Though it came out in 1993, Stephen Skowronek’s “The Politics Presidents Make” helps us understand how Mr. Biden has become a prisoner of great expectations.
American politics is punctuated by the rise and fall of political orders or regimes. In each regime, one party, whether in power or not, dominates the field. Its ideas and interests define the landscape, forcing the opposition to accept its terms. Dwight Eisenhower may have been a Republican, but he often spoke in the cadences of the New Deal. Mr. Clinton voiced Reaganite hosannas to the market.
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.
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.
Heading into the 2020 Democratic primaries, many people thought we might be in a reconstructive moment. I was one of them. There was a popular insurgency from the left, heralding the coming of a new New Deal. It culminated in the Nevada caucus, where people of color and young voters — an emergent multiracial working class — put Bernie Sanders over the top, ready to move the political order to the left.
There also were signs that the Reagan regime was vulnerable. Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 suggested that conservative orthodoxies of slashing Social Security and Medicare and waging imperial warfare no longer compelled voters. Mr. Trump’s presidency revealed a congressional G.O.P. that could not unite around a program beyond tax cuts and right-wing judges.