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The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton, Revised Edition [Paperback]

by Stephen Skowronek
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 24, 1997 0674689372 978-0674689374 Revised
Stephen Skowronek's wholly innovative study demonstrates that presidents are persistent agents of change, continually disrupting and transforming the political landscape. In an afterword to this new edition, the author examines "third way" leadership as it has been practiced by Bill Clinton and others. These leaders are neither great repudiators nor orthodox innovators. They challenge received political categories, mix seemingly antithetical doctrines, and often take their opponents' issues as their own. As the 1996 election confirmed, third way leadership has great electoral appeal. The question is whether Clinton in his second term will escape the convulsive end so often associated with the type.

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The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton, Revised Edition + The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton Paperbacks) + The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign
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Editorial Reviews


A magisterial work, one of the most important studies of the presidency--indeed, of American politics--ever written...[Skowronek] comes very close to identifying the root problem affecting presidents...This is the all-important fact that the Constitution is unchanging and nondeveloped, while at all times intersecting with a social, economic, and political world that has undergone incessant development from the beginning. The whole work may be read as an extended, powerful, and penetrating meditation on some of the global consequences of this fact. (Walter Dean Burnham American Political Science Review)

In evaluating the field of political authority, Skowronek skillfully and systematically makes use of historical evidence. His approach can only be applauded as it brings a new and broader understanding of the historical evolution of the presidency. (Birgitte Nielsen American Studies in Scandinavia)

Skowronek...brings illuminating insights to each president that he discusses...A major theoretical contribution to the study of the presidency. (Richard M. Pious Political Science Quarterly)

The book brings together current ideas of political scientists on the theory of presidential leadership, as well as incorporating the major historical works on the various presidents. It is history from the top rather than from the bottom, and while current historical trends are in the opposite direction, this sophisticated, scholarly analysis of presidential leadership illustrates that the history of political leadership is a subject on which innovative, imaginative approaches can still produce important new perspectives. (Peter G. Boyle The Americas)

Stephen Skowronek's much awaited book relating cycles of the US presidency to what the author has previously called "political time" is an instant conversation piece. The Politics Presidents Make is a book that will engage scholars of political leadership and, particularly, those of the US presidency with its categories and its arguments. It is also easy to imagine that this book will evoke theological debates. (Bert A. Rockman Governance)

A work of great insight...This is a book that kicks aside all the conventional ways of thinking about presidential leadership and erects a daring, powerful, analytic machine that compels attention. (Hugh Heclo, George Mason University)

This is a remarkable book...A skilled practitioner of the use of historical evidence systematically to understand not only the evolution, but also the current nature, of American political institutions, [Skowronek] examines the whole crowded history of the presidency to catalog and organize the two hundred year experience in a fresh and striking fashion. (Joel Silbey Review of Politics)

In this pathbreaking work, Stephen Skowronek escapes from "secular time" to view presidents in what he calls "political time," meaning incumbents' relationships to their predecessors and to the status quo...This rich, insightful, resonant volume merits reading and rereading. It is destined to be a classic of presidential scholarship. (Gil Troy Journal of American History)

About the Author

Stephen Skowronek is Pelatiah Perit Professor of Political and Social Science at Yale University. He is the author of Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; Revised edition (April 24, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674689372
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674689374
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.5 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #381,495 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Presidency in Political Time December 18, 1999
By A Customer
In "The Politics Presidents Make,"Stephen Skowronek presents a sweeping indictment of the Neustadtian view on presidential leadership made famous in Richard Neustadt's classic text, "Presidential Power." Skowronek challenges Neustadt's assertion that presidents after FDR represent a distinct group of incumbents, who, because of the constant challenges of modernity, cannot make due with the formal powers of the president--which is a mere "clerkship"-- and must instead utilize informal authority to "get things done," something "pre-modern" presidents did not have to do consistently. Skowronek views such a notion as a conceit of modern times, and he incorporates "pre-modern" presidents into his analytical framework, which gives the reader a better understanding of the presidency as it is weighed against the emergent structures of power and in relation to the recurrent structures of authority. Skowronek also disputes the idea that each president is at liberty to "be as big as he can be." The differences in "great" presidents and "incompetent" presidents arises not out of differences in skills-- i.e. bargaining ability-- but instead out of differing political identities vis-a-vis the current political order. Because the presidency is, in constitutional terms, an order shattering, order-affirming, and order-creating political institution, successful presidents are those-- like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan-- who are able to reconcile the order-shattering and order-affirming impulses by creating new standards for constitutional governance. Read more ›
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars BRILLIANT, but a tad dense February 21, 2002
By A Customer
This is definitely a difficult book, and understanding certain critical passages may require several readings. In short, this is NOT a good book for an introduction to presidential politics and leadership. For a more readable and still highly regarded account, Neustadt's seminal work is a good choice. However, none of this is to say that Skowronek's book is not brilliant--it is, and reading it carefully is a very profitable experience and will enhance anyone's understanding of the presidency, agree with Professor Skowronek or not. Through all the technical references, Skowronek proposes a paradigm for assessing presidential leadership: Reconstruction, Disjunction, Articulation, and Pre-emption, all of which are based on the nature of the government and its commitments (vulnerable or resilient) and on the president's relationship to that regime (opposed or affiliated). Reconstruction results when presidents are opposed to a vulnerable regime--here are the "great" presidents: Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan, for example. Affiliation with a vulnerable regime produces Disjunction. Articulation results from affiliation with a resilient regime. And Pre-emption is the product of opposition to a resilient regime. Of course, this merely scratches the surface of Skowronek's argument, for which he argues quite well and which he approaches from a fairly historical perspective. I highly recommend this for anyone wishing to gain a deeper, fuller understanding of presidential leadership, especially in considering how much a president's skills affect what type of leader he is and how much circumstances shape his presidency.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent August 30, 2000
I read this as part of a course (taught by the author himself) in my sophomore year of college. Skowronek is I think to be applauded for his historical approach to presidential politics, and for his style of writing: it seems more as if youre reading a story than a political science book. Time and time again, Skowronek comes back to his thesis and main themes (legitimacy and presidents ability to correctly understand and manipulate their historical moment. The book never loses focus as Skrownek discusses different presidents or as he tells stories about a particular president. And hes done his research really really well. In particular his use of presidential quotes is very very impressive. Numerous times he gives examples of Presidents who attempt to build political legitimacy using words that fit very well into Skowronek's conceptual framework ("preserving foundations", recovering old sacred truths, continuing work that has already begun). The problem with Skowronek's book is that I think, given the sort of analysis hes doing here, its not very naunced. Im sure for example, articulation presidents often distanced themselves from their predecesors in some form or another. Some may not have a problem with this: after all S. is trying to prove his point and prove it well. However I thought at times that the book could have been more nauanced. Just my thoughts....OHH BUY THE BOOK!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The individual president in the politics of his time. August 26, 2007
Stephen Skowronek wants to change how we judge the success of our Presidents. His major contribution to that understanding is to turn our attention away from the individual holding the office. Instead he wants us to focus on a combination of political, social and institutional factors. Perhaps the best way to introduce his theory is to start off with his observation that in general, "power has been less of a problem for presidents than authority" (p.17). In other words, it is easier to get things done then to sustain the justification of the action taken. In fact, Skowronek (hereafter called S.) feels that it in the ability of a president to "control the political definition of their actions" that will determine "the terms in which their places in history are understood" (ibid.)
Furthermore, S. sees that the power and authority have changed over the span of American history according to different arcs of development. S. sees the power of the presidency as being in the resources available to the office at any one moment and distinguishes that history of change (toward more resources and toward more independent use of those resources) as occuring in secular time. Authority refers to the way a president is expected by his contemporaries to use the resources of his office. The historical arc of change of authority structures, S. sees as taking place in political time (p.30).
The final key to understanding S.'s theory is his insistance on the inherently disruptive and creative nature of the office of the presidency. This is something that he insists on time and time again throughout the book (the first instance is on p.xii). Every president imposes themselves on the office in such a way as to change (disrupt) the current political order.
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