Opinion | Why Joe Biden Needs More Than Accomplishments to Be a Success

Regimes persist across decades. The Jeffersonian regime lasted from 1800 to 1828; the Jacksonian regime, from 1828 to 1860; the Republican regime, from 1860 to 1932; the New Deal order, from 1932 to 1980.

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Reagan’s market regime of deference to the white and the wealthy has outlasted two Democratic presidencies and may survive a third. We see its presence in high returns to the rich and low wages for work, continents of the economy cordoned off from democratic control and resegregated neighborhoods and schools. Corporations are viewed, by liberals, as more advanced reformers of structural racism than parties and laws, and tech billionaires are seen as saviors of the planet.

Eventually, however, regimes grow brittle. Their ideology no longer speaks to the questions of the day; important interests lose pride of place; the opposition refuses to accept the leading party and its values.

Every president presides over a regime that is either resilient or vulnerable. That is his situation. When Eisenhower was elected, the New Deal was strong; when Jimmy Carter was elected, it was weak. Every president is affiliated or opposed to the regime. That is his story. James Knox Polk sought to extend the slavocracy, Abraham Lincoln to end it. The situation and the story are the keys to the president’s power — or powerlessness.

When the president is aligned with a strong regime, he has considerable authority, as Lyndon Johnson realized when he expanded the New Deal with the Great Society. When the president is opposed to a strong regime, he has less authority, as Mr. Obama recognized when he tried to get a public option in the Affordable Care Act. When the president is aligned with a weak regime, he has the least authority, as everyone from John Adams to Mr. Carter was forced to confront. When the president is opposed to a weak regime, he has the greatest authority, as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan discovered. These presidents, whom Mr. Skowronek calls reconstructive, can reorder the political universe.

All presidents are transformative actors. With each speech and every action, they make or unmake the regime. Sometimes, they do both at the same time: Johnson reportedly declared that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Democrats had lost the South for a generation, thereby setting the stage for the unraveling of the New Deal.

What distinguishes reconstructive presidents from other presidents, even the most transformative like Johnson, is that their words and deeds have a binding effect on their successors from both parties. They create the language that all serious contestants for power must speak. They construct political institutions and social realities that cannot be easily dismantled. They build coalitions that provide lasting support to the regime. Alexander Hamilton thought every president would “reverse and undo what has been done by a predecessor.” Reconstructive presidents do that — in fact, they reverse and undo the work of many predecessors — but they also ensure that their heirs cannot.

Source: NYT > Top Stories

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