We Have Reached Peak President

Why the time of great American leadership is over.


A couple years back, I gave a talk to a group of Princeton graduate students and faculty on the indispensable role leaders play in successful Arab-Israeli negotiations. Having worked on the Middle East peace process for over 20 years, I had come to the conclusion that, far more than any other factor, it was willful leaders — masters, not prisoners, of their political houses — who produced the agreements that endure.

It proved to be a pretty tough crowd.

One graduate student insisted that I had been taken hostage by Thomas Carlyle and his "Great Man" theory of history. Another critic, a visiting professor from Turkey, protested that I had completely ignored the broader social and economic forces that really drive and determine change.

I conceded to both that the debate about what mattered more — the individual or circumstances — was a complicated business. But I reminded the professor that she hailed from a land in which one man, Mustafa Kemal — otherwise known as Ataturk — had fundamentally changed the entire direction of her country’s modern history. We left it at that.

History, to be sure, is driven by the interaction between human agency and circumstance. Based on my own experiences in government and negotiations, individuals count greatly in this mix, particularly in matters of war, peace, and nation-building. Historian John Keegan made the stunning assertion that the story of much of the 20th century was a tale — the biographies, really — of six men: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, FDR, and Mao. Wherever you stand on the issue of the individual’s role in history, its impact must be factored into the equation, particularly when it comes to explaining turning points in a nation’s history.

Nonetheless, the professor from Turkey had a point. Today we are consumed with leaders and leadership as the solution, if not the panacea, to just about everything that ails us. We admire the bold, transformational leader who seeks fundamental change, and value less the cautious transactor who negotiates, triangulates, and settles for less dramatic results. And we tend to forget too that great leaders almost always emerge in times of national crisis, trauma, and exigency, a risk we run if we hunger for the return of such leaders. Still, in Holy Grail-like pursuit, we search for some magic formula or key to try to understand what accounts for great leadership. Indeed, we seem nothing short of obsessed with the L-word.

Micah Zenko, my fellow columnist at Foreign Policy, in a column on this very word, notes that if you type "leadership books" into the Amazon search engine you get 126,288 results. Want to study leadership or, better yet, become a leader? There is certainly a program for you. The International Leadership Association lists over 1,500 academic programs in the field. Yale University alone has a Leadership Institute, a Women’s Leadership Initiative, a Global Health Leadership Institute, and an MBA on Leadership in Healthcare.

This focus on leaders is understandable, particularly during times of great uncertainty and stress. The psychologists and mythologists tell us that the need to search for the great leader to guide or even rescue us is an ancient — even primordial — impulse. But what happens when we reach for something we may no longer be able to have?

Indeed, these days, those who favor and align with the Carlyle crowd and the "Great Man" view of history — myself included — have a serious problem.

We are now well into the 21st century, a full 70 years after Keegan’s six transformers either tried to take over the world or to save it. Look around. Where are the giants of old, the transformers who changed the world and left great legacies? Plenty of very bad leaders have come and gone — Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Slobodan Milosevic — and some larger-than-life good ones too, like Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pope John Paul II, and Nelson Mandela.

Leaders, to be sure, can emerge from the most unlikely places and at the least expected and most fortuitous times. Think only of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. And who knows what kind of leaders history’s long arc might produce in the future?

That said, today things don’t look that bright. We face a leadership deficit of global proportions. In fact, we seem to be pretty well along into what you might call the post-heroic leadership era.

Today, 193 countries sit in the United Nations, among them 88 free and functioning democracies. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the so-called great powers — the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia — are not led by great, transformative leaders. Nor do rising states such as Brazil, India, and South Africa boast leaders with strong and accomplished records. We certainly see leaders who are adept at maintaining power and keeping their seats — some, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for many years. Germany’s Angela Merkel is certainly a powerful leader and skilled politician.

But where are those whom we could honestly describe as potentially great, heroic, or inspirational? And how many are not only great, but good — with compassion and high moral and ethical standards — too? Today, if I were pressed to identify a potentially great leader, I might offer up not a traditional head of state at all, but rather a religious figure: Pope Francis I, whose greatness as well as goodness may well be defined by the irony of his anti-greatness, commonness, and humility.

Nowhere is this leadership vacuum more acutely felt than in the politics of the United States, the world’s greatest and most consequential power. Greatness is certainly not missing in the American story. Despite talk of decline, America remains the world’s sole superpower, with a better balance of military, political, economic, and soft power than any other nation in the world. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for a full 25 percent of the world’s economic output, nearly half of its military expenditures, and has the best capacity to project its educational, cultural, and social media soft-power resources. We surely have no shortage of great athletes, actors, entrepreneurs, and scientists.

Still, great nations are supposed to have great political leaders too, right? And yet today in America we hear very little talk of greatness in our politics. Instead, the focus is on the leadership deficit, on America the ungovernable, and on the sorry state of its dysfunctional politics. One 2013 poll revealed that the public’s view of Congress was significantly less positive than its view of root canal operations, NFL replacement refs, colonoscopies, France, and even cockroaches.

It should come as no surprise that the concern about the leadership deficit in our political class also extends to the presidency itself, an institution that has become, both for better and worse, the central element in our political system.

Yet the centrality of the presidency must be reconciled with the limitations of the office and the constraints that bind it. The presidency has always been an implausible, some might even say an impossible, job. But the following mix of challenges and constraints — some old, some new — has made the post-World War II presidency harder still: constitutional and practical constraints on the office itself; the president’s expanding reach and responsibilities; the expanding role of a government we trust less, even when we demand more from it; America’s global role; and an intrusive, omnipresent, and nonstop media.

These challenges have created the ultimate presidential bind. On one hand, we have become presidency-dependent in a president-centric system; on the other hand, our expectations have risen while the president’s capacity to deliver has diminished.

In essence, we are lost in a kind of presidential Bermuda Triangle, adrift between the presidents we still want and the ones we can no longer have.

That bind is the subject of my new book, The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. And three elements define and drive the core argument:

First, greatness in the presidency may be rare, but it is both real and measurable.

Three undeniably great presidents straddle the American story: Washington, the proverbial father of his country; Lincoln, who kept it whole through the Civil War; and Franklin Roosevelt, who shepherded the nation through its worst economic calamity and won its greatest war. Their very deeds define the meaning of greatness in American political life. So let me be clear about my definition of that greatness: Each of the undeniably great presidents overcame a truly nation-wrenching challenge or crisis; each used his crisis moment to fundamentally alter the way we see ourselves as a nation and the way we govern ourselves too, and in doing so changed the nation forever for the better; and each in the process transcended narrow partisanship and in time came to be seen even by critics as an extraordinary national leader.

In addition to these three undeniable greats, perhaps five others whom historians and the public judge favorably too — their own legacies secured through great accomplishments at critical moments in the nation’s story — round out the group of top performers. The operative point is that this greatness club has created a frame of reference, a high bar really — and a problematic one, at that — against which we have come to judge and evaluate our modern presidents and they have come to judge themselves. In the book’s early sections, I look at what defines greatness in the presidency and look at who gets admitted into this elite presidential club and why.

Second, historic greatness in the presidency has gone the way of the dodo.

And it is unlikely to return any time soon. The presidents we judge to be great are very much with us still — everywhere, really. They are on our money and monuments, stars of our HBO specials and Hollywood movies, and subjects of best-selling presidential biographies. They are everywhere, that is, except in the White House.

As we will see, what I describe as "traces of greatness," both real and perceived, have appeared in several of our more contemporary presidents. But those "traces" are not to be confused with the performance of the three undeniables or the handful of other top performers we hold in high esteem. The greatness I described earlier belongs to an America of a different time and place, to a different country really. In the second part of the book, I explain why the history of the post-FDR presidency has been such a challenging tale, and why the times and circumstances have narrowed the prospects, the need, and the opportunity for sustained heroic action in the presidency.

Third, and there really is no other way to say this: We need to get over the greatness thing and stop pining for the return of leaders we can no longer have.

Like the ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, great presidents continue to hover, to teach, and to inspire. And we have much to learn from their successes and failures. But there is a risk in thinking, let alone succumbing to the illusion, that we will see their likes again, even in an altered contemporary guise. The world and country have changed and so have we. And besides, we should not want to see them again. Greatness in the presidency is too rare to be relevant in our modern times and — driven as it is in our political system by big crisis — too risky and dangerous to be desirable. Our continued search for idealized presidents raises our expectations and theirs, skews presidential performance, and leads to an impossible standard that can only frustrate and disappoint. To sum up: We can no longer have a truly great president, we seldom need one, and, as irrational as it sounds, we may not want one, either. And the final chapters of the book contemplate why.

So what do we do about our seemingly insatiable presidential addiction?

Americans will always aspire to more. And we can no more give up on our presidents than we can on ourselves.

Maybe our story, a journey really through a period of presidential greatness once revealed and now gone, will offer up some answers. And perhaps at journey’s end we can even begin to discover a way to narrow the gap between the presidents we want and the ones we can realistically have.

This piece was adapted from Aaron David Miller’s recent book, The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2