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Electing the President: What Makes for a Great President

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Electing the President: What Makes for a Great President

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  • HNN Hot Topics: Election 2012
  • HNN Hot Topics: Electing Presidents
  • HNN Hot Topics: The Electoral College
  • Background

    The challenge of finding good leaders has preoccupied people since human beings first formed groups in the days of hunters and gatherers hundreds of thousands of years ago. Plato held that one of the key qualities a leader should possess is the ability to set aside emotions and make cool judgments. Most people, he noted, are beholden to illusions. A leader can't afford to be. He went so far as to conclude that good leaders should be taken away from their families at an early age so that they will have a chance to develop an independent and clear-eyed view of matters of state concern without regard to special interests.

    What makes for a good president? It's an impossible job for there are many considerations. The president should be able to fulfill the many duties prescribed by the Constitution and custom. He must be a good commander-in-chief, educator-in-chief, diplomat-in-chief, moral leader-in-chief, and legislator-in-chief. But that's just for starters. He (or she) also must be able to correctly gauge public opinion and move it in a direction he wants without alienating so many people that he triggers a forceful backlash. He needs to be able to inspire people. He has to be both resolute and flexible, judging coolly which approach is needed. And he needs to be able to win passage for his legislation from Congress.

    As the federal government was purposefully designed to be slow-moving, with checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power, only the president is in a position to provide strong direction. The members of the other two branches cannot. The president therefore has to be able to provide leadership. But what's leadership? The concept is slippery. People think they know it when they see it, but it's not easily pinned down. What works for one president in one set of circumstances may not work for another president in different circumstances.

    Historians regularly rate the presidents. But their judgments change with the times. No ruling authority on Mount Olympus decides for all time the order in which the presidents should be ranked. As human beings make these judgments, error is inevitable. Moreover, it is not clear what metric should be employed to judge presidents. A few years ago a libertarian ranked the presidents by their ability to advance the cause of "peace, prosperity, and liberty." By this standard, which gave high ratings to presidents who showed a strong commitment to limited government, Abraham Lincoln came in 29th and Warren Harding 6th.

    What the Left Says

    Liberals generally favor strong presidents with populist appeals who succeed in pushing through Congress large social welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare. After Watergate some liberals expressed qualms about the model they had long embraced of a vigorous presidency, worrying that the office had become imperial. But they largely remained enchanted with the presidents who fought for social change through strong federal action. The iconic liberal president remains Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

    What the Right Says

    Conservatives opposed FDR but didn't have a president of their own they could point to with pride until Ronald Reagan. He demonstrated how a conservative president could seize the public imagination through deft control of Congress, inspired speeches, witty quips, and a clear program (lower taxes, higher defense spending and a smaller deficit; he got two out three, which by presidential standards, is quite good). No previous conservative president had ever seemed to loom as large. Dedicated to smaller government, they earned little praise for saying no to government initiatives.

    Historical Background

    George Washington was every Founding Father's idea of a great president. The framers agreed to give the presidency enormous power only because Washington was expected to fill the office first, giving them the assurance that good precedents would be established to limit future incumbents. Washington was regarded as the right man for the job for several reasons. He was regarded as impartial. He was a war hero whom the country revered. And he had proved during the Revolution that he could be trusted with power. In short, he was known for his good character. Character counted!

    Washington is ranked by historians as one of the two greatest presidents. (The other is Abraham Lincoln.) But he wasn't always popular. Many people opposed his support of the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, some accusing him of treason. In death he became an unassailable figure, lionized by both the left and the right. Both claimed him as their own.

    Once the masses got the right to vote starting in the 1830s presidents like Washington became rare. From then on we turned to leaders less because of their resume than for their common touch. Like Lincoln, they had to demonstrate that they understood ordinary people's problems. If they happened to come from the people and not the upper classes, so much the better.

    When the country became a world power at the end of the 19th century with possessions off Florida and the Far East, presidents needed to demonstrate an acute sensitivity to foreign affairs. Few had the background. Many stumbled into crises.

    War repeatedly gave presidents an opportunity to change history and demonstrate leadership. Most rose to the challenge. Teddy Roosevelt, himself a war hero from the Spanish-American War, lamented that he had not been a war-time president.

    In the 1970s it was often said that the world had become so complicated that it was impossible to show greatness in the presidency anymore. Reagan demonstrated that wasn't true. As even liberal historian Sean Wilentz has conceded, Reagan bent the institution to his will and succeeded in changing American politics for at least a generation. Once it had been FDR in whose shadow presidents stood. Now it was Reagan.

    Topics for Discussion

  • Do you know anybody you think would make a great president?
  • Do we need great presidents or can we get by ok with so-so presidents?
  • How do leaders of democracies differ from leaders in other forms of government?