UCL Institute of the Americas


Michael Byrne

'Succeeding Greatness' 

The problem of presidential leadership in the shadow of an exceptional predecessor. A case study of John Adams, Martin Van Buren, Harry S Truman, and George H.W. Bush


Professor Gareth Davies and Dr Nick Witham

This study will examine the idea of ‘political authority’ in the American presidency with particular reference to the performance of four men who held that office in succession to ‘transformational’ predecessors: John Adams (1797-1801) following George Washington, Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) following Andrew Jackson, Harry S Truman (1945-1953) following Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) following Ronald Reagan. 

A number of theories of presidential authority will be reviewed, including those suggested by Stephen Skowronek, Richard Neustadt and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.  That review will be embedded within a broader overview of ways in which the development of the presidency has been understood by political scientists including Sidney Milkis, Michael Nelson and Fred Greenstein.

Skowronek’s model of how presidential authority changes within ‘political time’ informs the selection of the four presidents considered here.  Each came to office having served as vice president in the administration of a same-party predecessor who had exercised significant presidential authority.  Each faced the challenge of ‘following-on’ from an authoritative predecessor and managing the political regime established under his leadership.  And each had to deal with the problem of being widely perceived as less personally charismatic than the president he succeeded.

The study will consider the broad social, cultural, economic and political climate within which Adams, Van Buren, Truman and Bush took office.  It will then review the performance of each man as he struggled to cope with his predecessor’s legacy and, in particular, with the difficulty he faced in accommodating himself to the new model of presidential authority established by his predecessor.

Treating their bids for re-election (or, in Truman’s case, for election in his own right) as tests of how well they had coped with the challenge of ‘following-on’, the study will review those four election contests and consider why Adams (1800), Van Buren (1840) and Bush (1992) all failed while Truman (1948) alone succeeded.