What It Will Take for Barack Obama to Become the Next FDR

First, he should let the United States go over the fiscal cliff. Then he should push filibuster reform.

Larry Downing/Reuters

Ever since Barack Obama's election in 2008, people have debated whether he might be for the Democratic Party what Ronald Reagan was for the Republicans -- a transformational president in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who changes the basic assumptions of national politics for a generation or more. In this essay, I draw on Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek's work on presidential leadership to answer this question and explain the challenges facing Obama if he wins a second term. (In a previous essay, I evaluated the prospects for a Mitt Romney presidency, which, I concluded would range from difficult to bleak). If Obama wins a second term, he still has a chance to be a transformative leader. But the odds are that he will be more like Bill Clinton--a Democratic president swimming against the tide of conservative politics ushered in by Reagan.

Obama has long had the ambition to be a great liberal president in the tradition of FDR. During the 2008 campaign, he acknowledged that the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, had not changed the course of politics the way that Ronald Reagan had. That is no slight to Clinton, who was (and is) perhaps the most gifted politician of his generation. It is simply the case that Clinton faced a very different set of political constraints than Reagan did when he took office.

And this brings us to Skowronek's central insight. The course of a president's career is structured by where he sits in what Skowronek calls "political time." Is the president allied with the dominant regime in American politics or opposed to it? And is the regime itself robust or vulnerable? (See my essay on Romney for more details.)

Both Clinton and Reagan were oppositional leaders. Reagan opposed the New Deal politics of the Democratic Party that dominated the period from FDR's election in 1932 until 1980. Clinton opposed the conservative Republican regime that Reagan began and under which we still live today.

Reagan had the good fortune to take office when the New Deal regime and its electoral coalition were falling apart. Therefore, he had the opportunity to become what Skowronek calls a "reconstructive" president, one who sweeps away the old regime and its assumptions in order to create a new one. Bill Clinton, by contrast, entered the White House as the first Democrat elected since the Reagan Revolution, when the current conservative political regime was at its strongest. Unlike Reagan, whose political opponents were in disarray, Clinton faced a hostile political climate and continually had to trim his sails. Skowronek calls this situation a "preemptive" presidency, because the leader tries to forestall opposition by triangulating or finding a "third way." Examples of preemptive presidents include Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, and, of course, Clinton.

Preemptive presidents are the most interesting type in Skowronek's theory. In a political age dominated by the other party, they must continually navigate upstream against fierce political currents. Their political legitimacy is always in question. The regime's dominant party continually casts doubt on their right to rule, and their own party often seems too weak to defend them.

What is still unclear is whether the conservative regime that has dominated American politics for 30 years is exhausted, giving Obama the opportunity to begin a new one.

This predicament drives preemptive presidents to be pragmatic, compromising, non-ideological, and unorthodox. They triangulate in order to survive. As a result, preemptive presidents often deeply disappoint their own party faithful, who crave greater ideological purity and stronger principled stands. To members of their own party, it sometimes seems as if preemptive presidents never stand up for their principles; instead, they are always temporizing, compromising, and letting their political opponents push them around.

Preemptive leaders quickly learn that ideological purity will get them nowhere. They have no scruples about borrowing the best ideas of their political opponents, modifying them slightly, and then claiming them as their own. They specialize in offering more moderate (and hence more popular) versions of the dominant party's policies.

This practice may annoy members of their own party, but it drives members of the other party positively insane. The latter are quite certain that the preemptive president's pragmatism and moderation are merely a ruse, hiding a criminal conspiracy or a radical agenda. Indeed, preemptive presidents make members of the dominant party so angry that the latter often seem hellbent on destroying them. Think only of the conservative rage against Clinton and the liberal rage against Nixon.

The Course So Far: Preemption, Not Transformation

Obama, like Clinton, is a Democrat who assumed power during the Reagan-initiated regime. What is still unclear is whether the regime that has dominated American politics for 30 years is exhausted, giving Obama the opportunity to begin a new one. Put in Skowronek's terms, can Obama become a reconstructive president like Reagan or FDR, or will he end up as another preemptive president, like Clinton?

In 2008 Obama certainly campaigned as if he planned to be a transformative president. His campaign slogans of hope and change promised that old political assumptions would be swept away and that American politics would be placed on new foundations.

But once in office, Obama proved to be pragmatic and moderate. He did not govern as a repudiator. His signature legislative achievement, health-care reform, was largely based on conservative and Republican ideas. Even though a financial meltdown had triggered the Great Recession, Obama avoided populist denunciations of Wall Street and the banking industry. He promoted financial reforms far more limited than those most liberals in his party wanted. And he quickly abandoned climate-change legislation.

Presented by

Jack M. Balkin is the Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School, and the founder and director of Yale's Information Society Project.

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