Competing Visions of the Presidency How do Clinton, Obama, Romney, and McCain understand
the role of commander-in-chief?
By Sean Wilentz
n 2008, Americans will be able to choose not simply among presidential candidates but among competing visions of the presidency. In 2000, George W. Bush, promised to govern the nation like the chief executive officer of a corporation, and to serve as a uniter not a divider. But he succeeded in neither task. Instead, he handed considerable influence over policy to his more bureaucratically experienced vice president, Dick Cheney, by allowing Cheney to handle heavy-lifting within the machinery of the federal government. In the process, Bush heightened political polarization, and now seems destined to break the record for sustained low public-esteem of any modern president.
In light of the failures of the Bush presidency, Barack Obama recently remarked that the president’s job should be “to set a vision,” not “to run some bureaucracy.” Senator Obama seems to prize what President Bush’s father, who had a fine and firm grasp of the intricacies of foreign policy, once famously belittled as “the vision thing.” Obama claims he can execute his vision through an ability to “tease” policy details from his advisors. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, has countered that presidents “have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy,” as well as to set a vision for government.
Other candidates, in both parties, will likely offer other conceptions of the ideal presidency in the coming weeks and months. All seem to agree that, as one of Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign slogans puts it, “Washington is broken.” But how they propose fixing Washington will depend on their ideas about what the job of president entails. Although it’s possible that the candidates may govern differently than they present themselves on the campaign trail, much as President Bush has, in the past, presidents’ ingrained notions of what the executive office should be have aptly foreshadowed the kind of administrations they led. Voters should be able to compare the ideas of today’s candidates to what, historically, have been the three major styles of presidential leadership over the past century, and determine for themselves what kind of leadership is best suited to current times.
The first model is the strong presidency. Strong presidents have come from both parties. They have been hands-on executives who have commanded the executive branch and decided what its priorities ought to be. Typically, these presidents have had considerable experience in Washington, often specifically in the executive branch, before they reach the Oval Office. While in the White House, they have applied this expertise to lead the country in what they believe is the right direction. Building on a tradition that originated during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, advocates of the strong presidency have claimed that the president, as the one federal officer (apart from the vice-president) who is elected by the people at large, is a singular carrier of the people’s trust and ought to be the driving force at the center of government.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, was the most distinguished of the modern strong presidents, and his expertise and conviction carried the nation through the Great Depression and then, after 1941, helped him become the self-described “Dr. Win-the-War.” Roosevelt’s successor, former Vice President Harry S. Truman – with his famous declaration “The Buck Stops Here” – established the modern notion that the president bears ultimate responsibility for the federal government’s successes and failures. Dwight D. Eisenhower, after serving as supreme allied commander in World War II, governed with what the presidential scholar Fred I. Greenstein has called “a hidden hand,” but was very much the supreme commander of his administration. Richard M. Nixon, another vice president who became a strong president, achieved several important reforms – not least with respect to redirecting superpower politics abroad – before his taste for unbridled power led to the creation and downfall of an imperial presidency in defiance of the Constitution.
The second model has been the advisory presidency, in which the chief executive relies on his counselors for basic information and guidance on major policy decisions. Warren G. Harding was one such president, whose cunning advisors exploited him as an unwitting front-man for corruption. Lyndon B. Johnson, a strong president when it came to promoting Civil Rights and the Great Society, took a disastrous turn when he deferred to the counsel of his Pentagon advisers on the topic of Vietnam. Ronald Reagan, likewise, exhibited strength in pursuing his arms-control policies and in cutting federal taxes, but nearly saw his presidency collapse when zealous advisors and aides dragged him into the Iran-contra affair. George W. Bush, with his reliance on Cheney, his purposeful neglect of executive bureaus such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and his credulous faith in a small circle of hawkish foreign-policy counselors, has proved just how perilous an advisory president can be.
All presidents, even the strongest, must, of course, rely on advice. Indeed, one quality that has distinguished successful strong presidencies has been the president’s willingness to gather sound advice, from many perspectives, and then choose the wisest course as he understands it. In contrast, advisory presidents have assigned themselves a deferential role out of an inability to evaluate advice fully or critically, whether as a result of naiveté, indifference, or vulnerability to advice that flatters his temperament.
Finally, two presidents – Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter – exemplified what might be called the engineers’ presidency. Both arrived in the White House with a post-partisan promise of honest government, based above all on supreme competence, technical skill, and moral purity. (It is sometimes forgotten that, at the time he won election, Hoover was widely regarded, across party lines, as the greatest living American, in part for his successful handling of refugee aid in Europe following World War I; Carter won the presidency running on the ultimate meritocratic slogan, “Why Not the Best?”) Both were considered ideal men for the moment, but, through no malign fault of their own, were overwhelmed when their expertise could not match the unexpected challenges that arose during their terms. Their technocratic, post-partisan approach proved inadequate to severe crises that demanded acute political skills.
As Johnson and Reagan showed, individual presidents can, at different points in their administration, exhibit aspects of more than one of these presidential models. Some candidates, likewise, may promise to combine diverse elements of what they see as leadership, such as Obama’s blend of the aide-reliant advisory mode and the post-partisan purism of Hoover and Carter.
Voters, though, will have to decide which kind of presidency they believe is best suited to repair the present breakdown in Washington—and to respond to current crises in the Middle East and the world economy. With the federal bureaucracy in disrepair, military resources stretched to the breaking point, America’s diplomatic clout in the world at ebb tide, and the domestic economy sliding into recession, the nation has reached a turning point – one in which considerations of performance should utterly overshadow candidates’ personalities. In choosing our next president, we face a choice over conceptions of presidential power in a time of national crisis.
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Sean Wilentz teaches history at Princeton and is the author of several books, including The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, which will appear in May 2008.