Monday, March 4, 2013

The Evolving Presidency of Barack Obama, Part I

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. 

[i] Stephen Skowronek. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush.  The Belknap Press.  Cambridge, MA.  1995.
[ii] Richard Neustadt. Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents.  The Free Press.  New York, NY.  1990.

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