From his inauguration address forward, President Obama hasn't pulled any punches in criticizing the record of his predecessor, George W. Bush. In that process--which reached a new peak with the release of the administration's budget plan last Thursday--Obama is aggressively employing a strategy used by the presidents who have most powerfully realigned the political landscape through American history. It is an approach that Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek has shrewdly termed "the authority to repudiate."
In a classic 1997 book called The Politics Presidents Make and a 2008 follow-up called Presidential Leadership in Political Time, Skowronek noted that the presidents who most successfully constructed lasting electoral majorities all followed presidents widely viewed as failures. These repeated couplings between "manifest incapacity and towering success" have included John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800; John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson in 1828; James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln in 1860; Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932; and, most recently, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Skowronek argues that these dynamic presidents--who he dubs "reconstructive leaders"--have succeeded not only because of their own skills. Their impact is so great because they arrived at a moment when the dominant party over the previous generation has been discredited by failure or corruption, or both, and large voting blocs are open to something new. Skowronek has described the process this way: "The presidents who traditionally appear on lists of America's most effective political leaders-Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and FDR-were, like Reagan, opposition leaders standing steadfast against already discredited political regimes. These were men of very different background, character, and political skill....What they shared was a moment in a political sequence in which presidential authority is at its most compelling, a moment when opponents stand indicted in the court of public opinion...."
Key to the success of the reconstructive or realigning presidents has been the ability to justify their direction and expand their support by indicting the failures of the old order. "The great communicators in presidential history all tend to be great repudiators," Skowronek said in an interview. "The presidents who are the most successful in redefining the terms and conditions of legitimate national government, the ones who are most successful in setting a new course...are ones who have had this authority to repudiate."
Obama and his advisers intuitively seem to recognize that. Literally from the first moments of his presidency, Obama has repudiated Bush in unusually pointed terms. The process started in Obama's inaugural address, when he declared, in an unmistakable reference to Bush's security policies, "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Obama was equally unsparing about Bush's economic policies in his address to Congress last week: "A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market."
The White House took its indictment to a new level in the budget blueprint it released last Thursday. In a relentless 11 pages, the first chapter offers a withering point-by-point critique of Bush's economic record and governing performance, from anemic job creation and income growth (the median income among working-age families fell by nearly $2,000 from 2000 through 2007) to rising poverty (up by 5.7 million from 2000 through 2007). It denounces Bush as overly secretive ("It is no coincidence that the policy failures of the past eight years have been accompanied by unprecedented Governmental secrecy"), incompetent, fiscally irresponsible, short-sighted, ideologically rigid (pursuing "a dogmatic deregulatory approach") and favoring the rich over all others. The White House sums up the previous occupant's record this way: "This is the legacy that we inherit--a legacy of mismanagement and misplaced priorities, of missed opportunities and of deep, structural problems ignored for too long."
Other than that, what did you really think?
David Axelrod, Obama's senior White House political adviser, said in an interview that the detailed critique and tough language was necessary to establish a "baseline" from which the public can assess Obama's progress. "We inherited [federal] deficits over one trillion; the worst economy since World War II," Axelrod said. "This is the canvass on which we have to paint, and I think it's important to set that baseline."
In the most immediate sense, reminding voters of the hole Bush left behind may buy Obama more time to help the country climb out. And, by linking today's economic storms to his predecessor's policies--"This crisis is neither the result of a normal turn of the business cycle nor an accident of history," Obama wrote in his budget message--he makes it tougher for congressional Republicans to offer alternatives that largely track Bush's approach in their emphasis on tax cuts. Indeed, Obama, while campaigning for the stimulus plan, pointedly argued that while he was open to good ideas from any source, Republicans should not "come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis."
But the payoff for Obama in a strategy of repudiation could be much larger than these tactical advantages. Skowronek notes that it is precisely at the moments when the old approaches have been most thoroughly discredited that presidents have most lastingly reshaped both the electoral alignment and the governing agenda. And they have done so, he maintains, largely because the broad public rejection of the previously dominant political ideas creates an unusually large opening to redirect government's priorities and approaches. That's what Roosevelt did in 1932 when he laid the foundation of the modern welfare state on the ruins of Hoover's largely laissez-faire ideology and what Reagan did in 1980, when his insistence that "government is the problem" interred Roosevelt's New Deal coalition and redrew the boundaries of political debate for the next 28 years.
Could this be another such hinge in political history--one that tilts the scales toward a lasting Democratic advantage and an era of more activist government than was possible in the first decades after Reagan? One of the predicates is undeniably present. The country rejected Bush in his second term as profoundly as a president can be rejected: on Election Day last year, an incredible 71% of voters in the exit poll disapproved of his performance.
The real question is whether that verdict was simply a personal rejection of Bush, or a more fundamental recoil from the underlying anti-tax, anti-regulation philosophy that has held the upper hand in Washington since Reagan. It's too early to say for sure, of course, but the scale of Obama's proposals on every front suggests he believes it is the latter. Axelrod says as much. "I think there's no question that a verdict has been rendered on the policies of the past eight years and in many ways extending back to the governing philosophy that we've had for 30 years," he said.
The White House's operating theory is that negative "verdict" provides Obama much more latitude than Bill Clinton to advance programs that expand government's role. "There's a cyclical nature to American politics and there are epochs," Axelrod said. "And in 1980, the New Deal-Great Society epoch came to end and it launched another [conservative] era that I think history will say lasted 28 years." While the Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon presidencies were "wedged into" the New Deal epoch, and Clinton's into the conservative era, Axelrod continued, each were constrained by "the governing theory" set by Roosevelt and Reagan respectively.
So is 2009 the beginning of another epoch that will enshrine a new governing theory for the next generation? Axelrod is aware how many other presidential political gurus have been mesmerized by that light in the distance. And yet Axelrod can't help but think that prospect may be flickering more brightly than usual now. "I know others who have sat in the office I'm sitting in have talked about realignment," he said. "I think its premature to talk about that. But I think this is not an ordinary time. I think this is potentially one of those transitional moments."
Presidents who believe they are governing in "transitional moments" take greater risks to impose bigger changes. When the country embraces those changes (as in the case of Skowronek's reconstructive presidents) the policy and political payoff is enormous. But Bush and his political guru Karl Rove also believed they could reshape the electorate with bold change to establish a lasting majority for their party. Instead they governed in a polarizing manner that lost the country's confidence and eventually decimated the Republican electoral coalition. That's a cold testament to the risks facing ambitious presidents who reach beyond their electoral mandate--and a reminder to Obama that in repudiating Bush, he needs to be careful not to emulate him.
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