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Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton
By Stephen Skowronek
Harvard University Press, 1997, 546 pages

In this perceptive examination of American presidential politics, Yale professor Stephen Skowronek describes the presidency as a "blunt, disruptive force" in political life, perhaps even the leading force, outweighing economic and social factors (though accompanied by them). Political scientists have been slow to recognize this fact, he contends, because the tendency has been to focus too narrowly on specific historical periods or on the idiosyncracies of certain presidents. This study takes a broader analytic approach by comparing leadership efforts variously according to constitutional, organizational, and political criteria. The result is a highly original, if at times painstakingly analytical, historical examination of the cyclical patterns and long-term effects of presidential politics.

Skowronek introduces the notions of "political time" and "secular time" to illustrate the recurring patterns of presidential politics. Since presidents operate within an institutional context largely determined by their predecessors, their leadership efforts are part of an evolving, time-sensitive drama over which they often struggle to gain mastery.

One of the most notable patterns to emerge in presidential politics, which parallels secular changes in the nation in general, is the shift from a presidential strategy based on interpersonal relationships among elites in Washington to a public support-motivated approach to politics.

Skowronek identifies four phases of this transformation: 1) Patrician politics (1789-1832) characterized by leaders who stood above faction and interest and governed on the strength of their personal reputation among notables; 2) Partisan politics (1832- 1900) in which leadership was a form of executive patronage to party factions and local machines; 3) Pluralist politics (1900- 1972) in which the rise of bureaucracy and institutional elites required complex bargaining and policy negotiations between competing interests; and 4) Plebiscitary politics (1972-present) characterized by more candidate-centered presidential campaigns and a greater emphasis on direct political relationships with the public at large.

Whereas in the early days of the republic "government was formally treated as a deliberative process aimed at distilling a consensus among notables, and presidents acted politically as republican tribunes representing the national interest from a position above factional conflict," Skowronek observes that "plebiscitary presidents routinely appeal over the heads of the elites of the Washington establishment, hoping to use their public standing to compel that establishment into following their lead."

In the final chapter Skowronek examines the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton for clues about the future of presidential politics. Were it not for their "gross caricatures of the classic leadership postures," he charges, it would be more readily apparent how much the presidency has changed in the past two centuries. "American government has evolved in ways scarcely contemplated in the early years of the republic, and the resources of modern presidents dwarf those of their predecessors. But modernity has not altered our presidents' political purposes accordingly."

The presidency has come of age, Skowronek concludes, and the prospects for successful leadership in the future is commensurate with our leaders' ability to see that and to break with the outmoded standards of the past.

Copyright 1998 by Scott London. All rights reserved.