Monday, November 1, 2010

Why it is increasingly difficult to succeed as President

From Ross Douthat in today's New York Times:

At the same time, their legislative maneuverings — the buy-offs and back-room deals, the inevitable coziness with lobbyists — exposed the weakness of modern liberal governance: it tends to be stymied and corrupted by the very welfare state that it’s seeking to expand. Many of Barack Obama’s supporters expected him to be another Franklin Roosevelt, energetically experimenting with one program after another. But Roosevelt didn’t have to cope with the web of interest groups that’s gradually woven itself around the government his New Deal helped build. And while Obama twisted in these webs, the public gradually decided that it liked bigger government more in theory than in practice.

This illustrates nicely the concept of historical time. In his book, The Politics Presidents Make, discusses how the progression of historical time makes it difficult for succeeding presidents, regardless of their place in political time, to accomplish their agenda. Douthat's point, essentially, is that institutional thickening--the rise of interest groups with their own agendas--make it nearly impossible to nimbly reshape government.

The larger point is that political time itself may becoming increasingly irrelevant. As Skowronek notes, increasing institutional thickening will make it increasingly difficult for all presidents--regardless of their place in the regime or their warrants for action--to succeed. The only way for them to do so is to constantly seek third way solutions--to triangulate. The good news is presidents can still be successful. The bad news is it becomes increasingly difficult to establish an enduring legacy and institute a new, longstanding regime.

For Obama to succeed in gridlocked government, he's going to have to learn the lessons of preemption from Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. He should play the left and the right off of each other, and strive to find middle-of-the road solutions in the next two years.

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