Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Institutional Constraints and the End of History

A recent article I found on Yahoo news recounts "liberals'" fears about Mr. Obama's imminent presidency. These fears are fueled by his recent cabinet choices and by his apparent reluctance to implement the tax plans he promised during the campaign. To quote from the article:

Now some are shedding a reluctance to puncture the liberal euphoria at being rid of President George W. Bush to say, in effect, that the new boss looks like the old boss.
(I'd like in passing to point out that I referenced the relevant Who song long before the Yahoo article did. But I probably stole the idea from somewhere else, so I oughtn't be smug.)

My argument--you (that mysterious "you" who reads my blog....i.e., me) guessed it--is not that Mr. Obama is a "sellout" or a moderate in "liberal's" clothing. Rather, it is my contention that the presidency imposes institutional constraints on he (or she, I guess) who holds the office. The president, largely by virtue of the fact of being president, is going to end up making choices that approximate the choices of his predecessors. There is wiggle room and there are extenuating and exceptional circumstances--such "wiggle room" and circumstances are, along with a president's personality and policy inclinations, what marks presidential administrations as different from each other--but each presidential administration must work within its history.

As I pointed out not too long ago (although perhaps long ago enough), my formulation risks being tautological in that it's true from its logical form alone: the main test of the correctness of my theory is what the president does: any novel action is seen as redefining the confines of the presidency and creating institutional pathways for later presidents to follow or repudiating a portion of other presidents' precedents while any not-so-novel action is seen as conforming to preexisting institutional pathways. If my formulation is indeed tautological--and I think it might be, or at least I acknowledge that it's possible to carry it too far--then its value lies as an explanatory mechanism. My main concern is to check the hysterical tone of some, both critics and supporters of Mr. Obama, who would have us believe that the end of history, for good or ill, is at hand. Maybe the world will end tomorrow, but the facts in evidence, by themselves, do not support that it will.

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