This is a guest post by Matthew Laing of Monash University and Brendan McCaffrie of the University of Canberra. It is based on their recent article in Presidential Studies Quarterly.
American Presidents are often ranked and compared, with a handful of Presidents regularly judged as “great” (eg George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and sometimes Ronald Reagan). However, a wealth of political scholarship now acknowledges that different US Presidents are granted different circumstances that both demand different actions, and grant different opportunities. While these presidents’ greatness does result from their successful actions, it also reflects their circumstances. This blog post, and the article it is based on , argues that it is more useful to examine presidents who share a similar political and historical context, and to examine their success in a way that is sensitive to the opportunities and constraints of that context. Furthermore, this allows us to avoid encouraging presidents to follow the expansive styles of these “great” presidents in situations where such actions may be detrimental .
This research uses the political time approach to the presidency, developed by Stephen Skowronek . The political time approach defines four types of president, based on their political and historical context. In this research, we examine what success is for Skowronek’s most constrained category of president: the president of disjunction, whose situation Skowronek described as “the impossible leadership situation”. These presidents (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter) are typically beset by national problems for which the orthodox political and policy thinking has no solutions. Our research argues that while some aspects of success are not available to these presidents, they can succeed by fulfilling a normative need to experiment and find new approaches to solve these problems.
Political Time and Disjunction
Skowronek describes four types of president, deﬁned by their distinct historical contexts and opportunities. Presidents of disjunction take office when the “regime” that has dominated American politics over previous decades is weak. The regime is composed of three main parts, (i) ideas that define political action over a number of decades, such as the ideas of Keynesian economics that defined post-New Deal America, (ii) a coalition of political and societal actors, particularly those in Congress, and interests that together represent a broad range of societal groups such as organised Labor, organisations, business groups, and other elements of civil society, and (iii) institutions of government that act to maintain the regime’s direction. For a president of disjunction, the regime’s weakness is evident in these three characteristics, but especially in the first two: the dominant ideas are failing to solve current problems, but they owe their election to the coalition of politicians and societal actors that have supported those ideas. That coalition is weakening and fracturing as new problems emerge that affect different elements of the coalition in different ways.
These presidents have limited authority to act, as the failure of orthodox ideas divides their coalition of supporters. Disjunctive presidents’ best efforts to solve the nation’s problems often depart from orthodox ideas, upsetting coalition members who have maintained faith in those ideas. Alternatively, these presidents maintain orthodox ideas, upsetting those who no longer believe that orthodox ideas can work in the present circumstances.
Presidents of disjunction usually are publicly perceived as failures, and are replaced by reconstructive presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who followed the disjunctive Hoover, and instituted the New Deal, and the Keynesian economics that dominated American politics for decades, and Reagan, who followed Jimmy Carter, and whose small government and pro-free market politics endured as Roosevelt’s politics had before. Despite perceptions of their failure, in many ways the presidents of disjunction play an important role within the course of political time, and if they play it effectively they can smooth the transition to the next regime.
Presidential Success and Context
For presidents, success comes in three main forms – normative success, personal success, and partisan regime success. The contention that presidents of disjunction have an important role to play implies that there is a normative aspect to success for presidents, that is, there is a best role for them to play in order to advance the nation. We contend that the most important aspect of the normative role for presidents of disjunction is policy experimentation. When orthodox ideas and policies no longer work, as with the economic situation Hoover faced in the Great Depression, or the stagflation crisis Carter contended with, these presidents face great uncertainty, and need to work pragmatically to discover new policy avenues. Normative success also encompasses the need to maintain the constitution and uphold the ethical requirements of the office.
To differing degrees, both Carter and Hoover experimented with new economic approaches designed to reverse the crises that they faced. Hoover’s creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) in 1932 was a clear example of how experimentation during disjunction can help the subsequent reconstruction. The RFC made major loans to states, municipalities, and corporations and provided an injection of much needed funds to the failing economy. Hoover attempted a middle-of-the-road approach between orthodoxy and innovation of the type Roosevelt would later pursue. He limited the RFC’s operations, for example, insisting that its funds be for self-liquidating projects. As a result, in 1932 the RFC was not as effective as it might have been as an institution for stimulating the economy. But, Hoover expanded its authority in his last days in ofﬁce in January 1933 and in its early years it provided much-needed capital to troubled economic sectors. Roosevelt further expanded the RFC, giving it greater funding and a wider scope to issue loans, and it became a key institution of the New Deal. Similar patterns could be observed in Hoover’s creation of, and Roosevelt’s extension of, a range of other measures aimed at defeating the Great Depression. For example, the Relief and Construction Act, Federal Farm Board, and Agricultural Marketing Act all became pillars of the New Deal’s approach to agriculture.
Similarly, Carter displayed greater awareness of the danger of inﬂation than most Democrats in Congress. In his last two years, he clearly prioritized inﬂation over unemployment. He felt he was acting pragmatically, and publicly admitted that his administration was trying several anti-inﬂation measures with no certainty that any would work. Carter’s anti-inﬂation program emphasized wage restraint to aggressively tackle inﬂationary pressures, but was hindered by a lack of support from organized labor. Unable to authoritatively suppress wage inﬂation without further fracturing its coalition, the Carter administration pursued an accord with unions over wages. Although novel, its measures were regularly subverted or ineffective. This situation underscores the conﬂict between the normative requirement to experiment and its tendency to hasten the demise of the coalition.
Perhaps Carter’s boldest experiment was the appointment of Paul Volcker as chair of the Federal Reserve in 1979. Carter pursued the appointment despite counsel from close advisors that Volcker’s doctrinaire anti-inﬂation plan would undoubtedly cause a rise in unemployment and seriously jeopardize Carter’s chances of re-election. Volcker’s actions began to ease the stagﬂation crisis and began the reform and strengthening of the Federal Reserve’s role in the U.S. economy, advancing the monetarist policy agenda without requiring legislative backing. However, this anti-inﬂationary shift did accelerate Carter’s political demise.
Conversely, presidents of disjunction will likely not receive credit for their successes during their terms. With a divided coalition and an increasingly emboldened opposition, they face a major contest to have each of their actions judged as personally successful by media and the public. Presidents of disjunction are also presented with a trade-off. Actions that fulfil the normative requirement that they experiment with new policy directions are also likely to exacerbate the divisions within the coalition, and end the dominance of the ideas that the coalition has supported.
Furthermore, given the uncertainty of the outcomes of experimental policies, these may fail. Those that do succeed are often seized upon and expanded by a reconstructive successor, who typically receives the popular credit for the new approach. As such disjunctive presidents are rarely credited with great personal success, even though they may have extensive legislative achievements. In fact, both Hoover and Carter compiled impressive lists of legislative achievements, far out-stripping perceptions of their effectiveness. Hoover especially found himself unfairly criticised for adhering to laissez-faire economic practices in the face of the Great Depression, despite many major departures from orthodox economic policy.
Partisan Regime Success
Partisan regime success refers to how presidents interact with the regime, either strengthening or weakening it to situate their parties and ideological coalitions for future achievement. Such success is harder to observe than personal success, but can be more enduring. It usually leads to future success for the president’s party, but as presidents’ actions inﬂuence the strength and longevity of the regime, it also has a considerable effect beyond the party and on the nation’s future. Depending on their agreement with, or opposition to, the regime, presidents must advance and update, or attack and discredit regime ideas and institutions, as well as strengthening or weakening the coalition that supports them.
This form of success is very limited for presidents of disjunction. The regime is collapsing during their tenure and this creates societal disruption. As leaders afﬁliated with the regime, they often have an ideological preference to see it endure, but cannot ensure its survival. However, presidential action is not meaningless within this arena, and the way presidents respond to the crisis of their partisan regime can affect the timeline of the afﬁliated party’s decline and recovery.
Partisan regime success offers an internal contradiction for presidents of disjunction. By defending the regime, and retaining orthodox approaches to national problems, disjunctive presidents may maintain party authority in the short term. However, they risk marginalizing their party even further as regime ideas are sidelined, exacerbating the severity of electoral defeat and the length of recovery. More experimental presidents are better placed to prepare their partisan coalition for change and prepare the nation for the process of reconstruction, but risk their own authority in the process as regime adherents revolt. The better strategy may in part be dictated by the strength of competing factions and groupings within the coalition. However, there is also an opportunity for presidents to persuade their coalitions of different approaches, acclimatize their coalitions to new ideas, and better position them to adopt a role within the future regime, rather than leaving them entirely outside that regime.
The Three Forms of Success
These three forms are interrelated, but the way they interact varies for the different types of president. For a reconstructive president, each can be mutually reinforcing. These presidents take power at a time when there is general consensus that major change is required, as a result, reconstructive presidents can press for sweeping reforms that act to bolster perceptions of their personal success, while satisfying their newly formed coalitions, and fulfilling a normative need for action. For presidents of disjunction, choosing to pursue either personal or partisan regime success may lead to normative failure; but normative success can also hasten the demise of the regime, and diminish presidents’ personal authority, making personal success less available. We argue that the normative need to experiment offers the opportunity for most success, but that the chances of a disjunctive president receiving personal credit for their achievements are small.
Understanding presidential success differently in different contexts is important not only for analytical purposes. All presidents wish to be considered successful, so public expectations can inﬂuence presidential actions. If we judge all presidents by standards appropriate to reconstructive presidents, we encourage them to act in a way that will frequently contribute to their failure and, in doing so, contribute to the popular conception of a heroic presidency, which is near impossible for most presidents to meet. Presidents of disjunction are part of the essential fabric of political time, and in better understanding the ways in which they can succeed, we are engaging in a project that is essential to our understanding of presidents’ capacity to further the public good. Among the greatest challenges this understanding of the presidency presents is the need for presidents to discern their place in political time, and accept that in certain situations they must follow a more constrained path, and limit the scope of their ambitions.
 Matthew Laing and Brendan McCaffrie (2017) ‘The Impossible Leadership Situation? Analyzing Success for Disjunctive Presidents’, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 47 (2): 255-276.
 David A. Crockett (2002) The Opposition Presidency, College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
 Stephen Skowronek (1997) The Politics Presidents Make, Cambridge Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.