“We Can’t Wait”: Barack Obama, Partisan Polarization and the Administrative Presidency

Kenneth S. Lowande 1  and Sidney M. Milkis 1
  • 1 Department of Politics, University of Virginia, USA
Kenneth S. Lowande
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  • Kenneth Lowande is a PhD student in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.
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and Sidney M. Milkis
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  • Sidney M. Milkis is the White Burkett Miller Professor in the Department of Politics and Faculty Associate in the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.
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Scholars and pundits have usually depicted Barack Obama as a prisoner of partisan rancor in Congress, which has been especially fierce on the Republican side of the aisle. We argue, to the contrary, that he has actively – if sometimes reluctantly – embraced the role of party leader, even in the management of the bureaucracy, the arena in which the modern presidency’s claim to transcend partisanship was nurtured. The Administration’s public celebration of unilateralism – typified by the “We Can’t Wait” initiative – is emblematic of a far-reaching development within the presidency and American politics: the rise of an executive centered party-system, which relies on presidential candidates and presidents to pronounce party doctrine, raise campaign funds, campaign on behalf of their partisan brethren, mobilize grass roots support and advance party programs. Although this development poses hard challenges to collective responsibility and the rule of law that undergirds it, Obama’s innovative administrative tactics may be the harbinger of a new paradigm that extols unilateral presidential policymaking as a habitual solution to partisan polarization.

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This journal provides a forum for professionally informed commentary on issues affecting contemporary American politics. This includes but is not limited to issues engaging parties, elections, and political participation; the news media, interest groups, Congress, the Presidency, and the Courts; trends in public finance, presidential popularity, congressional productivity; in contemporary, historical, or comparative perspective.