As I have expected, the result of this year’s presidential election in the United States has not been as close as most pre-poll surveys had projected. President Barack Obama has won a decisive number of the electoral votes and, contrary to pre-poll projections, managed to win the popular vote. He is only the third president in the post-war era, after Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, to be re-elected with more than 51% of the popular vote.
Except for North Carolina, President Obama defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney in all of the swing states, including Massachusetts, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the home states of Governor Romney’s, his father’s, and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan’s, respectively. Prof. W. Scott Thompson, who had been the first to predict in 2007 that the then relatively obscure junior senator from Illinois would defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, actually predicted an Obama landslide a couple of months ago. Perhaps that could have been the case had the President not misperformed in the first presidential debate.
Having framed the election as a choice between two distinct social and economic visions, perhaps President Obama would claim a strong mandate for his policy prescriptions. However, the American people has elected to maintain a divided Congress, with the Republicans keeping their majority in the House of Representatives. There would certainly be gridlocks in the debate on how to move the American economy forward. Particularly interesting would be the debate on the question of whether or not to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, which would be expiring before the year ends. Prof. Jack Balkin argues that the President should hold his ground on this issue, as it would likely define his place in American presidential history.
In two interesting essays published on The Atlantic, Professor Balikin draws on the works of another renowned political scientist, Prof. Stephen Kowronek, whose book on American presidential history is a must-read for all students of American politics. Professor Kowronek classified American presidents into four kinds: the reconstructive presidents, the affiliated presidents, the pre-emptive presidents, and the disjunctive presidents.
Reconstructive presidents create dominant regimes in American politics, where their ideologies influence the political reality, and their party has a stronger support base that has the ability to steer the general direction in Washington. Professor Kowronek classifies William Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan as reconstructive presidents. Their legacies are the most enduring in American presidential history.
Now, those who follow these reconstructive presidents would either support or oppose the political orders they create. Presidents who support the dominant regime become affiliated presidents, whose political legitimacy usually hinges on their ability to defend the said regime. Affiliated presidents whose terms are marked by either the decline or the collapse of the political order they support are classified as disjunctive presidents.
On the other hand, presidents who oppose the dominant political order of their time are classified into two. Those who had the misfortune of being at the White House at the wrong time are the pre-emptive presidents. While they do not subscribe to the dominant regime, they are forced to be more pragmatic than dogmatic in order to successfully navigate the political currents. If they happen to be at the White House at the right time– that is, at the time when the dominant regime is falling apart– they become reconstructive presidents, creating a new political order that would affect a generation, or more.
In the last one hundred years, for example, the United States has seen two dominant regimes created by two reconstructive presidents. The Great Depression enabled President Roosevelt to create the Democratic regime on the basis of his New Deal ideology. Affiliated presidents in this era included Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who tried to reinforce the Roosevelt regime with his Great Society policies. The pre-emptive presidents, on the other hand, were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. The disjunctive president, Jimmy Carter, presided over the collapse of this Democratic regime that enabled President Reagan to create a new, conservative order. In the Reagan era, George H.W. Bush was obviously an affiliated president, while Bill Clinton was a pre-emptive one.
If we see American politics through this prism, then the Republican victory in congressional elections, the filibusterism of Speaker Newt Gingrinch, and the raging rise of the Tea Party in the middle of the terms of popular Democratic leaders Clinton and Obama would not be surprising. The Republicans have the dominant base, which is why a Democrat has a higher glass ceiling than a Republican: An unimpressive Republican, like George W. Bush, can win the White House; while Democrats would have to be specially charismatic and highly adept, like Clinton and Obama, to win the presidency. President Clinton had the acumen to survive politically, but he had to be pragmatic enough to negotiate a “third way” with the Republicans, instead of dogmatically pushing his own ideals. This pragmatism also characterized President Obama’s first term, where he had to contend with a Republican Congress whose obstructionism, according to historian David Kaiser, resembles the Viet Cong’s dau tranh policy. The President’s moderation has cost him the support of many of his progressive constituents.
Now that President Obama has won a second term, does he have a shot at being a reconstructive president, or would he, like Clinton, go down as a pre-emptive one? Professor Balikin argues that the odds are stacked against the President’s favor, although he sees the upcoming showdown on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts as an opportunity to dismantle the current conservative regime. “First, he should let the United States go over the fiscal cliff,” the professor says. “Then he should push filibuster reform.”
But there are some encouraging signs for the President. Firstly, in terms of social policy, the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado, and of same-sex marriage in Maryland and Maine, for example, seem to indicate a growing momentum for progressive social ideology, to which President Obama subscribe. The cultural divide between the religious, all-American right and the liberal left remains wide; but it appears that the dominant intellectual discourse favors progressive social ideas, like secularism, gender rights, and immigration reform, among others. The President, therefore, knew what he was doing when he expressed support for same-sex marriage prior to the election.
Secondly, the outdated Republican ideas on foreign policy, which views the world through a binary of us-versus-them mentality, is also losing some currency. For much of his first term, President Obama, resembling a classic pre-emptive president, merely adopted a moderate version of these conservative ideas. He has, for instance, sent drones to Pakistan, maintained the Guantanamo prison, and left the Patriot Act untouched. But the President’s success in pursuing consensus-based multilateralism in Libya, his audacity to stand up to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, his pivot to East Asia, and his nuanced approach in engaging China all show a reconstructive streak that is generally winning for the United States some respect in the international community. In his second term, President Obama would have more flexibility in terms of pursuing his own brand of foreign policy.
Finally, the Republican Party remains fractured, and its increasing dogmatism is alienating many of its moderate constituents. Its social ideology, driven by the religious right, is not in sync with the times, and its ridiculous suggestions that President Obama is neither American nor Christian puts its credibility in serious danger.
It would take a historian, which I’m not, to know for certain if these are symptoms of the unraveling of the current Reaganite political order. Regardless, the Republican Party would likely continue their dau tranh obstructionism, and a single scandal in the administration could enable the Republicans to play the impeachment card. President Obama has two years to cement his legacy, as he runs the risk of turning into a lame duck in the last two years of his term. During this period, he must successfully navigate the political waters; know when, how, and when not to compromise with the Republicans; and directly appeal to the American people when he has to.