So Joe Biden is sticking with his bid for a second term. Labor Day was the president’s last chance to bow out. Economic Principals expects Biden to win. Get ready for the hardest four years in the White House since Lyndon Johnson lived there, 1965-1969.
That is the implication of a view of American history as a recurring sequence of lengthy political change: breakthroughs, followed by breakups, followed by breakdowns. Over the years, there have been all kinds of cycle theories about US political change. An unusually fully-elaborated version is associated with Yale theorist Stephen Skowronek.
Skowronek distinguishes between what he calls secular time and political time. The latter is time in the system, the medium through which presidents must reckon with commitments their predecessors have made. Secular means the president’s own time in office, for better or worse. Since presidential leadership is what organizers, journalists, and voters care about, secular time is the way our clocks tick.
Thus five major systems, described by their ideological commitments and coalition support, have unfolded in the years since the American Civil War: the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln to Grover Cleveland, 1861- 1897; William McKinley to Herbert Hoover, 1897-1933; Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson 1933-1968, Richard Nixon to George H.W. Bush 1969-93; and Bill Clinton to Joe Biden 1993-2025.
Underneath all these incumbencies is the machinery of constitutional democracy, which is manipulated by actors to determine the outcomes: the federal system, with its regional governments; the three branches of national government, with their various checks and balances; the coalitions of interests, old and new, that constantly shift back and forth; and, finally, “presidential definition” in public opinion, a concept more elusive than the rest.
What enables a president to set an agenda that lasts thirty years?
Luck and timing, of course. There may be a sense that “it’s time for a change.” If a candidacy succeeds, gradually choices are made. These may meet with success among voters. If they do, a two-term president’s successors are constrained. Otherwise, a one-term President goes home.
In Clinton’s case, “presidential definition” turned on his decisions to balance the budget, ignore China, and to expand NATO to the borders of Russia. Presidents since then have paid less attention to the budget constraint, continued to cooperate with China in varying degrees, but they have continued to attempt to expand NATO, which has led to the war in Ukraine.
Much of this happened on Barack Obama’s watch, when Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, two failed presidential candidates, served successively as Secretary of State. Donald Trump’s presidency led to four years of vamping, thanks to his conflicts with both Russian and Ukrainian interests. Then Biden, who as vice president oversaw Ukrainian policy for eight years as vice president, as president promoted his team of advisers and pressed ahead. It is his war to win, or, more likely, to lose.
So, after the thirty years that began with the election of Bill Clinton, Biden is probably a breakdown president,. His age is a problem. There is his relationship with his son. “Bidenomics” offers little hope of coming to grips with America’s looming fiscal crisis.
What next? Forget about Trump. EP expects a traditional Republican candidate to emerge from the embers of Biden’s presidency, as Lincoln emerged from the ashes of James Buchanan’s single term in office, to end the Andrew Jackson-Buchanan system, 1832-1861 and found the modern GOP. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, an up-to-date version of former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, is the most obvious possibility today, but things will shift around a good deal in the next five years.
By 2028, climate change and fiscal crisis probably will be the central issues, replacing the war in Ukraine, threats to Taiwan, and the composition of Trump’s Supreme court. Mitch McConnell, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas will matter less. The rising generations will matter more.
How to follow developments? Continue to read the four great English-language newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. The long swings will continue. America will be all right.