueprint for President Clinton and the perpetual string of preemptive presidents that Skowronek suggests will succeed him.

Eisenhower and the New Deal: A President in Political Time

Many scholars have suggested that the Eisenhower presidency made the New Deal legitimate in American politics.(6) Prior to Eisenhower, the Republican party, for the most part, stood in opposition to New Deal policies. V. O. Key, Jr. attributes the acceptance of the New Deal in the Republican party to the Eisenhower presidency. …