Presidency and American Political Development: A Third Look

By Skowronek, Stephen | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Presidency and American Political Development: A Third Look


Skowronek, Stephen, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The past century dawned with hope that the presidency might advance the cause of progressive democracy. As first articulated by Henry Jones Ford in The Rise and Growth of American Politics ([1898] 1967), the idea was that American political development had so confounded the intentions of the Framers as to demand a wholly new conception of political-institutional relationships: Congress, the branch closest to the people, had proven itself an "incurably deficient and inferior organ" of democratic will, while the presidency, which was ostensibly designed as a conservative constraint on the Congress, had demonstrated a capacity to operate as "the instrument of the people breaking through the constitutional form" (pp. 279, 293). The potential implicit in this assessment--that a more responsive and democratic state might be built around the presidency--guided thinking about the institution for the next six decades. Ford's idea was picked up and elaborated in the theory and practice of Woodrow Wilson (1908). During the New Deal, the Committee on Administrative Management pressed it forward with recommendations for a presidency-centered reorganization of the federal government (President's Committee on Administrative Management 1937). Richard Neustadt ([1960] 1990) followed up with a sober but still hopeful evaluation of the prospects at midcentury.

Progressive aspirations for the presidency unraveled in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate investigations, but they did not disappear entirely. Their influence lingered as leverage for the critique of American political development that followed. In the later decades of the twentieth century, scholars took aim at the disparities between the promise and the performance of the modern presidency, dwelling not only on its limitations as a solution to the problems of American government but on new problems that had been engendered in pursuing this line of political development. This second look at the history of the office pointed to unintended consequences in the presidency's rise to prominence. It laid bare the unfounded pretensions of presidential power and countered overblown expectations of its capacities. It exposed distortions of constitutional principle and democratic theory wrought by the design and practice of "presidential government." In 1985, Theodore Lowi delivered the summary judgment of the twentieth century's great experiment in the reconfiguring of American government and politics: "power invested, promise unfulfilled" (see also Schlesinger 1973; Ceaser 1979).

But just as advocacy had its limits, so too has disillusionment. The passage of time--if not an overriding perception of the United States as a great success in negotiating the twentieth century's gravest challenges--has robbed the gloomy prognostications of the post-Watergate era of much of their bite. The presidency may no longer inspire great hope for American politics, but the story line has moved on, shortfalls and dysfunctions notwithstanding. As our experience of the office drifts ever further away from the constructions of history that anchored analysis in earlier days, it tests our capacities to think in new ways about all that has gone before.

This strikes me as a moment of considerable importance for presidency research, for it is precisely when the relevant history of the office is thrown into doubt that paradigmatic shifts in the research agenda tend to occur. By the same token, we might expect a third look at the presidency in American political development to be more than an extension or updating of what received histories of the office have told us about the past. The breakpoints that punctuate the old histories deserve close scrutiny in and of themselves, and alternatives that might better illuminate the contemporary universe of political action and possibility need to be considered. The objective should be a conceptual realignment of past and present, one that sustains a more pertinent and productive discussion of current affairs than that offered by the received histories. …

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