Reality Check

No, They Can’t

Why American presidents always disappoint us.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Six months after winning an impressive reelection, Barack Obama finds himself in some kind of trouble — battered by semi-scandals and bombarded by foreign policy challenges he can’t possibly manage.

Long gone are the hopes and aspirations expressed on the National Mall that historic January day when his supporters hoped — and his detractors feared — that he would become a truly transformational president. It turns out that restoring Americans’ faith in their nation’s institutions and transcending the partisan rancor of recent years is easier said than done.

Ask me to sum up Obama’s presidency in mid-2013, and here’s what I’d say: He has been a historic but flawed president who managed to end America’s two longest wars and helped the country avoid economic collapse during some pretty scary times. Consequential, yes. Great, no.

Obama could yet recover from this bad patch. Fortunes can change quickly, particularly over the short span of one term. And judgments of a president’s legacy can also change significantly over time  — though that hasn’t been the case for most of Obama’s 43 predecessors.

Americans are pretty slow learners when it comes to their presidents. We’ve long expected far too much when it comes to presidential performance. And we won’t give up the search for The One — that brave, virtuous leader of uncommon principle and political know-how — easily.

Hollywood helps sustain our illusions, feeding our greatness addiction with TV series and movies like The West Wing and The American President. Even renditions that claim historical authenticity generate unrealistic expectations: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a brilliant movie — but Abraham Lincoln’s circumstances, his pragmatism, and his vision are so idiosyncratic that they’re about as far removed from our time as we are from the Pleistocene Era.

You want another great president, pray for another great crisis. Only nation-encumbering calamity tames our political system, making elites and the public receptive to allowing a president to lead America the Unruly.

I guarantee you that within a year or two, the presidency addiction machine will start cranking out a new set of tropes and images geared to persuade us to anoint another putative leader to rescue us. And guess what? Chances are that he — or maybe she this time — will probably disappoint too.

What’s in our political DNA that sets us up this way? Why can’t we have sensible and realistic expectations for our presidents? Here are five reasons our presidents almost always disappoint us.

The presidency itself

Paradoxically, the office itself remains the greatest obstacle to success. The challenges that confront presidents far exceed the powers at their disposal. The Founding Fathers didn’t want a weak presidency, but they were determined to find a balance between putting too much power in the hands of an ambitious and popular ruler who might undermine their new republic, or giving the presidency too little power, which might produce the same result.

To find that balance, the founders created a political system characterized by checks, balances, and powers that were not only separated by shared. The president has great power: He can act unilaterally through executive orders, use the bully pulpit to move the public, and amass great power, particularly in times of emergency, to take the country to war without congressional approval. But he can’t shelter America from the downturns in a globalized economy, manufacture good jobs, win foreign wars decisively, or plug an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

As Lyndon Johnson confided in 1968 about Vietnam. "I feel like a hitchhiker on a highway in a Texas hailstorm. I can’t run, I can’t hide, and I can’t make it stop."

I guarantee you, at times, Obama has felt the same way. Look at the recent gun control saga. The Newtown tragedy couldn’t overcome the determined efforts of a well-organized lobby, not even with broad public support. Nearly nine of 10 households of gun owners favored enhanced background checks — but Obama’s strong-arming made no difference, and his legislation went down in flames. Sure, presidential leadership counts — but on-the-ground realities, both foreign and domestic, count more.

Our unrealistic expectations

The gap between expectations and reality has been around since politicians first started giving speeches. And that’s because politics is about what folks are promised — governance is about what they get.

As the role of government has grown larger in our lives, that gap has only gotten bigger. We think we’re entitled to more from the government than ever before. Even as we worry about too much government and resent its reach, we continue to want the perks it provides. Even Tea Party supporters don’t want the government to cut their Medicare benefits.

At the nexus of the divide between what we expect and what we can or cannot have sits the president — the face of America, the only guy we all vote for, and the one who we expect to save us from a bad economy, terrorists, and an alien invasion (just watch Air Force One and Independence Day).

We have a presidency addiction. No single aspect of our government draws more interest and fascination. As early as 1903, the New York Times was running articles reporting odd facts about our presidents: Of our first 25 presidents, 15 had no middle names, the Gray Lady informed its readership. We put presidents on our currency and monuments, not senators or Supreme Court justices.

Because of this, we naturally assume that the presidency is where the power is. The bells and whistles of the office — Air Force One, Marine One, the football with the nuke codes, and the White House itself create the image of a powerful leader who should be able to do amazing things.

But it just isn’t so. Obama has been hammered by friends and foes alike because he hasn’t shown leadership — because he has refused to take the fight to the nation or schmooze with Congress, LBJ style. But as Norman Ornstein pointed out in a recent article for the National Journal, Johnson was only able to milk the 89th Congress for historic pieces of Great Society legislation because he had the votes. In 1966, after the disastrous midterms, his charm and knowledge of Congress "didn’t mean squat."

We expect our presidents to be a cross between Superman, Moses, Mohammad, and Jesus. And we have an almost cartoonish conception of their ability to get the rest of America’s institutions to go along with their views.

The president’s power, as Richard Neustadt famously argued, is the power to persuade. But circumstances for that persuasion must be present — and most of the time, they’re not.

The presidency is too up close and personal

To be disappointed in someone, you first must have expectations for them. We may all pretend to be cynical realists when it comes to our presidents, but don’t believe it. The very nature of our politics and media forces us to be interested in what goes on in the Oval Office. 

The Founders didn’t want such a personalized presidency, but by making the American people the prime source of authority for the office, they created an unbreakable bond. The presidency is the only national office that we all help to shape — along with its much-maligned derivative, the veep. In fact, we own both.

Despite the framers’ elitist hedge — the electoral college –the popular bo
nd between the presidency and the American public was pretty strong from the beginning. Even the wooden George Washington took tours of both the south and the north in a fancy carriage with his family’s seal on top. And folks everywhere turned out.

The personalization of the presidency has only intensified since Washington’s day. Direct primaries, the permanent campaign, and the 24-hour news cycle have all created an oversized image of the president. The government, the media and Hollywood would have you believe, is a kind of one-man show — and that has led to sky high expectations, driving presidents to promise far more than they can possibly deliver. This has both magnified the compelling character of the presidency, but trivialized the office too.

The show requires a physical image of the president that was both powerful and attractive. Look at the last five presidents – Obama, Bush 43, Bill Clinton, Bush 41, and Ronald Reagan. All tall, handsome, with a full head of hair. In fact, Barack Obama may well be the fittest president in the history of the republic. Our last bald president was Dwight Eisenhower; our last short one, Harry Truman; our last really fat one, William Howard Taft. Watch out, Chris Christie.

But through its incessant coverage, the show can also deaden the president’s impact. There is a constant risk of media over saturation stripping away the mystique required for leadership. Clinton’s "boxer or brief" comments, Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress, Bush 43’s malapropisms, even Obama’s comment to Jay Leno that bowling 129 was good enough for the Special Olympics end up humiliating presidents. The media guarantees a steady stream of TMI, and presidents are sometimes all too willing to play along.

The job’s just too big

Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, may have been right to describe the Oval Office as the greatest home court advantage in the world. But he must have known that the president has to play scores of home games — all at the same time.

The days of the continental presidency are over. Lincoln could spend hours at the Telegraph Office monitoring his generals’ battles, but today’s presidents need to manage a completely different reality. Obama’s presidency would be unrecognizable to great presidents of past eras: Lincoln had a couple secretaries, FDR had a half dozen aides, and Truman had a dozen. Today, there may be more than 100 people who have the title of assistant to the president.

In a fascinating piece several years ago in Vanity Fair, Todd Purdum captured the sheer absurdity of what it’s like to be president. On the single Wednesday Purdum covered, Obama was dealing with a West Virginia coal mine tragedy; a vacancy on the Supreme Court; an Arizona law empowering police to identify potential illegals; a shortage of funds for FEMA; the nominations of a federal appeals court judge, seven U.S. attorneys, and six federal marshals; and a special award for country singer Garth Brooks. 

And that was a quiet day. The relentlessness of the job, the 24/7 pace of the media, the complexity of the tasks at hand, and the sheer number of moving parts creates a situation no single individual can manage. Add to this a polarized Congress and an integrated world that America can’t control, it’s no wonder the presidency is an impossible, perhaps implausible, job.

The current headaches Obama confronts at the State Department (Benghazi), at Treasury (IRS targeting conservative groups), at Justice (the seizure of Associated Press phone records), and Defense (sexual harassment) may well represent a bad combination of mismanagement and bad luck. But they also reflect the reality that Obama, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, is not a master of all he surveys. The presidency is just too big and complicated for that.

Our elusive search for heroes

We have this illusion about ourselves that we prefer humble and accessible to great and distant. The Europeans do great — Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Charlemagne — but we do down to earth. You get the idea.

Americans want leaders they can relate to — that’s why anecdotes such as Thomas Jefferson answering the White House door, Grover Cleveland answering his own phone, or Harry Truman driving up east after leaving office with only Bess have achieved such prominent place in American lore. It’s a nice tale, and we do like our leaders on the common side. But we also crave the heroic. It’s no easy mix for a president to be both.

We really are in a bind. On the one hand, we’re living in a president-centric system. On the other hand, the president’s capacity to deliver has diminished — as has our own faith in America’s institutions.

What to do? Just get over it. Lower expectations. Don’t give up the search for quality leaders, but be honest about what a president can and cannot do. Don’t wait around to be rescued by The One — that’s not the American way. Maybe by controlling our presidential fantasies, we can stop expecting our presidents to be great, and allow them to start being good.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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