John Hinrichs

Offering financial management and legal services in Bellaire, TX.

Abraham Lincoln understood that the U. S. Constitution broadly endowed him with the opportunity for leading his countrymen as their agent of political change. Stephen Skowronek called this agency a battering ram; indeed … “presidents disrupt system, reshape political landscape, and pass to successors leadership challenges that are different from the ones they faced.”i Skowronek believes this presidential force persistently transforms American politics, creates regimes with different accomplishments and disappointments. The president as chief executive must compete with the other two branches to establish order on his terms. Skowronek uses a deterministic four-cell matrix for demonstrating how presidencies from the Federalist John Adams in 1797 to the Democrat Bill Clinton in 1993 compare with one another based upon time resistant attributes. Transformative presidencies have changed America over her short constitutional history and Americans will enjoy the leadership of another reconstructive president as he or she rejuvenates an unhinged regime.

"Think anew and act anew."
Abraham Lincoln

Matrix of the Four Kinds of Politics

After a brief explanation of Skowronek’s famous matrix, I will spend the balance of my essay on the reconstructive presidents, especially Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and Ronald Reagan. These two remarkable presidents surely operated in modern presidencies which were a far cry from Thomas Jefferson’s reconstruction because his White House staff numbered three and Reagan’s, over five hundred. Nevertheless, Skowronek argues that these three presidential greats are superbly similar because he compares presidents not in secular time but in political time. Therefore, context determines why presidents react as they do more than personage. John Sloan describes our presidents as willful agents of “institutional imperatives” and this has induced most of them to conform to one of four patterns of politics—reconstructive, articulation, preemption, and disjunctive.ii

The widest warrants of authority inure to reconstructive presidents. They hear the call to repudiate a failing regime and construct a new one. While they are opposed to a vulnerable regime, the preemptive presidents are opposed to a resilient one. These preemptive presidents have transgressed Constitutional framework at times in their quest for loopholes, places where they can steal some of the issues. Bill Clinton’s shenanigans are a vindication of this cell of the typology. Affiliated presidents practice policies of disjunction or articulation: disjunction if they continue with a plan that cannot meet the problems they face and articulation when they find it easy to follow the policies of their predecessors and fit the regime together in better ways. If only the articulators like Lyndon Johnson could have continued their successes, the special interests will be served and commitments honored. The reconstructive regime follows after a disjunctive presidency and leaves for articulators a regime ripe for implementation. The hallmark being in reconstruction where crucial coalitions pass much needed legislation. These four cells capture interactive changes as we have moved through our political time (1789 to the next regime). This well thought out structure allows political scientists to compare presidents in different time periods facing similar leadership challenges.

Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter

The New Deal and the Reagan Revolution each dealt successful with economic maladies their respective predecessors could not fathom. Hoover was thoroughly successful in his endeavors before he arrived on Pennsylvania Avenue, and Carter has performed magnificently since departing from the Oval Office. Each of these two modest men had and has an extremely high IQ. Their presidential political identities in vulnerable regimes are pegged as disjunctive but history teachers teach a harsher critique: that Hoover and Carter were presidential failures responsible for the economic tragedies which occurred on their watches. What went wrong?

Hoover entered office in 1929 riding the wave of Republican euphoria. Suddenly in September 1929 a cataclysmic stock market crash occurred. Americans panicked as their jobs disappeared even though Hoover arm-in-arm with notable bankers and businessmen pledged publicly that everything was fundamentally sound. The president innovatively set up the Federal Farm Board and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). Unfortunately, he miserly metered out the funds, despite the fact that the federal government could borrow money, and he made concessions with foreign governments on war debts while simultaneously distributing the equivalent of nickels and dimes to the fifteen million unemployed Americans by 1932. Hoover asked for volunteer activities when coercive legislation was needed. The depression plunged Americans into despair. Hoover said prosperity was just around the corner but no one was buying a used car from this man. Apparently by the time he declined to veto the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff, he was politically stultified. This paved the way for the charismatic FDR who would save the banks and preach “happy days are here again” even though the depression continued through three New Deals until World War II.

Carter followed the debased administration of Richard Nixon who had to turn over the reins to Gerald Ford who tried to get matters back on a constitutional course. Carter like Hoover was an engineer. Carter also was going to proactively administer the presidency under the old formulas. Skowronek says Carter like Hoover before him made the “reification of technique” his primary justification for action. The emphasis is on technique over substance. Carter wished to maintain political order that was crumbling. He tries to move on many fronts without constructing a clean vision. This sealed Carter’s fate as being fuzzy. He looked like an outsider; Skowronek explains, “… the antinomies so precariously balanced in Carter’s leadership posture were sent crashing into one another.”iii Carter was a liberal Democratic president who would engineer readjustments of the operating system of liberalism as he administered it. He was criticized for not coming up with anything of substance. No one in Washington seemed to care much for Carter’s brand of governing. When inflation surged and the prime rate went through the roof, Carter’s policies became completely unhinged. Reagan came into power in 1981, staking his claim to certain warrants with a clear vision (no fuzziness) as to how to exercise power to secure his place in history for his reconstructive regime. Reagan repudiated Carter’s existing politics.

Politics of Reconstruction

Periodically America needs reconstruction presidents to put us back on track. Hoover’s and Carter’s failures gave way to FDR’s and Reagan’s greatest successes. These presidents help the political system adapt to changing conditions. They transformed the political regime when the challenges became more insistent. The old formula does not work—as Lincoln congealed, “think anew and act anew.” According to Sloan, “Champions of the new order will extol a visionary construct which will solve the nation’s problems and bring about a much better life for the majority of its citizens.”iv

Once elected the reconstructive president does not have to solve all the problems. The fact that he is solving problems brings him to the fore of the political stage and dramatically increases his chances for further repudiations. The power to reconstruct hinges on the power to repudiate. They must be great communicators because they must convince the public that their vision is the reflection of the public good in a grand sense expounded upon by the ancient masters such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.

Typically, these leaders are optimistic and passionate about their direction. They are able to develop a groundswell of partisanship; their cohorts ascribe to their moral precepts. These presidents are not trying to make the existing machinery work efficiently. They sometimes appreciate nuances of their constitutional underpinnings, sagely recognizing that the Founding Fathers envisioned several pathways to the top of the mountain “to see the shiny city on the hill.” These presidents are builders and if their successors have challenges following through on their rejuvenated regime then so be it. They galvanize support on both sides of the aisles of Congress so as to move the nation off of the insecure moorings and unto a brand new aircraft carrier (no wonder one is named the USS Abraham Lincoln). Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan seized the authority and used the power of the White House to dismantle a crumbling regime and “imagine the better life that can be launched by a new, dynamic regime.”v

FDR and Reagan

There was a sixty-eight year gap between Lincoln and FDR. Skowronek calls this the “waning of political time” and attributes this to the thickening of government as the Office of the Presidency expanded; he even somewhat surprisingly concludes his excellent book with a prediction that future presidents will be preemptive because presidential reconstruction is now (by Clinton’s administration) out of the question. Reagan came only thirty-six years after FDR, and his presidency certainly had far more advisers than FDR’s administration. As will soon be discussed, Reagan was able to use bargaining and going public in his large, complex institutional presidency and convince sufficient numbers of his opponents so that his critical legislation was promulgated.

An understanding of regime is germane to all that Skowronek has given us. Sloan revised Skowronek’s concept of regime, maybe in one sense that Skowronek did not elaborate that much on his concept of regime. The U. S. Constitution allows regime change without violent revolutions. Regimes depend on ideology: FDR attempted to set up a liberal regime and Reagan’s reforms were conservative. The reconstruction president wishes his regime to become institutionalized. In order to do this, he had to discredit the floundering regime of his predecessor. The pressures for change had built up and fortunately an inventor rather than a field engineer comes in with fresh, salable ideas. These presidents change the prevailing philosophies and belief.

As mentioned hereinabove, Hoover helped everyone (even fed some cattle in Arkansas) but he could not reach out to the man in the streets and under the bridges. Sloan argues, “[A] viable regime must depend on both self-interest and idealism for its viability.”vi Experts will challenge the new reconstructive regime builder about whether or not his proposals are compatible with the traditions and mores of the constitutional republic. Accordingly, the reconstruction never completely destroys the old regime nor builds a totally new one. The reconstructionist must legitimate his vision for the voters and their elected representatives. Sloan defines regime as: “…a temporary institutional arrangement, supported by a political philosophy and an electoral coalition that dominates the policy agenda for a period of time.”vii

FDR as Reagan later on relied on a potpourri of advisers. FDR constantly generated competition among this smorgasbord of advisory consultants. Multiple solutions to different problems percolated to the top of a detailed decision model. FDR cleverly and sometimes deviously used his motley crew of advisers. For example, when businessmen abandoned him, he dramatically turned to labor, although labor unions were divorced from his patrician heredity, and embraced their cause, culminating in the sweeping Wagner Act of 1935 that created the National Labor Relations Board. FDR was capable of bold strokes; he took us off of the hallowed gold standard. When questioned about the propriety of such a sweeping change, FDR quipped that he surely believed that American democracy was strong enough to back its own currency. FDR successfully shifted policy directives while he kept his rhetoric forceful and convincing. He was the optimistic activist who could see as surely as Hoover could not that private resources: bankers, insurance executives, railroad barons, and businessmen would not provide security for Americans. His fellow Americans were unemployed without the safety nets of social security and federal and state unemployment insurance. FDR and Reagan were able to round up key allies at opportune times and turn adversity into triumph by rewarding supporters, preparing them for further partisanship.

How could Reagan display one upmanship on FDR who fashioned a response to the enigmatic depression which had befuddled America’s finest economic thinkers. Reagan simply came in with a pure vision to lower taxes, revitalize national defense, and accomplish this by lessening the governmental bureaucracy. Reagan said the tax structure was holding America back. He changed our defense strategy. This is what Reagan did in response to Carter’s “no easy answers.”

With all his acting and rhetorical skills, Reagan could still not pass constitutional amendments outlawing abortion, allowing prayer in the schools, or requiring a balanced budget. Carter had allowed inflation to get a grip on the economy. Reagan immediately recognized in his first one hundred days that he could not stay the course, he must drastically and quickly alter it. Very soon into his administration the political writers espoused Reagan’s virtues, and this is not surprising when comparisons were made with Carter’s last two years in office. A centerpiece of Reagan’s presidency was that his administration produced more jobs than the larger Western Europe. Part of his legacy is that this was done at the expense of unbalanced budgets and large federal deficits rather than supply-side economic policies.

He installed Paul Volcker as head of the Federal Reserve Board. Volcker attacked inflation head-on and Reagan gave him the necessary support in the face of initial problems. Reagan focused on economic policy primarily. He used television for going public—this revitalized the institution. His pragmatic advisors used these public pronouncements in order to ascertain where Reagan wanted to go. Although some of this advisers were mercurial, Reagan was able to keep them focused and on course, and if they wavered in their fidelity then he replaced them. Unlike Hoover and Carter Americans would buy a used car from this man!  

He was the knight in shining armor who rescued the damsel (economy) in distress. He played the role of the crusading outsider (which he was) to perfection. Americans remembered the last Republican president before Reagan as “tricky Dicky”; they adorned Reagan as the great American citizen. He not only went public but also bargained effectively without surrendering his hardliner economic priorities. He exuded confidence in his ability to negotiate. In his budget negotiations he swayed an opposition Congress in a fine-tuned manner and to the necessary degree. He could take some punches like Jack Dempsey could. Opponents might daze him but he did not take on Carter’s fuzziness: he could bounce back with authority and power politics. His most potent punch was his power to repudiate. 

Reagan’s weakness was his aversion to details. Political scientists and historians equate the Iran-Contra blemish on his outstanding presidency the result of allowing certain foreign service advisers to develop and manage a renegade governmental entity right under the president’s nose. Skowronek maintains that Reagan survived “…because in the political world he had constructed, he was a leader with impeccable intentions who occasionally made mistakes.”viii Reagan’s “New Beginning” succeeded where the New Deal failed by generating an economic recovery. It would be up to his successor, George Bush (No. 41) to articulate Reagan’s regime. In a political regime so complicated that it restricts political leadership, Reagan with a rare combination of talents and instincts became our latest reconstructive president.ix

There is a stronger set of political institutions today so even reconstruction presidents cannot undo the waning of political time. Can reconstruction presidents still bring about political change? Skowronek cautions his readers to look at the presidency since it is here where the Constitution grants incumbents the opportunity to legitimate themselves by ushering in changes. Polk frankly stated he intended to be myself president. FDR and Reagan aimed at multiple targets in a coordinated visionary schema. These two successful leaders controlled the political definition of their actions, looking forward to the legacy they were inventing. Skowronek talks of presidents taking different tests. In sum, the reconstruction presidents were confronted with huge dilemmas, putting them to difficult tests. Lincoln saved the Union and freed the slaves. Jefferson turned the focus back on the people and away from the elitist aristocracy.

Jefferson had it easier than FDR and Reagan because as political cycles repeat greater resistance comes from interests threatened by order-shattering actions. They do not want the way cleared for something new. The thicket of governmental laws, rules, and regulations constricts presidential action. Therefore, presidents on the threshold of great change must be able to shift gears; they must bargain and they must talk publicly to the American people. Their warrants may not be as dense today as in the past, but authority is there and power can be appropriated. I still think future reconstructive presidents will arrive on the scene because a regime is never finalized. They will take command of their resources and break up, break through, and break down the political systems which have become unhinged. New eras of reconstruction are not foreclosed. Further possibilities of regime building that will strengthen American democracy remain open.

Submitted by John F. Hinrichs on 29 June 2005.

i Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1993), 6.

ii John W. Sloan, “Revising Skowronek: Reconstructive Presidents as Principal Agents of Regime Change” (paper presented at Southern Political Science Association, Savannah, Georgia, November 2002), 8.

iii Skowronek, 384.

iv Sloan’s paper, 9.

v Ibid., 29.

vi Ibid., 16.

vii Ibid., 28.

viii Skowronek, 425.

ix John W. Sloan, The Reagan Effect: Economics and Presidential Leadership (Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1999), 225-269.

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