Friday, March 09, 2012

What Kind of President Do We Have?

Mark Tushnet

Jack’s post describes his argument that we should see President Obama as, in Stephen Skowronek’s terms, a preemptive President, one “who is swimming against the tide of the current constitutional regime and the politics of the time.” A few week earlier I had invoked Skowronek too, but argued that Obama was seeking to be a transformative President and faced difficulties not because he was swimming against the tide of an entrenched and vibrant constitutional regime, but because he was facing the accumulated weight of the institutions built up during the Reagan era, a phenomenon Skowronek calls institutional thickening. (The version of my argument available online has a dumb factual error in its final footnote, which will be corrected at publication; the substantive point remains correct, but I had a brain freeze in doing some arithmetic.)

I don’t want to rehearse my argument or Jack’s here, except to note that it seems to me peculiar to describe the George W. Bush administration as having enough “oomph” to be an affirmative force against which Obama had to push (rather than as an exhausted regime that nonetheless retained a not insignificant amount of institutional resources). Rather, I think the disagreement between us suggests a methodological point about using Skowronek’s (or anyone else’s) framework to make strong arguments about current constitutional developments. His ideas provide some useful tools to think with, as I tried to indicate in my article, but they can’t possibly identify “the truth” about what’s happening now. Skowronek himself made a stunningly accurate prediction shortly after Bill Clinton’s election that, as a preemptive President, Clinton faced a real risk of impeachment. Why didn’t President Obama? (Or, better, why hasn’t he yet?) Because as politics unfold contingencies and learning matter.

President Obama may be a preemptive President, or a transformative one, or something else entirely. To invoke a cliché, political life is lived forward but understood backward. As we try to understand what’s going on now, we shouldn’t be trapped by categories that are helpful in giving us some insights into understand what’s already happened.

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