What Time Is It? Here’s What the 2016 Election Tells Us About Obama, Trump, and What Comes Next

What Time Is It? Here’s What the 2016 Election Tells Us About Obama, Trump, and What Comes Next

What Time Is It? Here’s What the 2016 Election Tells Us About Obama, Trump, and What Comes Next

Political scientist Stephen Skowronek talks about how his theory of the cycles of presidential history explains the campaign’s shocking results.


The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States stunned the entire world—including, by all accounts, Trump himself. Yet the Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek says he was “shocked, but not surprised” by the results.

In his acclaimed book The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership From John Adams to Bill Clinton (1997), Skowronek describes what he calls the sequence of “political time,” a cycle that has held true more than 200 years. He claims all of presidential history follows a distinct pattern: “Reconstructive” presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan (to take only the last two cycles) transform American politics in their own image, clearing the field of viable competition and setting the terms of political debate. They are followed by hand-picked successors (Harry S. Truman and George H.W. Bush) who continue their predecessors’ policies and do little more than articulate an updated version of their ideas. They are usually succeeded in turn by presidents whom Skowronek calls “pre-emptive”—Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton—who represent the opposite party but adopt the basic framework of the reigning orthodoxy. Next comes another faithful servant of that orthodoxy (John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson; George W. Bush), followed by another preemptive opposition leader (Richard Nixon, Barack Obama) who again fails to overturn it. The final step in the sequence is a “disjunctive” president—usually somebody with little allegiance to the orthodoxy who is unable to hold it together in the face of the escalating crises it created and to which it has no response. The last disjunctive president, in Skowronek’s schema, was Jimmy Carter.

I recently spoke over the phone with Skowroneck about what the 2016 election revealed about where we are now in political time. He offered some fascinating observations about the Obama presidency, the Trump phenomenon, and what might come next. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

RK: What does the election of 2016 tell us about the presidency of Barack Obama?

SS: First of all, it tells us that the Reagan era is not over. Obama was just an opposition leader trying to see how weak and replaceable the reigning orthodoxy was. His own probing for opportunities to repudiate it stimulated a reaction that ended up reviving that orthodoxy in an even more virulent version—first with the Tea Party and then with the Trump campaign. We shouldn’t be very surprised by that. It’s actually fairly typical of second-round opponents of old regimes. They tend to find that the old orthodoxy comes back with a vengeance. Think of Richard Nixon probing New Deal liberalism for points of weakness, or Woodrow Wilson questioning but not overturning the Republican orthodoxy that had ruled since Lincoln.

In that context, I think what’s most interesting about Obama is not his failure to transform everything, but his apparent disavowal of that whole standard of governing. There’s something to his ruthless pragmatism, his emphasis on problem-solving plain and simple. He tried to convince the nation to stop thinking about political transformation and great leadership the way we thought about it in the past—the great repudiator who transforms everything all at once. He wanted to get rid of that and adopt a more secular, practical approach to government. That’s what he found attractive in Hillary Clinton as an heir. Her defeat is one indicator that Americans are not through with this old Jacksonian idea of redemptive politics, of reconstruction, the idea that we have to make America great again, drain the swamp, and so on—redeem some ancient mythic idea of America—which evidently still has a lot of cultural resonance and appeal. That makes Obama a tragic figure. He offered rational, sensible approach to problem-solving. In America, that is still a limited premise on which to base any extended form of rule.

RK: Was it that Obama was not inclined to be a transformative figure, or that the moment in which he took office did not call for the kind of transformation that Roosevelt and Reagan were able to accomplish?

SS: Obama was in many ways the perfect president for the moment. He was facing this particularly weird Republican orthodoxy that believes, as Reagan put it, that government is not the solution to our problems because government is the problem. That works as a mobilizing cry against government but it has no correlative governing formula. The orthodoxy of the Republican Party only works well in opposition, in resistance against somebody who is willing to use the government to solve problems. Obama governed at a strange moment in which he gained leverage just by opposing resistance. That dovetailed with his position in the political sequence—he wanted to present an opposition view to the reigning orthodoxy even though he couldn’t root it out at the foundations. The orthodoxy was still resilient, so he couldn’t strike too hard. Obama found he couldn’t replace Reaganism, and at the same time he wasn’t even disposed to think in those terms. Instead, he suggested we just solve problems as they come along. There’s something admirable about that. But as we saw in the election, pragmatism is not much of a mobilizing standard.

RK: But Obama did campaign on a rhetoric, at least, of transformation. Why wasn’t he able to follow through?

SS: Obama has an acute sense of history. He explicitly invoked this Lincoln-esque standard of leadership in 2008, criticizing Bill Clinton for failing to have the long-term impact that Reagan had. Of course, he was trying to distinguish himself from Hillary, but he was absolutely correct.

Look, the 20th-century Progressives really screwed up the presidency in the sense that they envisioned every president as a transformative leader. So they instituted primary elections, which gave us these idiosyncratic presidential parties not beholden to any collective. Instead, they are personal organizations which feed this idea of transformational leadership. But at the same time, the Progressives rebuilt the government to create this enormous management apparatus we call the executive office of the president. So now we also expect the president to be a rational coordinator of institutions and actions throughout this massive federal government.

The problem is that those two functions don’t necessarily go together very well. How can you promise to shake the system up, to extricate the special interests and transform politics, while also being a responsible manager of the state? In the 2016 election, we saw a choice between candidates who were essentially caricatures of those two views. Hillary Clinton was all about competence and management and rational decision-making, while Trump was all about popular mobilization and disruption. We already know this doesn’t work. I don’t think we can take that rhetoric at face value. We need to look at what presidents mean by transformation. The closer you look at what Obama was proposing in 2008, we see that he meant was forgetting about transformation in the Jackson/Reagan mode and replacing it with a rational, problem-solving government.

Americans themselves hold these two conflicting expectations: they expect presidents to be transformative figures who shake things up, who redeem American values, and they expect their presidents at the same time to be responsible stewards of their affairs. Presidents need to be both, but you can’t do both well. This problem is not going to solve itself. Tensions between responsible management and transformation are getting more acute, not less so. Our desire to have both is tearing the country apart.

RK: What do you think are Trump’s prospects for becoming a transformational president?

SS: A Trump transformation would violate two rules that I have found from studying presidential history. Let’s call the first one the “Obama rule.” It says that as government becomes more inclusive and interdependent in its interests, the Jacksonian standard becomes increasingly irrelevant and irrational. Even with Obama’s failure to hand off the presidency to his designated successor, this rule still seems to hold.

The second is that you cannot transform the system without irrefutable evidence that there is no viable alternative. Without a prior disjunction—essentially, a crisis in the reigning orthodoxy of government—demonstrating that the old order is beyond repair, the president won’t be able to seize control of the meaning of his changes. You can’t reconstruct politics if there is not more or less a consensus that what came before was a complete and systemic failure. Trump won the 2016 election by talking up this fabricated image of the Obama presidency as a failure, but it had very little foundation in reality. One thing I can’t understand is why the Democrats were so incompetent in conveying their accomplishments. But you have a fairly successful economy, a draw-down of unpopular wars, and high favorability ratings for the outgoing president. Trump can repudiate that rhetorically, but the moment you try to do so in action people will start to wonder what was really so bad. You can’t repudiate a system that hasn’t collapsed internally and exposed its own vulnerability.

This could be completely wrong. Trump might go ahead and reconstruct the conservative regime from within, uniting a coalition around this much more virulent orthodoxy. That seems unlikely, though. He wasn’t endorsed in the election even by his own party, he was rejected by half of American voters, and now he’s going to be a great repudiator, the forger of a new coalition and inspiration for some new, long-lasting orthodoxy? That doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s never happened before.

The most profound thing said by Donald Trump was at the Republican National Convention in July: “I alone can fix it.” That was a tell-tale sign of what kind of president he will be. He was saying, “I’m not going to rely on my own party to do this.” That smacks of Jimmy Carter, who distanced himself from his fellow Democrats by asking, “Why not the best?” The kind of president who reigns over the end of his party’s own orthodoxy is always a guy with no relationship to his party establishment, someone who catches popular mood and says he is going to do it all by himself. Someone like Herbert Hoover, who carefully cultivated his own political brand and image as a “wonder boy”—the guy who can fix anything. Disjunctive presidents are always loners. If Trump is not Andrew Jackson, and if he is Jimmy Carter, then Paul Ryan is Ted Kennedy circa 1978.

RK: So what comes next?

SS: Obama sketched an outline of what an alternative to Reaganism looks like, but since he couldn’t dislodge the orthodoxy that alternative has been pushed off into the distance. Think of Richard Nixon. He had this idea of the Southern strategy, a way to break white voters off from the Democratic Party, but the regime of New Deal liberalism was too strong for him to accomplish a wholesale political reconstruction. That had to wait for Ronald Reagan. Similarly, Obama has this idea of a diverse coalition but he couldn’t yet displace the old orthodoxy. If you have a real disjunctive moment now, if conservatism finally implodes, if it exposes through its insufficient actions the impossibility of its own formula, then we should expect Trump to be replaced by a genuine reconstructive leader, someone who can firmly repudiate that Reaganism and completely redefine the terms and conditions of legitimate national government.

RK: What might that reconstruction look like?

SS: The obvious answer would be somebody like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. But I’m not so sure. If the opportunity is not simply to oppose conservatism but to build something different and new, then something much broader than the current left alternative—something that mixes things up—might be more attractive.

We already see in the rise of Donald Trump the limitations of thinking in terms of Reagan-style conservatism versus Obama-style progressivism. He is already mixing up these new coalitions with a different ideological makeup than anything we have seen before. That’s precisely why he is out of sync with his own party. The most brilliant and interesting thing about Trump is that he has a sense of creating something that’s largely alien to the Republican Party but which at least is fresh and new.

With that in mind, it may be wrongheaded for Democrats to plan on returning to power on the basis of old-school left-liberalism. It might be better to consider what a totally different configuration would look like. Instead of trying more of the same, maybe Democrats need to think about what something completely different would look like for them, and how they can bring it about. It would need to be something broader than just harping on the old lines of cleavage.

Think about reconstructive leaders in the past. They don’t just come in with the opposite of what was there before. There hasn’t always been this eternal battle of liberalism and conservatism—if conservatism loses then liberalism wins. That’s not how history works. Jefferson built something completely new. In his first inaugural address he said, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Jackson marginalized many of his supporters and created this new thing that hadn’t been anticipated in the previous set of alternatives. That’s also true of Franklin Roosevelt. He said he didn’t want the support of conservative Democrats, and he welcomed progressive Republicans with a New Deal. And then there’s Reagan, who famously won over blue-collar Democrats in the South and Midwest.

If there’s going to be a reconstruction following a failed Trump presidency, it’s going to be something completely different than what we’ve seen before. Somebody has to come up with what that’s going to be. That’s a job for political action, not political science.

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