Coming around Again: Reagan to Clinton, Can the Cycle Be Broken?
Ronald Reagan and George Bush returned to the monarchical side of the presidency. Neither Reagan nor Bush was an active-negative president who overidentified with the office. 1 But they emphasized many of the same qualities of the presidency that Johnson and Nixon had--the forceful leadership of commander in chief and chief of state. Reagan and Bush also shifted the responsibility for the economy to Congress instead of accepting it or calling for public sacrifice as Carter had.
Their rhetoric worked well for a while. But economic turbulence, abuse of executive authority, and presidential isolation eventually returned the emphasis to the people's presidency and a more active manager of prosperity. Like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton seeks to reestablish an intimacy with the people. He has promised change, requested public sacrifice, and committed himself to reviving the national economy.
The rhetorical depictions of the presidency have ultimately perpetuated public disillusionment without enhancing the institutional authority of the office. Breaking this cycle of presidential promises and public disillusionment will require changes in the public expectations of presidential leadership, the way presidents present the office, and the institutional resources at a president's disposal. This chapter briefly examines the Reagan to Clinton years and offers some recommendations for breaking the futile pattern of presidents pitching the presidency.