In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election results, I published an op-ed in Fortune forecasting President Trump’s place in Stephen Skowronek’s “political time” cycle, as articulated in The Politics Presidents Make. I predicted that Trump would be a “disjunctive president,” marking the end of the Reagan Republican regime and paving the way for a new era of Democratic Party dominance. Trump’s presidency has not fit the theory as neatly as I predicted, and if Biden wins the 2020 election, assessing his place in the theory will also be messy. But I outline four possibilities below.
If you’re familiar with Skowronek’s theory, skip this paragraph. The Politics Presidents Make claims that you can assess a president’s rough leadership possibilities and constraints based a cycle that repeats itself. Presidents are either affiliated with the more dominant or the less dominant party, and parties are either resilient or vulnerable. “Reconstructive presidents” like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan oppose the dominant party when it is vulnerable, setting up their own party as the new dominant party. “Faithful sons” like James Monroe and Lyndon Johnson are affiliated with the dominant party when it is resilient, and adapt the reconstructive predecessor’s agenda for changing times, straddling orthodoxy with innovation. “Opposition presidents” like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton are opposed to a dominant, resilient party. Obliquely challenging the dominant political party discourse, they focus on administration rather the legislation, and co-opt the more popular parts of the dominant party agenda to deprive it of credit. “Disjunctive presidents” like John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce/James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter are affiliated with a dominant party when it is vulnerable. The party’s commitments struggle to find a place in changing times, and presidents in this place are hopelessly constrained by the competing demands of party orthodoxy and innovation. This is the place I predicted Trump would fall. Adams, Buchanan, Hoover, and Carter possessed real technical expertise rather than theatrical expertise, but it got them nowhere. No matter how hard they worked, they strained their party coalition to breaking point and their compromises only added to the case against them. You might call them “Velcro presidents” because every political liability stuck to their image. And they were succeeded by presidents that were given wide latitude to govern simply because they repudiated an enervated regime, whether their policies were successful or not. They were “Teflon presidents” for whom scandals only offered short-lived challenges.
My op ed in Fortune argued that Trump best fit the disjunctive model. First, the policy commitments of Ronald Reagan no longer held the sway that they once did. Trump bested more than a dozen traditional Republican candidates who could more credibly claim to be Reagan’s heir. Second, Trump had tenuous links to the party, having been a Democrat for most of his life. Disjunctive presidents John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter had been distantly or loosely affiliated with the party that nominated them. Third, each of these disjunctive presidents also focused on technique rather than fundamental policy commitments, because technique is less likely to alienate either the party’s orthodoxy or its reformers. Trump ran on a platform of saying he can govern because of his business acumen and negotiating skills.
Contra my predictions, Trump was more of a “Teflon president” until at least 2020. A number of scandals that would have consumed massive political capital for previous presidents failed to change the opportunities of the administration. Even now, the Russian bounty killings fail to grab public attention the way foreign policy disasters did for previous disjunctive presidents. Unlike other disjunctive presidents, Trump had little difficulty maintaining the loyalty of partisan voters, interest groups, and (at least publicly) politicians. No matter how Trump’s public statements and foreign policy statements departed from the separation of powers, republican rhetorical norms, and his own party’s norms, party politicians refused to criticize Trump in the way that Democrats criticized Carter. Bill Weld’s primary challenge to Trump was feeble compared with Ted Kennedy’s still unsuccessful challenge to Carter. Trump was no doubt helped by a good economy, but even before the stock market crash of 1929, Hoover found himself unable to unite different party factions behind one agricultural policy during his honeymoon period. Perhaps social media and the hyper-partisanship of our age is an example of Skowronek’s “institutional thickening,” where modern disjunctive presidents have political tools that earlier presidents did not, leading to the “waning of political time.”
Space does not permit me to consider what a Trump reelection would mean or whether political time is no longer applicable or meaningful given the “waning of political time.” But if Joe Biden wins and political time is at least partially predictive of current presidential leadership, where does that leave us?
Biden will be an opposition president in a vulnerable regime, placing him the coveted reconstructive position in Skowronek’s cycle. In this scenario, Trump is and will remain unpopular enough that voters give Biden strong room to set policy just by being “not Trump.” When Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated Democratic Party dominance from 1932-1980, he could redefine the Democratic Party as an economic redistributionist party just because he wasn’t Hoover. A new Democratic Party Regime might embrace intersectionality or justice for marginalized populations in a way that the New Deal regime did not, even later in the cycle. As one sign of the changing Democratic Party, white liberal voters have become more supportive of racial liberalism, immigration reform, and criminal justice reform since Trump’s inauguration.
Joe Biden’s demographic profile offers superficial reasons to dismiss him as a reconstructive president. His past willingness to compromise on issues of race, combined with his current nostalgia for bipartisanship, make him an unlikely candidate for changing the Democratic Party’s ideas, interests, and institutions. But Franklin Roosevelt was originally the candidate of the white South in the 1932 Democratic convention, not the candidate of the party’s progressive left. Ronald Reagan had also been the first president to have been a union leader and a divorcee, but became known for his anti-union and Christian Right positions.
Reconstructive presidents are not usually as thoroughly enmeshed in Washington politics as Joe Biden is. Biden had been in Congress longer than most presidents, and has changed with his party rather than showing an independent streak like Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan. At the same time, Biden has always been willing to change with the times, indicating that we could see a new Joe Biden if circumstances call for it.
Biden has also reached out to the left in a way that Hillary Clinton did not, signing a unity statement with Bernie Sanders and appointing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a climate change advisor. He has publicly supported tax increases, and not just for the very wealthiest Americans. (When I started graduate school, Professor Lynn Vavreck argued that supporting higher taxes was a political nonstarter in either party). As often as Biden runs on Obama’s record, Obama had fewer warrants for wholesale rejection of the Reagan regime. Social movements on the left were less vibrant and Democratic voters placed much more value on unity and an end to polarization.
Biden will be an opposition president in a resilient regime. This means that the Reagan regime still has some vitality left in it, and Trump has been a “faithful son” following in Reagan’s footsteps rather than hastening the demise of Reagan’s politics. As an opposition president, Biden would be taking advantage of momentary Republican weakness in the economy, public health, and race relations the way previous opposition presidents exploited recessions, riots, and unpopular wars temporarily associated with the dominant party. But opposition presidents quickly lose control of the narrative as their limited political options define them.
Current events point to a crowded agenda, making regime change a daunting task. The next Democratic president will likely have to spend much of their time rebuilding damaged relationships with foreign allies and shoring up a depopulated federal bureaucracy. Addressing the major public health and economic costs of COVID-19 will also absorb much of any president’s time. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were still reconstructive presidents even though their time was occupied by crises that were not of their choosing. What matters is not the existence of challenges but the ability of the president to define the response.
The possibility of serious Democratic Party fracture arguably provides more evidence that the time is not ripe for reconstruction. The 2020 primaries revealed a party divided between those willing to compromise with the political status quo and those who viewed compromise as unjust accommodation. Joe Biden was possibly the least favored Democratic Party contender in the “Twitter primary.” When he won in spite of the opposition of many vocal activists, he revealed a chasm between the activist and rank-and-file Democrats on ideology, partisanship, and receptivity to change. Barack Obama might not have been a transformative president, but wanted to be one. Joe Biden did not even talk like a transformative candidate, expressing admiration for politics in decades past and the need for bipartisanship – something his party’s left views as naïve at best and accommodationist at worst. If Biden enacts the agenda of the party’s left, he risks straining his relationship with his primary voters and the small number of voters switching parties from one presidential election to another. If Biden waters down the agenda of his party’s left, he risks straining his relationship with the most vocal, active wing of the party, who are already grumpy about his nomination. Frustration among members of either group creates talking points that Republicans can exploit.
Although The Politics Presidents Make is not “The Policies Presidents Pass,” Biden probably has even fewer opportunities to change policies than Reagan, the least potent of the reconstructive presidents. Although Biden pledged himself to a unity statement with Bernie Sanders, most of the statement’s proposals would be unlikely to pass even if Democrats regain control of the Senate. Red and purple state Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will resist attempts to abolish the filibuster or seriously curtail the use of fossil fuels.
On the other hand, if Biden is an opposition president in a resilient regime, Trump is a faithful son who lacks the traditional characteristics of traditional faithful sons. The very slogan “Make America Great Again” implies dissatisfaction with the status quo inconsistent with continuing a previous president’s work. Trump had no strong ties to the Reagan regime or the Bush family, and avoided the chance to start “limited wars of dubious provocation” that faithful sons are so fond of. The implications for Republican resilience are also troubling – there would still be a disjunctive Republican president in waiting. It is difficult to imagine a Republican nominee more distant from the Republican establishment, and even more disconnected from Reagan than Trump.
Joe Biden will be the reconstructive president that wasn’t. Although he comes at the right place in political time for reconstruction, his ideology and temperament are ill-suited to it. The parallel moment in The Politics Presidents Make is Grover Cleveland’s second administration from 1893-1897, which took place during the country’s second deepest recession. By suppressing the more insurgent elements of his own party, Cleveland missed the chance for transformation and breathed new life into the Lincoln Republican regime. Of all the party regimes Skowronek describes, the Lincoln Republican regime lasted the longest (1860-1932). With Cleveland simultaneously blamed for the severity of the depression and dividing the Democrats, the party denied him re-nomination in 1896 and selected William Jennings Bryan, who represented the opposite wing of the party. In the 1896 election, Bryan was incapable of holding workers and farmers together, and the Republicans mostly won comfortable victories from 1896-1928. Cleveland endorsed the other party’s nominee, William McKinley.
This possibility is remote because Joe Biden has shown considerably more policy flexibility than Cleveland, having changed positions on abortion rights, criminal justice reform, foreign intervention, and the Hyde amendment. But given the major challenges already confronting the country (COVID-19, race relations, unemployment, education) and the possible challenges in the near future (an eviction crisis, inflation, and the U.S.’s role in world leadership), it’s worth considering a reconstructive presidency that mishandles the challenges before it.
Here, I switch from the assumption that the Republicans are the dominant regime to the assumption that the Democrats are the dominant regime. I had been positing that Barack Obama was an opposition president in a resilient Reagan regime. Under the assumption of a dominant Democratic regime, Joe Biden would be a faithful son to Obama. Unlike other opposition presidents, Obama campaigned on hope and change, and maintained party unity throughout his presidency. Congress passed more significant policies during his presidency than any opposition president in a resilient regime was able to (save for Woodrow Wilson). The Democrats have won the popular vote in most recent presidential elections and have been forthright in their defense of progressive positions in a way that Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton, and John Kerry were not.
Yet, reconstructive presidents have never engendered the kind of lasting opposition movements seen under Obama. The Democratic Party lost control of Congress and the public agenda after two years. The Tea Party was a far more serious challenge than Andrew Jackson faced with the Whig Party or Franklin Roosevelt faced with the Liberty League. Additionally, Obama’s legacy is now being disputed by the progressive wing of the party in a way that Roosevelt and Reagan’s were not until much later. Obama lacked the “I welcome their hatred” posture toward the other party showed by defiant reconstructive presidents repudiating the status quo. He framed his proposals as inclusive towards the people who disagreed with him. Finally, an Obama reconstruction implies a Bush disjunction, despite Bush’s little war of dubious provocation and absence of technical expertise.
If Obama were a reconstructive president, Trump will have been an opposition president in a resilient regime, defined more by character than policy. Such presidents scramble to assemble an electable coalition in the wake of a popular regime, and settle for whatever temporary allies they can find. It is noteworthy that all other impeached presidents have fallen in this category, but Trump also showed little appetite for broadening Republican appeal or passing the most popular elements of the other party’s agenda to preempt it.
For the reasons outlined in the third and fourth possibilities, I find the first and second possibilities more likely. While neither one lines up perfectly with the way I perceive the near future, that future has not arrived, and Joe Biden may surprise us like many presidents before him. I conclude with a sense of frustration that leadership possibilities are defined more by a president’s ability to control the narrative than a president’s ability to pass effective policies, given the potentially life-altering effects of policies that address current public health and economic crises. In an ideal polity, effective policies would create their own constituencies and party unity, but positive political science must make predictions on actual patterns of the past rather than hopes for the future.