Thickening and the Obama Administration
The ongoing debate over the President’s legislative agenda (health care, climate change, labor union reform) poses an interesting test for the “thickening” hypothesis advanced by Stephen Skowronek. His argument is that the growth of precedents, institutions, and interest groups over time makes it more difficult for Presidents — even ones that are elected by a large majority — to change fundamental governing principles. One obvious example is that conducting the 1787 Constitutional Convention was far easier in the wake of the Revolution than it would be today.
Nevertheless, I am skeptical of this argument because there is no linear pattern in the achievements of the presidents who led party realignments. Lincoln and FDR, for example, accomplished a lot more than Jefferson or Jackson, which runs against the grain of the thickening theory. If Obama fails to get his agenda through Congress, though, that would be evidence in support of Skowronek’s idea, given that he carried in a large congressional majority and won 53% of the popular vote. Or it might just suggest that it will take more than one convincing election victory for the Administration to overcome the doubts within its own party about the President’s ambitions.