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Presidency: How Do Historians Evaluate the Modern Presidency?

The scandalous politics of Bill Clinton's second term, which saw the president of the United States ensnared by revelations of an affair with a White House intern, deeply embarrassed the nation. No less disconcerting was the zealousness with which the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, pursued the investigation of the president's peccadilloes, and the alacrity with which a Congress bitterly divided by partisanship supported it. That a constitutional crisis could be brought by such a tawdry episode led government officials, pundits, and a benumbed public to decry the current state of leadership in American politics -- to lament the absence of great leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as well as the fractious state of American democracy, which appeared to make such extraordinary statesmanship a chimera.

The discontent aroused by the current state of American democracy may have deepened the public's wish for extraordinary leadership, but the demand for greatness far exceeds the supply. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, the American people"build lasting monuments of their gratitude" for certain presidents and not for others. Only a few presidents -- Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and FDR -- have been deemed worthy of such enduring respect and reverence. Cities, towns, and babies are named for them. Monuments are built in their memory. They are the subjects or popular novels and TV docudramas. Even when they are reviled, they are spoken of with awe. It is almost as if they occupied a different office and lived on a different political plane from other numerous incumbents of the presidential office, many of whom seem to be forgotten almost as quickly as they leave office.


No president has been so honored since FDR; still the search goes on. Pundits and public alike are perennially in search of the next one. Almost no modern election takes place without widely expressed dissatisfaction with the mediocrity of the declared candidates and an equally widely expressed hope that some prominent figure, who at least some perceive to have the potential for greatness, will enter the race. Colin Power is only the most recent object of this so far vain quest.

And yet for all its allure, presidential greatness is potentially a problem for democracy. The very idea of greatness serves to emphasize the vast remove between the anointed one and the people. Greatness is far more compatible with monarchy, in which a leader is required not to serve the people but to take care of them. Alexander, Peter, Catherine, and Frederick were all"great," but who would want to elect them president?

But as the"immortals" of presidential history have shown, extraordinary democratic leadership is possible. In truth, we honor our great presidents not as icons, but as remarkable popular leaders who leavened, rather than stood above, the hurly burly of political life. Democratic leadership involves the mutual independence of leader and led. It requires first of all that the leader remain answerable to his followers. Even as the president takes bold initiatives and ignores public opinion in the short-run, he must enable his followers to hold him to account in ways that are practicable and timely.

Second, because leadership is inevitably paternalistic, it can redeem itself democratically only if that parental responsibility is properly exercised. Good parents encourage their children to become independent and responsible, not to remain submissive and willful. Presidential words and deeds shape the quality and character of the citizenry. They can make the public more passive and self-regarding and submissive, or they can encourage it to be more energetic and public spirited. Just as a parent is held responsible for the moral and practical education of his children, so a president bears a large share of responsibility for the public's civic education. A democratic leader is one who takes the public to school.


By these criteria, the great presidents did indeed provide extraordinary democratic leadership. Washington apart, they were all either founders or refounders of political parties. Historically, mass political parties, formed during the early part of the nineteenth century, are the most important source of democratic accountability. As collective organizations with a past and a future, parties have checked unwonted presidential ambition. Paradoxically, political parties, rooted in the states and localities, have also bestowed legitimacy on the institution of the presidency. The mass party has provided presidents with a stable basis of popular support and, episodically, during periods of partisan realignment, with the opportunity to embark on ambitious projects of national reform. These episodes,"our surrogates for revolution," as Walter Dean Burnham calls them, have not destroyed the Constitution -- the sheet anchor of the American political tradition -- but rather have strengthened the attachment between the people and the fundamental law, to ensure, as Jefferson put it, that the Constitution"belongs to the living."

Our great presidents have provided a critical element of leadership during these re-foundings. They were revolutionaries, albeit of a distinctly conservative stripe. They taught the citizenry about the need for great change but also about how to reconcile this change with the American constitutional traditions and purposes. Washington gave literal meaning to the term" conservative revolutionary." His bearing and his principles were so conservative that is it is hard to conceive of him as a revolutionary, yet it is difficult to imagine the success of the revolutionary project, and the novus ordo seculorum it established in his absence. He set the precedents that made a democratic chief executive possible. Not only was he elected to two terms unopposed, but the certitude that he would indeed serve as the nation's first president allayed the fears of those among the Constitution writers who might otherwise have been disinclined to endorse the establishment of a strong chief executive. Although his tenure was hardly free of factional strife, the one matter that remained above the partisan fray was the character and leadership of Washington himself.

And yet one's admiration of Washington should not bind one to the inadequacy of the model he provides for democratic presidential leadership. Washington's success was too dependant on the absence of rivals. Because of his extraordinary gifts and the circumstances in which he came to rule, he was able to suppress rivalry and factionalism. But Washington left no legacy capable of suppressing those centrifugal forces in his absence. Ironically, the best means for taming factionalism and reconciling rivalry with lawful rotation in power has proven to be an institution Washington feared and despised - political party. To compound the irony, Thomas Jefferson, who shared Washington's antipathy, created the first democratic political party -- the Democratic-Republican Party -- to which both the Democratic and Republican Parties trace their origins. With Jefferson, great presidential leadership did not require the stature to transcend factionalism -- the passions and conflicts of democratic life -- but the perspicacity to master it.


Presiding over the first democratically elected regime -- the so-called"Revolution of 1800" -- Jefferson used the occasion of his first inaugural to remind the people including the bloodthirsty among his followers, that"we are all republicans, we are all federalists." Through rhetoric, he cultivated a political climate in which he could establish profound democratic changes without departing from the constitutional framework established by his Federalist predecessors. Andrew Jackson complemented his far more thoroughgoing democratization of the regime with a crucial act of constitutional statesmanship. He acted swiftly and decisively to suppress the proto-secessionist efforts of the South Carolina nullifiers. And, of equal importance, he issued his proclamation against nullification, which explained cogently and comprehensively why all Americans should make preservation of the Union their highest political priority.

Lincoln wielded this precedent in the service of the boldest of all presidentially inspired acts of inclusiveness. He discovered in the principle of Union itself a rationale for expunging the exclusionary constitutional provisions that left America"half slave and half free," a"house divided against itself." Lincoln set the stand for presidential civic education in a series of speeches that explained to the people why a house divided against itself could not endure, why defense of the Constitution actually required the freeing of slaves.

FDR too sought to save the constitutional order by expanding it. In his Commonwealth Club address and elsewhere, he explained that the economic system would destroy itself if it were not subjected to constitutional reform and that this transformed economic constitution would be based on a new right -- the right to economic security.


Roosevelt's legacy -- the modern executive establishment -- offers clues to our present discontents. His redefinition of the social contract held that the national government was responsible not just for political liberty ("natural rights") but for the economic and social welfare of the American people ("programmatic rights"). In the pursuit of this"economic constitutional order," Roosevelt and his New Deal allies aroused intense partisan conflict, condemning their political opponents as"Tories" and"economic royalists." Roosevelt strengthened partisanship in the short-run and gave rise to still another critical realignment in American history. But this may have been the last partisan realignment in American politics, for the New Deal transformed the Democratic party into a way station on the road to a more administrative Constitution, to a more centralized and bureaucratic form of democracy that focused our political life on the president and administrative agencies. As Roosevelt put it,"The day of enlightened administration has come."

In the wake of this development, the president, rather than the party, had become the leading agent of popular rule. This shift was greatly augmented by World War II and the Cold War. Given the domestic and international challenges posed by the twentieth century, much of this transformation seems justified. A new sense of executive responsibility was needed, one that the contemporary presidency fulfills rather admirably. Without the emancipation of the executive from the decentralized party system, the greatest moral triumphs of recent American history -- the end of forced segregation in the South and the triumphant conclusion to the Cold War -- might never have taken place.

The accomplishments of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan reveal the possibilities for modern presidents to achieve greatness. Yet, in the absence of robust party politics, without institutions that could constrain and institutionalize their charisma, both LBJ and Reagan failed to remake the ideas, institutions, and policies that governed political life in the United States. As the disappointments of Vietnam and Iran-contra suggest, modern presidents bask in the honors of a more powerful and prominent office that emerged from the New Deal, but find themselves navigating a treacherous and lonely path, subject to a volatile political process that make the stuff of greatness -- popular and enduring achievement -- unlikely.


Despite its undeniable virtues, the modern presidency has exposed the polity to demagogic appeals and executive aggrandizement that threaten treasured American political conditions. Caught between bureaucratic indifference and the public's demand for new rights, the modern presidency has evolved, or degenerated into a plebiscitary form of politics that mocks the New Deal ideal of"enlightened administration" and exposes citizens to the sort of public figures who will exploit their impatience with the difficult tasks involved in sustaining a healthy constitutional democracy. As the shifting fortunes of the Clinton presidency have dramatically illustrated, the New Deal freed the executive from the local party politics that dominated the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, but at the cost of subjecting it to a fractious national politics within the Washington beltway and volatile public opinion outside of it.

It was Lincoln who acknowledged that"public opinion in this country was everything." But public opinion was more than the sum of individual preferences; it was a body of beliefs that gave identity to a nation. Lincoln's famous characterization of the Constitution as a government"of the people, by the people, for the people" presupposed a moral fabric that affirmed the country's best possibilities, as he put it, that"appealed to our better angels." In this affirmation he was expressing his faith not only in the American people's decency, but also in the constitutional heritage and political associations of the United States that allied passionate convictions to moral principles, that protected the"jewel of liberty."


Contemporary presidents face the profound challenge of establishing the boundaries within which the civility of public rhetoric and executive accountability can be restored. Given present political conditions, however, it might be unreasonable -- indeed dangerous -- to rely so heavily on presidents to determine the contours of political action. The contemporary presidency operates in a political arena that is seldom congenial to meaningful political debate. All too often, it has been guilty of deflecting attention away from public deliberation about the meaning of contemporary liberalism and conservatism and the relative merits of these contending philosophies.

Great presidents justified their reform programs in constitutional terms, claiming to restore the proper understanding of first principles, even as they have attempted to transfuse the Declaration and Constitution with new meaning. But they did so as great party leaders, in the midst of critical partisan realignments. Constitutional rhetoric of this sort is rarely encountered on the talk shows and the electronic town halls that are so central .to contemporary contests of opinion. Instead in such forums, candidates are tempted to seek the devotion of the American people in order to manipulate them.

Thus, even as we yearn for extraordinary leadership, we must acknowledge that contemporary conditions -- the celebration of new rights, the decline of political parties, the growth of the mass media -- threaten to eliminate the very possibility of presidential greatness. At the same time, it is cowardly for leaders and pundits to prostrate themselves before these conditions, to claim that it is no longer possible to educate the American people about policy proposals and persuade them to make difficult choices. Indeed, those who would claim this responsibility need not be demigods; as Lincoln showed so artfully and magnificently, they must only be a little taller than the rest of us. Lincoln prevailed and became the most revered of America's great presidents because, as the New York Herald Tribune editorialized nearly a hundred years after his death, he appeared to be"our country's consummate democrat" and the"embodiment of the people's government." As such, the people saw in him"the vindication not only of American democracy but also of American character."

The duty of those who would seek to restore responsible leadership is not to lecture us ex cathedra about the immorality of our passion for rights; instead, they must encourage us to renew the long-standing debate in the United States about the true meaning of our rights. Now, as always, the vitality of American democracy depends on popular and partisan presidential leadership that can perform the conventional yet spectacular task of giving new meaning to the proposition that a nation of individuals can pursue happiness with dignity and responsibility.

Courtesey of TomPaine.com