From now until November 6th, Barack Obama will be fighting for his political life. Mitt Romney still isn’t inspiring any Shepard Fairey “HOPE” posters, so Obama’s challenge will be to rally and inspire a base that is skeptical about his achievements and unsure of his intentions. Most of all, Obama will have to overcome a pervasive sense of disappointment bordering on betrayal that, after Hope and Change, we’re stuck with politics as usual. However, if we look at Obama’s presidency from a historical perspective, we begin to see that in some important ways the game was “rigged” against him from the start. The problem goes beyond an obstructionist Congress and a hostile and activist Supreme Court to the very heart of what we mean by “American politics.” We must situate Obama’s administration in its proper historical and ideological context.
The days and weeks surrounding Barack Obama’s election in 2008 were so exciting, the political environment so kinetic, that an honest-to-goodness political science topic received considered deliberation in the media. Even weeks before Obama’s election, pundits declared presidential blowouts extinct. Once Obama ran up the score on McCain, however, the same pundits debated whether 2008 was a realigning election. Several landmark works in American politics from the 1950s through the 1970s proposed that a special few elections were political realignments. (For a masterful lit review and critique, see David Mayhew, Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre.) Although authors have different definitions, some key claims about realignment remain constant: these elections are rare (1860, 1896, and 1932 are usually held as the examples); they create a sharp and durable shift in voter allegiance; voter engagement and turnout are unusually high; and major policy changes come about as a result of the election.
While 2008 was a triumph for Obama the candidate and a stinging rebuke of the Bush administration, it failed to meet most of these criteria for realignment. Turnout was up, but it was not accompanied by a higher level of serious political engagement. (Witness the failed transition of Obama for America from a campaign to an administration organization.) Furthermore, Obama’s victory was more about a mood or a feeling than any particular policy vision or set of proposals. This is a perfectly fine way to win an election, especially with a candidate as skilled and inspiring as Obama, but it does signify “politics as usual,” not any durable shift in government.
What if Obama wins reelection? Insofar as the concept of a “mandate” means anything, he won’t have one. Obama still looks like a slight favorite, but the Democrats have only a remote chance at taking the House and the Senate could go either way. In the June 18th issue of The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza argues that Obama may have opportunities for policy successes in a hypothetical second term, particularly with a poor Republican showing in this year’s elections. Immigration reform is a (comparatively) attractive possibility for bipartisan agreement. He’d also likely have opportunities toward the end of his presidency for signature foreign policy achievements, which second term presidents tend to pursue. The president has greater autonomy with foreign policy than domestic, and by the end of his second term he’s lost what domestic clout he had as the nation focuses on the next election. However, any opportunity that Obama may have had at a transformative presidency is over.
However, one might ask if Obama ever had a chance at a transformative presidency in the first place. I would argue that he did not; or, at least, not in the way we mean when we debate realignment. Look at his signature policy achievement, leaving to one side the recent Court decision on Obamacare. Let’s not forget that the individual mandate, the centerpiece of the law and the bone of contention, was a mainstream Republican brainchild not a decade ago. Same goes for cap and trade, which I’d wager we haven’t seen the last of. Even Obama’s recent backdoor implementation of part of the DREAM Act is similar to Marco Rubio’s long-promised DREAM alternative. The college freshmen and Guy Fawkes masked gentlemen who cry that “Obama is exactly the same as Bush!” are of course ridiculous, but there is no mistaking that Obama’s achievements have been compatible with recent big-R Republican thought.
How can Obama’s policies look so familiar when Bush’s defeat was so complete? We can get a pretty good answer from the study of American Political Development. One project of APD is to determine how past governing arrangements shape and constrain current political possibilities and institutions. We get an excellent view of the Obama presidency if we examine it through the lens of the scheme developed in Stephen Skowronek’s landmark 1993 work The Politics Presidents Make. Skowronek examines how presidents shape American politics, as constrained by their predecessors and the political ideas of the time. He employs a frame of analysis called “political time.” As a clarifying example, FDR was able to shape a new American politics thanks to the country’s complete and utter rejection of the politics of the past. LBJ won mammoth policy victories, but was constrained by FDR’s politics. Like all presidents he strove to make his own place in history, but the presidents whom we consider the office’s towering figures generally have broken sharply with their predecessors (see Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan). The tension between securing a legacy but not being able to break with the past helped tear LBJ’s presidency apart. Jimmy Carter was similarly constrained by FDR’s vision of the Democratic Party, though it didn’t necessarily go in lockstep with his personal politics. By then, however, the New Deal vision seemed inadequate in dealing with modern problems, and Carter’s inability to rebuke it left his presidency in dreadfully poor light historically. We see a similar cycle replay throughout American history.
Of course, there were other presidencies during the New Deal vision’s reign. Opposing party presidents, even. What about them? As Skowronek points out, there is ample evidence that Eisenhower was personally sympathetic to aspects of the nascent far right movement during his reign, and yet he’s remembered as a great consensus builder. This is because he chose not to challenge the foundation of the New Deal orthodoxy directly. Nixon, by contrast, did hope to unmake the political consensus, and believed to do so that he had to be in complete control of the government personally (we all saw Dick starring Dan Hedaya so we know how that went). Nevertheless, it’s become almost clichéd to claim that Nixon’s actual accomplishments were more liberal than those of post-LBJ Democrats, and this concept of political time helps explain that perception. Nixon operated under a different political consensus than Clinton and Obama.
When we examine the Obama administration through this historical perspective, his opportunities are more like those of a Nixon or an Eisenhower than a new FDR. One observation Skowronek makes about this sort of president, who is of a party opposed to a governing regime that is still ideologically resilient, is that he is likely to be impeached, figuratively if not literally. Andrew Johnson and Clinton were impeached literally, and Nixon would have been. It’s probably hyperbolic to call Obama’s current situation figurative impeachment, but the unity of GOP obstruction is breathtaking historically, and his biggest achievement is on the precipice of negation by another hostile branch of government. In Obama’s America, the Executive stands alone.
Politically, America’s dominant governing ideology is still that of the last reconstructionist president, Ronald Reagan. Reagan replaced New Deal welfare stateism with the deregulation state, and George W. Bush articulated the regime at its most powerful, as LBJ had with his regime. True, Bush ended his presidency widely unpopular, but so did LBJ, and for similar reasons. To secure his own place in history, Bush could not contradict his predecessor’s regime. And so, his only option was to articulate it even more powerfully, and inevitably he eventually overreached. Vietnam crippled the Johnson administration, but by 1967 and 1968 the Great Society was increasingly coming under attack. Bush managed tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulatory initiatives that Reagan only dreamed of. He too was crippled by an unpopular war, but his failed push to apply the deregulatory logic to Social Security sapped his domestic credibility and showed a boundary beyond which Reaganism cannot cross. And look at the president between Reagan and Bush. For all his personal popularity on the left, for all the rage he foments on the right, Bill Clinton proudly passed NAFTA and ended welfare as we knew it.
Despite the anger on the left, despite Bush’s defeat, anyone claiming that Reaganism is dead and buried would have a difficult case to make. This is true institutionally as well as ideologically: the veterans in the congressional GOP mostly came to power when Reaganism overtly held sway; the Supreme Court, whose conservative wing continues to be amazingly activist by historical standards, was sculpted by Reagan and Bushes; the health care mandate originally came from the GOP playbook. There’s also the otherwise baffling lack of serious Wall Street reform. Even the current “left wing” economic Philosopher Kings, like e.g. Larry Summers, do not question the basic tenets that gained currency with Reagan. Or, look to the people. Occupy turned out to be a flash in the pan, but the Tea Party, Reaganism at its most primal, has significantly remade the Republican Party in its image.
That being said, Skowronek’s theory isn’t quite as depressing and deterministic as it may seem. Presidents are still extremely powerful agents, and any president can achieve great policy, no matter his situation historically. A “successful” presidency, and especially a reconstructive one, depends on more than just policy achievements. That’s why Obama’s checklist of accomplishments looks impressive in a vacuum, but the “he hasn’t done anything” meme still holds sway in his base.
Where does all this leave us? With Bush’s defeat, though Reaganism is not dead and no new governing philosophy has taken its place, the cracks are beginning to show. If we take Showronek’s scheme, it will take one more Reaganist Republican president to break it once and for all. This president’s personal politics will be an uneasy fit with his base’s prevailing wisdom, but he’ll have no choice but to follow that wisdom politically. The cracks that appeared at the end of the innovator’s rule will become gashes and tears that will rip the orthodoxy apart as the people finally get one taste too many of the “same old ideas.” Political time says nothing about whether Obama is likely to be reelected, but if he is not, Romney may fit the bill as the Jimmy Carter to Reagan’s FDR. If Skowronek’s scheme has predictive power, the next GOP president will go down in history as a dismal failure, judged overwhelmed and unprepared to lead the free world. And, as has happened again and again, this dismal failure will be followed by a leader who will repudiate the old regime and construct a new one, and be judged one of the all-time greats. If this transition occurs once more, in 2016 or beyond, then perhaps we can have a serious discussion about political realignment.
 I am doing nothing close to justice to Skowronek’s book. Go read it immediately. It is complicated but quite accessible and rewarding. More than any other one work, it made me want to do political science for life.