The President as Opposition Leader

By Crockett, David A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2000 | Go to article overview
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The President as Opposition Leader


Crockett, David A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The Idea of Opposition Leadership

In his masterpiece The Discourses, Machiavelli (1940) argues that, in addition to good fortune, the political leader needs for his "modes of procedure" to accord with the "needs of the times" (pp. 92-94). Presidents may be blessed or cursed by fortune, but all have some measure of freedom to match strategy to context. In his update of Machiavelli for the president, Richard Neustadt (1990) argues that a president can be evaluated by examining his purposes and determining whether they run with the "grain of history" (p. 167). The implication here is that it is possible for a president's true purposes to run counter to the grain of history. I call these types of presidents "opposition leaders." A close reading of various texts on presidential leadership (Burns 1973, 1984; Greenstein 1982; Rockman 1984; Skowronek 1993) suggests that there may be different ideal leadership styles appropriate for different times. Presidents face what James David Barber (1992) calls different "power situations" (p. 6). To the extent that a president faces a power situation different from that of someone like Franklin Roosevelt, he may also need to seek a different leadership style. Indeed, there may be a multitude of possible--and equally appropriate--leadership styles, depending on the political context.

An opposition president is a president from a political party that is in opposition to Neustadt's grain of history. I argue that a president whose party is opposed to what I call the reigning governing philosophy, and its associated party, can be considered an opposition leader. All leadership positions are not created equal, and there are characteristics common to presidents facing similar leadership dilemmas. An opposition president faces a type of conflict different from one working with the grain of history. Because of the nature of the American political system, such situations will tend to recur. Thus, scholars should strive to understand what is peculiar about these cases. There are contextual circumstances that recur with these men, and a comparative analysis of them reveals important aspects of the American political system, the nature of the presidency, and the nature of executive leadership.

In adopting Neustadt's grain-of-history phrase, I take as my launching point the vast literature that conceptualizes American politics through some sort of periodicity. For more than forty years, scholars have struggled to define various aspects of the periodicity observed in American politics. Although there are variations in the details, there has emerged a rough consensus that American political history can be described as a series of political eras that tend to favor one party over another, eras bounded by critical realignments or punctuated change (Key 1955; Campbell et al. 1960, 1966; Lubell 1965; Burnham 1970, 1991; Kleppner 1979; Sundquist 1983; Burns 1984; Rockman 1984; Chubb and Peterson 1985; Carmines and Stimson 1989; Skowronek 1993). While allowing for occasional disagreements regarding transition points, as well as ambiguity regarding dealignment, in this conception the advantaged party (e.g., the Democratic Party during the New Deal era) can be considered the governing party, and the disadvantaged party (e.g., the Grand Old Party [GOP] during that same era) can be considered the opposition party.

The dynamics of presidential leadership depend on long-term historical forces, partisan relationships, and the president's own understanding of his power situation. This does not mean that individual character is unimportant to presidential leadership--just that it is placed on a foundation of larger forces already in place when a president takes office. Charles Jones (1994) argues that a president's choices occur in the context of ongoing issues, a continuing agenda that preceded his rise to power and will remain past the end of his service. The president needs to comprehend the policy environment accurately.

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