Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Politics of Politics: Skowronek and Presidential Research

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Politics of Politics: Skowronek and Presidential Research

Article excerpt

Stephen Skowronek's The Politics Presidents Make (1993) has been rightfully greeted by presidential scholars as a "monumental book," "a brilliant reading of presidential leadership," and as a work that "earns a very special place in the library of political science" (Milkis 1995, 485; Arnold 1995, 497; Young 1995, 509). Skowronek's analysis is a potentially decisive turn in presidential scholarship and thus deserves both high praise and continued review and evaluation. The following discussion briefly places Skowronek's approach in the context of present scholarship and reviews his understanding of the forces conditioning presidential behavior before considering at greater length what may be problematic in his analysis. Reflection on Skowronek's work offers a means for more general discussion of the state of scholarship on the American presidency.

Skowronek: Challenges and Cycles

Skowronek's work (hereinafter Politics) is important in part because of the claims it implies against presidential scholarship unmarked by general theory, shared epistemology, or consensus on the essential nature of presidential power. In place of more minutely focused analyses centered on the historically discrete or on the measurable uses of power by modern presidents (which presumably cumulate toward theory), Skowronek's approach sweeps across the entirety of the presidency. It rests on an epistemology of historical pattern to locate (or to impose) the critical links of political circumstance and presidential action, which comprise the heart of his cyclical theory; and at the heart of presidential power, Skowronek finds not only the usual hard-headed deployment of power resources but also gifts historical and even literary in nature: "authority holds priority in determining the politics of leadership," and crucial to such authority is a president fully engaged in the arts of constructing and sustaining a "narrative" relating the presidents' intentions to his historical place (p. 24).

Skowronek also challenges other views of the presidency. Tulis's (1987) fear of "rhetorical presidents" undermining constitutional constraint is replaced by Skowronek's concluding optimism about "preemptive presidents" governing through a series of personal visions. Seeking "a different view of past experience," Skowronek particularly challenges Neustadt's (1990) periodization of presidential history into the distinctively modern and premodern as "nothing more than a conceit of modern times" (p. 5). Traditional views of the presidency as a unifying or normative center in times of crisis also seem rebuffed as sentimental; instead, the historical reality is that the presidency is a "battering ram," working best as an "instrument of negation," "dislodging established elites, destroying the institutional arrangements that support them and clearing the way for something entirely new" (pp. 27-28).

Presidential display of such fierce qualities, however, turns out to depend mainly on circumstance. Skowronek typologizes circumstance or "political time" in terms of the president's affiliation with or opposition to "regimes" defined by their relative vulnerability or resilience. When preceding presidential regimes are seen as failing, whether Adams, Hoover, or Carter, their successors (Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan) inherit the most promising of all situations, for "time and again" Skowronek finds "the authority to repudiate" is the most formidable of all political resources" (pp. 27-28). Each executive can then claim to better the discredited past as a grounds for seeking "a new coalition" and new policy commitments as they "reset the very terms and conditions of constitutional government" (pp. 38-39). The major problem of authority, in terms of the "expectations" surrounding the use of presidential power and the "perceptions" of appropriate action, is thus circumstantially solved for the president fortunate enough to oppose the prior and now "vulnerable" regime, a situation unleashing the energies of a "reconstructive politics. …

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