By Scott Lemieux
In his classic book The Politics Presidents Make, the Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek argues that the basic structure of American politics can be broken down into a remarkably small number of eras: The Jeffersonian (1800-1828), the Jacksonian (1828-1860), the Republican (1860-1932), the New Deal (1932-1980), and the Reagan Revolution (1980-?). Once we understand the basic politics of a period, we can see presidents facing recurring political challenges that are comparable to a number of past presidents. Skowronek uses four categories, based on 1)the health of the dominant regime and 2)the president's relationship to that regime:
For the most recent political era, Reagan was the reconstructive president, challenging existing political and constitutional understandings with substantial success. Both Presidents Bush were "affiliated" presidents, articulating and extending the politics initiated by Reagan. (Except for the fact that he won re-election, George W. Bush is comparable to Lyndon Johnson, in that the regime reached its apotheosis under his administration, but in many respects the dominant regime's underlying political coalition collapsed.) Clinton -- who Skowronek, remarkably, predicted could face a serious impeachment treat just after his re-election -- was a "pre-emptive" president, attempting to keep a minority political coalition together while collaborating in important respects with the dominant regime.)
Which brings us to an interesting question -- does the Obama administration represent a new political era? In a sense, the success (or lack thereof) of his proposed health care reform represents the first major test. If major legislation reflecting a different understanding of the role of government passes, combined with such factors as some clashes with federal courts still largely under the control of the Reagan regime and electoral validation in 2012, we may in retrospect see the 2008 election as pivotal. Conversely, if Obama cannot secure re-election and his legislative accomplishments are more limited or less durable than might be expected, the Obama administration could be seen as a failed pre-emptive president in an overwhelmingly Republican era. Which do you see as more likely?