The presidency, like life, is filled with a mixture of successes and failures. Often times some of our worst failures lead to our greatest successes. So it is with the presidency.
Americans often make the mistake of assuming the presidency is static rather
than dynamic. They impute unrealistic expectations onto their president
and act as if he, like Harry Potter, could wave his magic wand and utter the
words of a spell that promises to solve whatever problem is at hand.
Wishing does not, and never will, make it so.
Rather, the presidency is a dynamic institution larger than any one man
could ever hope to be. Stephen Skowronek observed that every president
must "...construe his place in history and stake claims to certain
warrants for the exercise of power within it.[i] Some presidents do this exceptionally well
and are remembered as great or nearly great.
Others do it from time to time and have flashes of brilliance that fade
into mediocrity. Yet, others never truly
understand their place in history and are in turn forgotten by it. Why are presidents like Thomas Jefferson,
Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan remembered so well while
presidents like Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, and Warren G. Harding are
cast aside? Why did the former
presidents overcome the limits of their institution while the latter presidents
collapsed under the weight of it?
Richard Neustadt’s observation that ‘presidential power is the power to
persuade’ may indeed be relevant here.[ii]
Most presidents are typically well-known, successful individuals before they
enter the presidency. Herbert Hoover was
an engineer who performed humanitarian relief work, operated his own
businesses, and served as Secretary of Commerce from 1921-29 before becoming
president. Hoover even had a
distinguished post presidential career.
Yet, he is widely viewed as a failure as president, except, perhaps, by
the late Archibald Bunker of the Bronx. Franklin
D. Roosevelt, on the other hand, was a state senator from New York, Assistant
Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, and Governor of New York during the
Great Depression prior to entering the White House. He was also disabled due to a bout with
polio. The question must then be asked: Why
did FDR succeed where Hoover failed?
Thousands upon thousands of books have been written to answer that question
and I do not pretend to have a better answer than any of them. Nor will I endeavor to answer that question
save to refer back to Skowronek’s earlier remark about the exercise of power
within one’s place in history. Which
brings me to the cause of my present musings.
Namely, what is Barack Obama’s ‘place in history’? Will he successfully construe that place and
exercise power in such a way that leaves a legacy or will he crash and burn
like the many failed presidents before him?
I do not intend to prognosticate about his place in history from a
partisan or even policy based perspective because there is no doubt in my mind
that each man sees what he wishes to see through his party tinted lenses. Rather, my goal is to examine the Obama
Presidency through the lens of dynamic institutionalism. Every president must make a choice to either
shape the institution in a manner fitting to his exercise of power or to allow
himself to be shaped by that very institution.
Here is where the story of the Obama Presidency begins. Over the next several posts I shall examine
the first four years of Barack Obama’s presidency as well as the beginning of
his second term and his prospects for creating a legacy of his own. I hope you’ll find it interesting.