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Presidential Matters

Trinity political scientist David Crockett is a student of White House leadership

By Susie P. Gonzalez

Linda Salvucci

David Crockett, associate professor of political science

December 2010 – Trinity University’s presidency expert David Crockett once viewed Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s 44th president as a possible harbinger of transformational governance in the tradition of Ronald Reagan or Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But after the country’s mid-term elections in the fall, Crockett, an associate professor of political science, is not so sure. An expert in what he describes as “opposition presidents” – those of the political party that is not typically dominant in a specific political era – Crockett says history may judge Obama not as the change agent he campaigned to be but as an “opposition president.”

Obama, a Democrat, was swept into power with Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress. This fall, however, Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. “I am open to persuasion that Obama is an opposition president,” Crockett said, crediting the “blowback” of the Tea Party Movement fueled by disenchanted Republicans and independents whose affection cooled after Obama’s first year as president. Whether Obama is cemented into history as an “opposition president” or returns to the agenda-setting position he initially enjoyed in office is “contingent upon his leadership skills or the skills of the opposition,” Crockett said.

An observer of presidential leadership skills since he was 16 years old, Crockett was drawn to political science by the unfolding drama of President Jimmy Carter’s inability to free the American hostages in Iran, a failure largely blamed for his defeat in 1980 by Reagan. Current events prompted Crockett to become a voracious reader of political science and to apply to colleges near Washington, D.C. Ultimately, he earned an ROTC scholarship to Georgetown University, where he graduated cum laude with a government degree.

From there, he served six years in the U.S. Army before entering The University of Texas at Austin. Once again, current events swirling about the president would steer Crockett’s research. This time, in the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton was facing a leadership crisis of his own, including impeachment.

While working on his dissertation project, Crockett said he realized the broader story about Clinton’s leadership dilemmas had not been told fully. After the 1994 mid-term elections, Clinton appeared “on the ropes,” Crockett said, but he was instead able to outmaneuver his perceived flaws and opponents and win re-election.

Crockett’s work was named Best Dissertation on the Presidency in 2000 by the Center for Presidential Studies, and it became the genesis of his first book about “opposition presidents.” A second book examined elections of presidents, and a third book Crockett is contemplating would focus on the legacy that presidents leave to their successors. It also would complete a trilogy of work about the various dilemmas that confront “opposition presidents.”

A future project might examine the nature of chance, fortune, luck, or providence in politics, a thread of inquiry that Crockett conceded is less quantitative and more humanities-oriented than his previous research. But he is gathering historical facts that back the idea that half of what makes a political leader is beyond his or her control.  

“I enjoy politics as a person and as a citizen,” Crockett said, adding that faculty in his department strive to introduce students to ways they can and can’t affect the political process. “We teach civic virtue. In a republican form of government, we hire and fire the leader. We teach people how to think like political creatures who are responsible citizens.”

Courses Taught

  • American Politics
  • The American Presidency
  • Classical Political Thought
  • Elections and Campaigns
  • Conservative Political Thought

Select Publications

Running against the Grain: How Opposition Presidents Win the White House, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.

The Opposition Presidency: Leadership and the Constraints of History, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002.

"Executive Privilege," solicited chapter in The Constitutional Presidency, eds. Joseph Bessette and Jeffrey Tulis, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

“An Excess of Refinement: Lame Duck Presidents in Constitutional and Historical Context,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 38 (December 2008): 707-721.

“Should the Senate Take a Floor Vote on a Presidential Judicial Nominee?” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 37 (June 2007): 313-330.

“George W. Bush and the Unrhetorical Rhetorical Presidency,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 6 (Fall 2003): 465-486.

“Dodging the Bullet: Election Mechanics and the Problem of the Twenty-third Amendment,” PS: Political Science & Politics, 36 (July 2003): 423-426.



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