Is Greatness Gone?

December 18, 2014 Topic: HistoryDomestic Politics Region: United States

Is Greatness Gone?

Aaron David Miller argues not only that greatness is gone in America’s presidential politics, but also that we should all rejoice in its passing. 

One lingering question is whether America can summon the presidential leadership needed to address these many intertwined and spreading problems in such a way as to prevent them from exploding into a global cataclysm. As Miller writes, although we want to elect presidents who can handle crises when they arise, “even more important, we should want to select those whom we sense have the judgment and prudence to avoid getting the nation into the unnecessary crisis to begin with.” The problem, as Miller emphasizes, is that presidents may lack the flexibility of action to avert crises before they reach an intensity that concentrates public sentiment on behalf of bold measures. “The notion that the president’s job is to create a story or a compelling narrative in order to teach and inspire is absolutely on target,” writes Miller. “But to be compelling, meaningful, and productive, the story must have authenticity, and that means grounded in an urgent reality of the day.”

That may explain America’s current political dilemma. The system clearly isn’t working, and the American people aren’t happy about it. But neither the people nor their leaders seem willing to accept the kinds of solutions that could break the deadlock of democracy and avert the intertwined crises that nearly everyone sees on the horizon. Perhaps the crisis just isn’t yet sufficiently intense and palpable.


STILL, HISTORY has issued plaudits to presidents who avoided potential crises through deft and measured action. Dwight Eisenhower gets credit for avoiding the kind of American involvement in Vietnam that eventually ensnared the country under Lyndon Johnson (though few credited Ike for any particular wisdom on the issue during his presidency; only hindsight revealed the soundness of his judgment). Johnson himself, as Miller makes clear, leveraged the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his own mastery of Congress to rally the nation behind landmark civil-rights legislation, thus placing race relations on a new plane and possibly averting a major crisis of racial tensions in the country. One could argue that Ronald Reagan’s economic program, though flawed in some respects, steered the country away from a set of policies that were taking it toward a runaway inflation that economist Walter Heller likened to the Great Depression in its threat to the Republic. Reagan also stepped up on the highly incendiary Social Security issue, fostering a set of changes—at great political risk—that averted a looming financial crisis in the system for several decades.

The country certainly didn’t get that kind of leadership from Obama, who neglected to address the underlying problems of the nation and the forces contributing to increased global instability. Miller is hard on Obama for inserting into the American consciousness a set of expectations for himself that were “dangerously high.” By summoning up presidential ghosts of the past, writes Miller, “Obama likely was creating his own high bar and aspiring to much more than his own capacities, his opposition, and the times would ever allow him to accomplish.”

Perhaps. But here’s where we get to the crux of the Miller thesis. It is with Obama particularly in mind that Miller posits what he calls the “fable of the transformative president.” He explains the myth thus:

A strong president claiming a mandate sets an ambitious policy agenda, acts through the force of personality and high moral purpose by using the vast powers of the presidency as a bully pulpit. The people and Congress follow. And almost always when that conception of leadership fails, the lesson is that the president was unable or unwilling to lead boldly, create a compelling story, and lobby Congress in a way that sways political elites and the nation too.

The crux of the fable is that these expectations are almost never realistic, certainly not in the case of the Obama presidency. The pressures of Internet journalism, the habitual overexposure of presidents in today’s media environment, the country’s political polarization, the lack of a compelling crisis—all of these factors, in Miller’s view, ensured that Obama would not be able to govern as he had promised. “Barack Obama is only the latest in a series of presidents who confronted the aspiration-to-disappointment cycle,” writes Miller. “The fall was particularly hard in his case because expectations were running so high.”

The answer, then, is to reduce expectations, jettison the fable of the transformative president, settle for competence and measured aspiration in the Oval Office, and place our leaders in a historical context that recognizes the rarity of presidential greatness. Miller writes:

The disappearance of our greatest presidents is no cause for despair and cynicism about our politics; nor is it reason to give in to the declinist tropes that America’s best days are behind it, or that we cannot have successful leaders. But it does mean that we need to come to terms with the limits of a president’s capacity to fix things; our own impatience that there are comprehensive solutions to all our problems; and to abandon any notion that the One is coming to rescue us.

In general, that is sound advice, much in keeping with what the Founders had in mind when they created the American presidency. The president enjoys vast powers, but they can only be exercised by surmounting extensive constrictions. He (or she) may be the only politician who can claim to speak for all Americans—but must nevertheless deal with 535 others who speak persistently for smaller constituencies. As Harry Truman once put it, staring glumly into his bourbon glass, “They talk about the power of the presidency, how I can just push a button and get things done. Why, I spend most of my time kissing somebody’s ass.”

This constriction on presidential prerogative is all to the good. At the same time, presidents must rise to whatever level of leadership is required to dispose of the problems, challenges and, yes, crises of their time in office. If they don’t bring to their tenure large doses of guile, persistence, deviousness and will—in addition to all the other elements of effective leadership—they almost surely will fail. And that will bring upon them the opprobrium of the American people—and eventually history. That’s good, too. In this sense, it can be argued, notwithstanding Miller’s fable of the transformative president, that Obama not only failed to fulfill unreasonable expectations but also failed to lead as the country needed him to lead.

In our time, the country is headed in a dangerous direction almost certain to generate serious crises in both the domestic and foreign arenas. The American people know it. Their leaders know it. And I’m sure Aaron David Miller knows it too. It may not take a Lincoln, Washington or FDR to avert these crises, but it will take strong and effective presidential leadership. Ours is a presidential system, after all, and these kinds of crises are dealt with through Oval Office performance or not at all. While a little calibration on presidential expectations may be in order, the American people are not going to abandon—nor should they—their crucial job of ensuring presidential accountability.

Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.

Image: Flickr/g cobb/CC by-nc-sa 2.0