President Barack Obama’s insistence that “My credibility is not on the line” – as plaintive a cry as Bill Clinton’s after the 1994 Republican sweep that as president he was still “relevant” – reflects a disturbing distraction inflaming the Syria debate. Responding to Assad’s crimes is complicated enough. But now, millions are dismissing Obama as “weak and indecisive.” Transforming this difficult decision into a barometer of presidential credibility raises the stakes and reflects a peculiarly American obsession with presidential potency.
Presidential power is surprisingly personal, contingent, and transient, not just institutional and consistent. America’s superpower status provides great potential, but each presidency depends on the incumbent’s skills. As we see when deployed deftly by a Ronald Reagan and ineptly by a Jimmy Carter, presidential power, like a muscle, can strengthen if exercised effectively – or shrivel.
This Syrian mess – exacerbated by Vladimir Putin’s haughty New York Times op-ed lecturing Obama about Americans “relying solely on brute force” -- confirms what the Democratic Congress’s dictating of the health care bill, the new waves of Democrats defecting, the downgrading of American credit, House Speaker John Boehner’s forcing the president to give his job speech to Congress a day later than Obama requested, Iran’s impunity, Egypt’s implosion, and many other insults already proved: few – in Washington or abroad -- fear the current president. Few seem to pay a price for defying him. Having floated into the Oval Office on waves of adulation, having sought affection rather than managed much as a community organizer, academic, and legislator, Barack Obama seemingly overlooked Machiavelli’s teaching: “it is much safer to be feared than loved.”
Although all leaders struggle to find the right balance, the presidency subjects American incumbents to perennial gut checks, testing their mettle. Emerging from a revolution against executive power, the presidency was born handcuffed. Defined by its limits, its success depended on personal characteristics, particularly virtue and courage. In Federalist 67, Alexander Hamilton characterized presidential power as transient and contingent, explaining that the president would be “elected by the people for four years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and hereditary prince. The one would be amenable to personal punishment and disgrace; the person of the other is sacred and inviolable.” Federalist 68 then emphasized the importance of having “characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”
Hamilton was thinking of his mentor, George Washington. As general and president, the 6’2” Washington exuded strength, both physical and moral. He broadcast his virtue and stoicism – humbly, of course. The first time President Washington appeared before the Senate, the insolent bickering so offended him he muttered he would "be damned if he ever went there again!" – setting a precedent of presidential distance from Congress.
Translating these personal characteristics into policy terms, Washington hoped the nation would convey his “don’t tread on me” quiet strength. He advised: “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace … it must be known, that we are at all times ready for War.” America’s Zen isolationism would telegraph disciplined strength not wavering weakness.
Mimicking Washington, his successors often tried distancing themselves from politics by posing as virtuous statesmen. Even while popularizing the presidency, Andrew Jackson said: “one man with courage makes a majority.” Abraham Lincoln governed with the “faith that right makes might,” insisting: “we cannot escape history.”
Americans mocked cowards and shirkers. In 1812, James Madison found his foreign policy condemned as one of “Jesuitical tergiversation” – evasion – and “pusillanimous subterfuges.” Republicans charged Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan with showing “a want of firmness, a want of self-reliance, a want of adhesion to principle.” Two decades later, the Civil War hero Ulysses Grant dismissed another Republican James Garfield for lacking “the backbone of an angleworm.”
Americans prized lone pioneers, individualist entrepreneurs, principled politicians. They also feared appearing decadent while worrying whether their limited democratic institutions measured up to Europe’s monarchies.
Theodore Roosevelt emphasized the macho strain shaping this leadership model. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he sneered that President William McKinley, who wavered about attacking Spain, had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”' As president, Roosevelt forged a bully pulpit for national leadership while bullying the occasional critic for effect. Roosevelt praised “the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,” as opposed to “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” In our less sexist age, Barack Obama has nevertheless found his Syria policy called “flaccid” and “impotent.”
Effective presidents cultivated a tough image. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt’s defiantly cried “Judge me by the enemies I have made,” vowing to confront greedy public utilities. Rewarding friends and punishing enemies, Roosevelt distributed federal goodies like a tyrannical father doles out love, attention and allowance. Even Roosevelt’s failure to unseat the conservative Democratic congressmen in 1938 worked: targeting some party traitors intimidated others.
John F. Kennedy’s best-selling Profiles in Courage celebrated that “most admirable of human virtues” -- and launched his presidency. Posturing as a sleek presidential James Bond, Kennedy often quoted Dante that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
Ronald Reagan, like Obama and unlike FDR, rarely bullied party members who strayed or opponents who obstructed. But Reagan knew he had to telegraph toughness, especially because many underestimated him as a mere actor. When he fired air traffic controllers for striking in August, 1981, Americans cheered. Many foreign investors later said that was when they “started pumping money into this country.”
Reagan looked particularly sturdy by being sandwiched between two pols frequently mocked as lily-livered. Jimmy Carter’s hesitant foreign policy, combined with his hectoring about inflation and energy, appeared anemic during the already sobering Seventies. On March 15, 1980, the Boston Globe ran an editorial about yet another Cartersque plea for economic self-discipline. A joke headline inserted during the editing process mistakenly appeared on the first 161,000 copies that day, proclaiming: “Mush from the Wimp.”
Four years later, Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” charged that Reagan’s Vice President George H.W. Bush had “placed his manhood in a blind trust.” Before winning the 1988 contest, Bush also endured a Newsweek cover headlined: “George Bush: Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.’”
The political scientist Richard Neustadt, conscious of the office’s limits, characterized the presidency’s power as the power to persuade. In fact, the presidency’s power is also to reward and punish, to create careers and destroy others – demanding a ruthlessness at home and abroad Obama’s dainty presidency avoids. America’s most successful presidents understood they had to be muscular moderates, building consensus without playing the patsy -- feared, respected and, if possible, as a bonus, loved.
Ironically, the world’s most powerful post triggers so much anxiety about the occupant’s frailty. Today, when presidents so dominate American culture and politics, pundits nevertheless frequently find the incumbent weak and the office weakened permanently. Gerald Ford, when accepting the Profiles in Courage Award in 2001, once Americans could appreciate his daring in pardoning Richard Nixon in 1974, said of courage, “no adviser can spin it. No historian can backdate it.” Our leaders have learned that no president can do without it – while few critics can resist mourning its loss.