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Where Have All the George Washingtons Gone?

Five reasons why America doesn’t have great presidents anymore.

Happy Presidents Day, a holiday that ranks somewhere between Groundhog Day and Opening Day at the ballpark in the list of Americans’ priorities. It’s easy to see why. Even though Americans admire their great presidents, they’ve been frustrated for quite a while now by their Disappointers in Chief. Those presidents seem to have become experts in taking Americans to the Mount Everest of hope and expectations and then letting them down in the valley of executive despair. Americans’ own expectations, of course, have always been too high. Still, of late, Americans haven’t had what presidential scholars would describe as a parade of great presidents occupying the White House.

Indeed, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s last undeniably great president, the history of the presidency has resembled much more a bumpy and often wild ride than a consistent tale of top performers. It has been a story of scandal, impeachment, assassination, and transitional presidencies — and also one of dedicated, intelligent, and able presidents, some of whom were not actually great presidents but who were great at appearing presidential. But since FDR, the greatness of consistent and incomparable achievement has eluded all of his successors.

Why? Are Americans just in a bad patch — like in the 19th century for a decade or so on either side of Abraham Lincoln, when faceless chief executives came and went without much of a trace of significant accomplishment? Are Americans just between great presidents, waiting for another FDR? Or is something else afoot?

I think it’s the latter. And as Americans celebrate President’s Day, more likely at the shopping mall than the National Mall, here are five reasons that presidential greatness has become harder now than ever.

1. Americans are ambivalent about greatness.

The American system, creed, and political culture works against greatness. There’s an anti-greatness and anti-authority trope that courses throughout U.S. history. Unlike the European story (literally filled with Greats — Catherine, Alexander, Peter, Charles, and a handful of English kings), American history was not peopled by the royal or the entitled. There was no real tradition of grandiosity (sorry Newt) and certainly few of the monarchial trappings of power. George Washington rode around in an ornate coach with a large GW embossed on its top, but he shunned the more elaborate titles of the office in favor of a simple Mr. President. Americans have always liked leaders with a common touch and a dose of humility, even just for show.

Indeed, much to the dismay of the British ambassador, Thomas Jefferson would regularly greet him in bedroom slippers, sometimes opening the White House door in his stocking feet. Grover Cleveland answered his own phone; and Harry Truman, after leaving the White House in the summer of 1953, packed up the wife and drove himself to New England without handlers or Secret Service protection. Not until 1906, after three U.S. presidents (Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley) had been assassinated, did Congress even authorize formal statutory authority for presidential protection.

2. FDR was a tough act to follow.

Let’s face it. Following a four-term president who overcame polio to lead America through its greatest economic calamity and to victory in its greatest war sets a pretty high bar. None of his successors would measure up. Truman, who likely had the third-hardest job in American politics (following FDR — No. 3 after John Adams, who followed Washington, and Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln), did pretty well, particularly in fashioning a wise set of Cold War policies. But the idea that any president would best Roosevelt in the achievement department died with him. That all of FDR’s successors are still judged by his remarkable 100 Days is a testament to the reality that all would live in his shadow. In 1951, driven by Republicans and southern Democrats, the 22nd Amendment was ratified, restricting a president’s tenure to two terms. FDR’s enemies thought they were getting even, but what they really did in ensuring that there would be no more FDRs was to elevate the real one into presidential immortality.

3. America’s modern crises make greatness very hard.

Greatness in the presidency is driven by severe crisis that encumbers the nation for a sustained period of time. Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt were America’s greatest presidents because they faced and overcame the three greatest challenges in America’s history: the birth and consolidation of the republic; civil war; and the Great Depression and World War II. The Founders wanted a strong executive, but one who was accountable also, constrained by checks and balances as well as shared and separated powers. The American system moves only when it’s shocked, and it allows a president to tame what is an inherently unruly political structure.

But crisis only opens the door. Unless a president also has the character and the capacity to know what to do and how to do it, they will fail. James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover weren’t up to the challenges; Lincoln and FDR were. Since FDR, America hasn’t had the kind of emergency that has offered the chance for both heroic crisis management and the fashioning of some transformational legacy that would change the country in a fundamental way.

America has had plenty of crises, to be sure, but none that have been inescapable, relentless, and nation-encumbering. In fact, America’s modern challenges have become routinized. That’s what happened with the Cold War, even with the 9/11 attacks. They became what presidential scholar Richard Neustadt called “inside government crises” rather than outside crises. Indeed, where presidents have had great moments — John F. Kennedy over Cuba, Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of JFK’s death pushing transformative change on civil rights and social programs — they resulted from real crisis or trauma. The 9/11 attacks might have been such a moment, but it was wasted by a president who took the country into discretionary war and away from using the tragedy to promote a sense of sustained national identity or purpose. Obama had his economic crisis — but without Depression-era 25 percent unemployment and bread lines, it wasn’t sufficient to force Republicans to cooperate or allow for dramatic presidential action.

America’s contemporary challenges are severe, but they’re slower bleeds. Debt, deficits, and decaying infrastructure produce delay and division — not consensus. And problems of this nature don’t afford much space for heroic presidential action. Balancing the budget isn’t quite defeating Hitler, but the structural polarization in modern politics makes even the former very hard to achieve.

4. Media trivializes.

Greatness in the presidency requires a certain amount of distance, detachment, even mystique. The media has been tough on presidents since George Washington — but not nearly as intrusive as it is now. FDR could hide his affairs and the extent of his disability because a willing press allowed him to; Kennedy had the same free pass. Not today. America’s 24/7, in-your-face media is relentless — and presidents contribute to it by believing they need to keep ahead of the curve and project their presence constantly. Lincoln gave four major speeches during his presidency; FDR gave only four fireside chats during his first year. Barack Obama gave over 500 speeches and major remarks during his first 365 days in office.

Presidents today also succumb to the Oprah-style need to reveal and share things about themselves, a curious feature of our modern age. Eighteenth- and 19th-century politicians didn’t share. Washington, Lincoln, and FDR were public men with impenetrable private interiors. Jefferson burned his letters to his late wife. Obama had written two bestselling autobiographies before he set foot in the White House. A presidential Twitter news conference (July 6, 2011) may be smart politics and communications, but somehow the notion of being the president in 140 characters just doesn’t compute.

The media offer presidents great opportunities to get the message out. But the media also suck the mystery and aura out of the presidency. It’s hard to imagine now, as presidential historian Michael Beschloss reminds us, but when JFK addressed the country during the Cuban missile crisis, the networks went back to normal programming. That meant there was no media mediation, no talking-head commentary interposing itself between the public and the president. Americans were left to come to terms with the president and his words, by themselves.

5. It’s a big world out there.

Modern presidents face a world that’s largely beyond their control. The new globalized, integrated world impinges significantly, directly, and often immediately on important domestic issues in a way their predecessors could never even imagine. As an expanding continental power, America faced troubles enough. Both Washington and Lincoln had to deal with galactic challenges of nation-building and civil war, and they even had to contend with the great powers of their day in North America and at sea. As monumental as these challenges were, they were still contained. They were continental problems that offered up at least the possibility of continental solutions. With largely nonpredatory neighbors to its north and south, and oceans and fish to its east and west (“our liquid assets,” one historian once called them), U.S. presidents had more control and a better margin for success. The foreign-policy challenges — crisis with Spain, intervention in Mexico, preventing European influence in Latin America, and World War I — faced by the first three presidents to get America’s feet wet in the world (McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson) paled before the complexity of those that the second Roosevelt would encounter, let alone his successors.

Put aside for just a minute the gigantic size of America’s economic, political, cultural, and security footprint in the world — the latter, alone, which has the country deployed militarily to hundreds of bases around the world. Just think about the dependency and interconnectedness of the United States in the world today. Nineteen terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon; within a couple of years, America found itself bogged down in what would become the two longest wars in its history. Or what about Greece, a place the founders looked to as a source of philosophical and intellectual inspiration? It now exports bad debt that can roil U.S. financial markets with even a hint of possible default.

America doesn’t control the world. And its presidents aren’t action-adventure superheroes who can impose their will with words and deeds. The gap between expectations and delivery has always been a tough one to close, and the demand for great leaders has always exceeded the supply. Americans need to get a grip and dial down what they expect of the presidency and those who occupy it. Maybe then Americans can allow their presidents to be good without expecting them always to be great.

Author: AARON DAVID MILLER is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President? will be published this year.

FEBRUARY 20, 2012


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