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.

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3 Responses

  1. I think the closer we move to socialized health care, the better.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    Could there be another reason for Obama’s troubles: what Pierre Rosanvallon calls an “ideology of transparency [that] has emerged as the new democratic ideal, in place of the old, which was to create through politics a society in which people could live together in a shared world” [A. Goldhammer translation; [original is more concise.] This, and the recent rise in importance of other forms of what Rosanvallon calls “counter-democracy” (including increased oversight of those in power by the electorate; the “sovereignty of prevention;” and the various forms of judging exercised by the electorate (esp. “de-selection”/non-re-election of representatives)) make Congresspeople even more solicitous of their own rear ends than they were during the pre-Internet/Fox News days. Maybe there’s some overlap between these ideas and Skowronek’s notions of institutions and interest groups. But while Rosanvallon’s observations might not explain your Jefferson and Jackson examples, nothing says there has to be one consistent explanation of blocked presidencies throughout history.

  3. Or it might mean nothing more than that he was lying about what he meant to accomplish. Given how many promises he unambiguously holds the power to deliver on without the aid of anybody else, (Such as posting laws sent to him for five days before signing them; Who could possibly force him to violate THAT promise?) and yet has violated, this theory has a certain attraction.