Don't Expect Too Much of the Next US President
Aaron David Miller
The British historian
The debate between the Great Man theory of history and those who put more faith in the broader cultural, economic, and political forces that shape our world will, like history itself, continue without end. Perhaps
Nowhere is this debate more salient than in the history of the American presidency. What is greatness in the presidency; why has it been absent, at least since
Before identifying the mix of ingredients that comprise the presidential greatness cocktail, it is important that we take note of several critical considerations.
First, greatness in any aspect of the human enterprise is rare; its very value is defined by that rarity. Greatness in politics, where, unlike in art, music, literature, even athletics, leaders have to contend with many variables beyond their control, is rarer still.
In American politics, greatness has become so rare that it has ceased to have much meaning. Americans have lost a good deal of faith in government generally, even as they become more dependent on it and resentful of the political class that delivers it. Instead, we choose to confer greatness on those in our entertainment culture - our athletes, actors, and other celebrities. We often conflate this fame with great achievement - and we devalue the word in the process: have a great day; she's a great tennis player; that was a great film. We no longer know what the word is meant to convey, certainly not in our politics. Ask yourself who was the last American political figure you would describe as great. The answer might be
Second, in the American political system, there is an anti-greatness theme built into political culture that runs through our history like a steel thread. Our 18th century founders feared great men (They are "a lie",
That system was to be anchored in constitutional principles that mandated, shared and separated powers. While Article II of the Constitution, which deals with the presidency, made what
Yes, presidents would come to have great power, particularly as government grew to meet the domestic and foreign policy challenges of the 20th century; but that power would be constrained. And the gap between performance and delivery grew. Wildly exaggerated public expectations of what the president could achieve reinforced the image of a man who had vast power but was often unable to use it effectively. "They geld us first," a frustrated
Forty-three different men have held the presidency (we're on our 44th because
Each of these three presidents weathered a national emergency so profound that it threatened the existence and identity of the nation. Washington presided over a loose collection of entities whose loyalty was primarily state, not nation, centered. He inherited an untested political system that lacked a strong centre or a political culture that trusted centralised authority. Lincoln guided a nation through a civil war that saw 620,000 dead, preserved the Union, and created a new foundation for a more secure, unified and freer America. And Roosevelt, shepherded the nation through 12 years of crisis, guided America through its worst economic crisis and won America's greatest war. In each case, crisis was relentless, inescapable and nation-encumbering. National exigency gave each president a chance to tame an unruly political system, accorded him significant political power and freedom of action, and identified his persona with success in overcoming each of the three crucible moments in America's story.
Crisis isn't enough. Ask
The ability to work the system, to identify the right cabinet, to emerge as party leaders (even Washington, though he was loth to recognise it), and to cultivate
But capacity involved something else, too: an ability to use the crisis at hand to transform the nation in some enduring way on an issue critical to the nation's security, well-being and identity. In this regard, each was not only a transactional leader dealing with the moment; each was a transformational leader with a vision that looked to the horizon.
In Washington's case; it was creating precedent for a strong but respectful presidency and cementing authority for a nation whose political culture was wary and opposed to it. Washington's decision to step down after two terms also embedded the democratic transfer of power in a republic many believed couldn't survive the centrifugal forces threatening to pull it 2012apart. Lincoln's transformative achievements and legacy remain unsurpassed. His entire national career spanned a mere seven years - roughly from 1858 until his death in 1865 - yet within this period he kept the union whole through the terrible ordeal of the civil war. He was as hands-on a military commander as any of the generals that so frustrated him until he found Grant. At the same time, in that crisis, Lincoln saw the possibility of not only strengthening union; but creating a basis for an America that was freer and more morally sound. The Emancipation Proclamation, sold as a wartime expedient, would be followed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, something Lincoln worked hard to achieve. It would take another hundred years before civil rights began to take root. But Lincoln created a framework which would ultimately reconcile the liberties and rights in the Declaration of Independence with the principles and laws of the Constitution.
Roughly 66 years on average separate Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. This year, 2012, we will have gone through the longest stretch in American history without an undeniably great president. A half dozen American presidents - Jefferson, Jackson,
Since FDR, the story of the American presidency has been an uneven one. On balance, it has been a tale of talented, dedicated leaders, some of whom were great at being president; but not great presidents (
The absence of greatness isn't all that surprising. Roosevelt was an impossible act to follow, setting a standard no modern president could hope to match. Indeed the political environment in which the post-FDR presidents operated made the alignment of crisis, character and capacity almost impossible to achieve.
The nation's challenges - economic crisis, Cold War,
Healthcare legislation is a historic achievement, but in the face of a divided
It is hard to imagine any of Obama's Republican opponents getting to greatness either. It may well be that the nature of our political system and the challenges we face (slower bleeds that don't unify but polarise) will not allow unsurpassed excellence and incomparable achievement in the presidency.
The irony is that if greatness requires a national emergency, do we even want an-other great president? Do we want to risk destroying the country so that a great leader can save it? The fact is America rarely needs great presidents; but we can always use good ones. Indeed, it is time for us to lower our own expectation and create a much more realistic sense of the man (someday woman) and the job we have elected a president to do. Maybe then we can allow our presidents to be good without expecting them to be great.
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