Obama as a Reconstructive President

John W. Sloan, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston, the author of several books, his latest book is “FDR and Reagan: Transformative Presidents with Clashing Visions.”

Question: There have been only a handful of reconstructive presidents in U.S. history, such as Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR and Regan. In your book you focus on the last two. Can you talk about the circumstances under which these presidents were elected and in what way was their policy a complete break with that of the previous regime?

Sloan: Stephen  Skowronek  claims  reconstructive presidents  produce major changes in our political system by destroying  old  regimes  and creating new ones. For example, in 1800, the US had its first partisan election when Thomas Jefferson, the Democrat, defeated President John Adams, the Federalist. By the end of Jefferson’s two terms in the White House, he had virtually destroyed the Federalists as a national political party.
In 1828, Andrew Jackson defeated President John Quincy Adams. One of Jackson’s major goals was to destroy the National Bank which he believed benefitted northern elite interests at the expense of Southern and Western rural interests.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the first Republican President. He argued that he was not committed to abolishing slavery, but he was determined to prevent the expansion of slavery to new states. However, because the eleven Confederate states withdrew from the Union in 1861, and as the Civil War dragged on, Lincoln eventually came to the conclusion that in order to win the war and preserve the Union he had to destroy slavery.
In 1932, in the midst of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt defeated President Herbert Hoover. FDR created a liberal regime whose core policy was social security.
Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan believed that the liberal regime had weakened the US with high taxes, too many government regulations, and a weak foreign policy. Reagan championed supply side tax cuts, deregulation, and an assertive foreign policy. He created a conservative regime that has dominated US politics until the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

Question: Through comparative historic analysis can we deduce a pattern that explains why reconstructive presidents are elected?

Sloan: Reconstructive Presidents are particularly effective at mobilizing discontents among different groups in the electorate. FDR was skillful, for example, in attracting the sons and daughters of immigrants and the working class, groups that were ignored by the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan was able to mobilize the frustrations of many religious people who felt their interests were hurt by the secular state and public school system. Reagan was also effective in getting voters to identify themselves as burdened taxpayers instead of the beneficiaries of welfare programs.

Question: What factors do you look at when deciding whether the individual will become a reconstructive president?

Sloan: According to Skowronek’s theory, the personality of a reconstructive president is less important than the context in which he comes into office. Thus, an elected leader coming office opposed to a weakening regime will practice the politics of reconstruction. This relationship can be reduced to a simple formula: context determines politics.

Question: Is the public disapproval of the previous administration/regime more influential in the election of a reconstructive president than the biography and/or charisma of that individual?

Sloan: Presidents, such as Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, set the stage for their reconstructive successors, FDR and Reagan. Hoover’s inept efforts to combat the Depression undermined the Republican regime and paved the way for FDR’s New Deal. Carter’s failures in dealing with stagflation and the Iranian hostage issue helped Reagan win a landslide election and launch a new set of conservative policies.
Question: You argue that reconstructive presidents are unique in that their political philosophy continues beyond their time in office. How does this political philosophy survive periods of time when a non-reconstructive president of the opposite party is elected? Does this weaken the regime?

Sloan: A regime outlasts a particular reconstructive president. FDR’s liberal regime lasted over 40 years. During that period even a Republican President like Dwight Eisenhower felt compelled to support and expand New Deal policies such as social security.

Question: Have entrenched institutions and interest groups diminished the ability of reconstructive presidents to bring about fundamental reforms? Has it become more difficult for a reconstructive president to destroy components of the old regime?

Sloan: The answer to both questions is yes. While Jefferson was able to destroy the Federalists, Jackson was able to destroy the National Bank, and Lincoln was able to destroy slavery, it is more difficult to identify what FDR and Reagan were able to eliminate. Conservatives hoped Reagan would be able to eliminate the welfare the welfare system but he never did. Indeed, when social security was in serious financial trouble in 1983 Reagan and Democrats in the House of Representatives negotiated an agreement that saved the core policy of the New Deal.

Question: In your opinion, does Barack Obama have the potential to become a reconstructive president?

Sloan: Obama certainly has the opportunity to be a reconstructive president. He has come into office after the failed presidency of George W. Bush who claimed he was trying to fulfill the conservative visions of Ronald Reagan. Bush’s failures are giving Obama the authority to promote new policies that violate the dogmas of Reagan’s conservative regime such as raising taxes on the rich and increasing governmental regulations.

Question: In your opinion, what is the likely political philosophy of Barack Obama, and will it be as lasting as that of FDR and Regan?

Sloan: The challenge for Obama will be to update liberalism the way FDR did in the 1930s. FDR converted his party philosophy from Jeffersonian liberalism, which stressed limited government and states’ rights, to a more positive liberalism, which emphasized the capabilities of the federal government to provide beneficial services. In place of “the stale political arguments’ that have prevented us from responding  effectively to health, educational, and environmental problems, Obama proposes a pragmatic philosophy based on science and bipartisan cooperation.

Question: What is the most important concept to understand about reconstructive presidencies?

Sloan: The key concept in my book is regime. The US Constitution is very brief and its wording is very ambivalent which has allowed our nation to live under a number of regimes. Our Constitution is mainly concerned with procedures—how Congressmen are elected or how law is passed. A regime is more substantive; it is concerned with what kind of law is passed. For example, in response to a problem during FDR’s liberal regime it would be reasonable to propose a new federal agency such as the Tennessee Valley Authority or the Security and Exchange Commission. But during Reagan’s conservative regime, with its anti-governmental philosophy, such a proposal would not be considered. Under Reagan’s regime the most likely responses to problems were tax cuts.

Question: The current economic crisis is the worst since the Great Depression. What can Obama learn from Roosevelt’s experience?

Sloan: FDR experimented with various policies since it was not clear what the causes of the Depression were or what policies would be effective in bringing about a recovery. One of the favorite metaphors back in the 1930s was that the US was trying to navigate in unchartered waters. In some ways Obama is operating in the same situation. He will have to experiment with different advisers and policies in order to find the best solutions for our economic crisis.

-- 03/03