What kind of president would Obama be?

As 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.


27 thoughts on “What kind of president would Obama be?”

  1. Very nice analysis. The Republicans have the same problem as the CBCP in the Philippines.Knowledge and values are running away from them. Republicans, for example, cannot figure out how to push illegal Mexicans out of the U.S. whilst at the same time attracting legal Mexican Americans as voters. Catholics can’t figure out how to push condoms out of the Philippines whilst at the same time pretending to have women’s interests at heart. Until their ideals catch up to knowledge, and their acts are consistent with knowledge, they’ll struggle.


    1. That’s indeed true. The increasingly dogmatic position of the GOP, and its high-jacking by the religious right, will probably destroy the current Republican political order. Would President Obama be able to replace the Reagan order with the Obama order? Perhaps we’ll see in the coming midterm election, and, ultimately, in 2016. Would Hillary win 2016?

      1. Hillary, good question. I’m not sure she has the energy for it, but maybe she will surprise me. She’d be stronger than Biden, but both will be getting ancient in 4 + 8 = 12 years. Obama has proven himself as smart, but I’m not sure he is a strong executive leader, able to identify and mentor others. He did little to help democratic congressional candidates. If he were highly interested in the success of the party, he’d identify five possible successors and put them in places to be visible and meaningful. Hillary is one. Who might the other four be? I frankly don’t know.

        I also don’t see much on the Republican side. Ryan is tainted by his extremism. It would be spelled “loser”.

        1. Biden probably thinks he should be the logical successor. If Obama becomes a reconstructive president, he would be what Papa Bush was to Reagan. But I think Hillary is a lot more winnable. Also, Bill helped Barack a lot in this campaign; I’m sure he would be asked to return the favor. But, well, you’re right: Both are old.

  2. Interesting analysis. Prof. Kowronek classification of POTUSes, I think, is spot on. But I wonder which category Dubya belongs? Probably a disjunctive president.

    1. If the Republican Party is unraveling, then Baby Bush is obviously the disjunctive president. He allowed the religious right to hijack the Grand Old Party.

  3. I learned a lot from this post. From now on I will try to categorize US Presidents as either reconstructive, affiliated, pre-emptive, or disjunctives.

    Indeed it is crucial to note how Obama will deal with the GOP majority in the house, especially since John Boehner already expressed that they will not back down in the debt ceiling issue this year and they will not allow tax increases.

    What Obama has going for him though is the positive coverage of the media (e.g., almost no media outlet covered the Benghazi incident) and the increasingly liberal trend of Americans these days (e.g., legalization of marijuana and gay marriage) which may allow the Democrats a larger share of the congressional seats come 2014. Until then though, he has to be a master politician.

    However, I do not yet discount the possible comeback of the Republican party, especially now that it is defeated twice and much more highly motivated to regain power. I think this defeat should encourage the Republicans to re-think their approach and make some compromises in some of their positions (i.e., provide clearer conditional support for populist measures like healthcare and renewable energy initiatives).

    Finally, Republicans should really make sure that the statements of their candidate in 2016 remains consistent with their position to avoid allusions to “Romnesia”.

    1. RB, the question is whether “liberal” is the correct word. It is usually used in a political sense to suggest someone who sucks on the government welfare and likes taxing and spending on poor folks, old folks, lazy good for nothing folks. Another term might be “progressive”. Or “rational”. Those states that are approving marijuana are not doing it because they are hippies and druggies. They are doing it because they don’t want to fill their jails with expensive minor criminals, and would rather tax the hell out of marijuana products and build good schools. Those approving gay marriage believe in freedom it its broadest sense, to include everybody. The rest of your comments I agree with.

  4. Your points are well taken. As such, let me clarify my definition that I used liberal in the progressive sense (specifically one who is leaning towards the left or center-left of the political spectrum), and amend my usage of the term in my earlier comment to state progressive. Let me further state that my issue with using the term rational to replace liberal is that it implies that views to the contrary (i.e., those not in favor of same sex marriages) are not rational. That is hardly fair for conservative thinkers (not zealots, mind you) whose arguments are also noteworthy and should also be given weight in political discourse. Thank you.

    1. Rb, yes, I agree rational is not the right word, and progressive works better. Glad we worked that out harmoniously. heh

  5. Regarding questions about terms, I think it’s a matter of cultural nuance? In the US, a liberal might denote someone who sucks on welfare, as Joe said. In PH, a progressive sometimes connote militant leftists like Anakbayan and Akbayan.

    1. Yes, good point. I am often confused by labels here, which are nuanced differently than in the US. Therefore, I oft go to words that fit both cultures, like “idiotic” or “cool” and I know when I go to satire I’m getting into risky territory. But. I. Just. Can’t. Help. Myself.

  6. I agree. For instance, in the PH the term liberal isn’t really seen in a bad light (unless you connect it with the term liberated which could implicitly mean vulgar or obscene, among others), whereas, as you mentioned, progressives are often construed as militant leftists (which are quite unpopular with the general populace).

  7. I agree with several things here. First, I do believe that Dems have a higher glass ceiling to break into than Republican, the example of Bush was spot-on. Also, I do think that the Reagan Political Coalition is on its way to crashing. I do believe, however, that in all three fronts you’ve mentioned the chances that Obama can attain the status of a reconstructive president are very likely. In terms of social issues, I believe that your analysis is very accurate of the milieu. Nevertheless, I’m of the strong opinion that the election gave him a lot of political muscle to assert the idea of increasing taxes to grow the economy, special when it comes to the rich. I do believe that a compromise on spending is needed. But, we’ve seen, from the past, that Obama is very much willing to meet half-way on this issue. I think that these two factors, when considered, will show change the look of the American Economy for the better. Lastly, on the issue of foreign policy, I believe that the last 2 years of his term is where we will see the maturation of the Obama Doctrine. Because he will become a “lame duck”, he will have more time to concentrate on this matter. It’s where he will find significance as a President who doesn’t have to worry about re-election, i.e. the last few years of Reagan’s term; of course, this is assuming that the American Economy has picked up by then.

  8. I like your analysis and will share it with my fb friends.

    I think Obama has to decide whether he will push back or continue to allow himself to be pushed. I’m sure he knows that extremist Republicans in Congress are not going to budge. Will he succeed in turning their intransigence against them like Clinton did to Gingrich after he got fed up with the obstructionism? Will he be thinking midterm elections or will he proceed as someone who believes he has a mandate to go all the way?

    There is also a counterpart to Romney’s 47 percent. They are those Americans from the Red states who cannot see beyond color and their fundamentalist beliefs. They will always be against Obama. In the same way that Romney joked about having a better chance at election if his parents were born Mexican, Obama would have a better chance at success if he were born white. Should Obama try to turn those people around first or should he just tell them you can get on the bus if you want to but if you don’t I’m not going to wait for you?

    The economy played a part in the election but it seems like American voters saw that the blame could not be laid exclusively on anyone. They saw a problem that was too big for anyone to solve in a short time and what was needed was a first step in the right direction. They thought Obama was it.

    In the end it was social issues that spelled the difference – race, immigration, gender. Voters chose the candidate who was most like them, the one who shared their beliefs. In other words, I think they felt neither could solve the country’s economic and financial problems overnight so that skill was out of the equation. What was left was philosophy and world view and that was what spelled the difference. Maybe?

    1. Thanks, MB!

      I think if there are lessons to be learned in his first term, it’s that “bipartisanship” can only go so far. Perhaps President Obama would finally be able to push back in his second term. Also, if worldviews really spelled the difference, then the GOP is really in trouble; hence, greater chance for the President to end the Reagan era and begin a new, Obama era.

  9. Thanks for the reference to Prof. Thompson’s commentary. I have argued that Obama’s performance is quite profound if you look at the big picture, as history is inclined to do. Media sensationalism about generals having affairs or birthplaces get pared out, and so do partisan insults or teardowns. All that is left is achievements: stopped global economic collapse, instituted health care where many presidents before had failed, extracted the U.S. from two wars, decimated bin Laden terrorism cell by cell, recast American leadership as a partner to other nations rather than a unilateral director. He could play basketball for four years and still come out with profound achievements based on the first four. I doubt that he will do that.

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