What great Presidents do

History is a slow process.  It’s easy to predict what history will say, but extremely hard to get it right.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, asked his views of the significance of the French Revolution – then 200 years past – supposedly remarked, “It is too soon to say.”

That’s about right.

With that disclaimer, though, I will venture this tentative prediction:   In the long view of history, Barack Obama’s presidency will be rated a failure.

It costs me nothing to write this.  I voted for John McCain in 2008 – partly because I’ve long admired the man.  But I was also troubled by Senator Obama’s resumé – a mere four years in the Senate and no administrative experience beyond editing the Harvard Law Review.

Still, when Mr. Obama won, I expected that he’d do certain things well.  Above all, I expected he would be a good teacher.

Based on his campaign, and his experience as a professor, I hoped Mr. Obama would prove effective in educating the American people about the issues facing our country and the possible means of addressing them.  

More, I hoped he would lead us in working out a new definition of what our unique nation stands for in a new century.

Throughout our history, this is the function that has separated the great and very good presidents from the rest.  Study our nation’s history, and – again and again – the presidents we celebrate are those who found a way of leading their generation of Americans in discovering a new understanding of what America means.

Washington, less with his words than by his imposing example, taught Americans to see ourselves as one people – a people wise and strong enough to govern ourselves as a potentially powerful nation, not merely a collection of squabbling states.  

Jefferson taught Americans to see ourselves as a continental power, reaching ever toward the Pacific – a nation which could become great without sacrificing the inestimable rights of the individual, or the collective privilege of choosing those who govern us.

Lincoln taught us that we could not only survive the catastrophe of Civil War, but transcend that trauma by finding new meaning and inspiration in the words of our Declaration of Independence.

TR and Wilson taught us that we could become a world power without surrendering self-government to the wealth of the industrial and financial titans who made us powerful.  
FDR taught us that we could enjoy the benefits of capitalism while restraining its destructive potential – and use our resulting might to become liberators.

Kennedy, for all he left undone, taught us that we could become, again, a nation of explorers – and that Earth itself need not limit our ambitions.

None of these presidents taught by pontificating – talking down to us as though we were children in need of lessons.  On the contrary, they strove to create a great, national conversation – presenting the America people with the challenges we faced and inviting us come up with ideas and inventions in response to those challenges.

The great presidents were not lecturers.  They empowered us to educate ourselves.

Since Vietnam, America has had no such president.  We have, instead, become increasingly tribalized.  And our presidents – led by their political strategists – have addressed us as a collection of interest groups and voting blocs to be assembled and reassembled into temporary electoral majorities.

Democrats have usually appealed to racial and ethnic minorities, blue collar workers, the women’s movement, the elderly, and those disadvantaged within an increasingly technological society.

Republicans have preferred to court the entitled rich, the professional and managerial classes, religious enthusiasts, and – sadly – a small but significant core of racial, gender and sectarian bigots.

Needless to say, voting groups have always been part of American politics, but since the Nixon Era, both parties have increasingly promoted the politics of fear.  As a result, Americans have seen each other – not as members of competing interest groups capable of resolving our conflicting agendas to create a national consensus – but as enemies to be defeated.

Jimmy Carter was the last president seriously to seek a common vision for the future.  He possessed the intelligence and vision, but he could not reach us.  
And we weren’t prepared to participate.

By the Reagan Era, presidential leadership had become partisan leadership.  Reagan, for all his consummate communication skills, chose to redefine America – not with an eye to the future – but in terms of an idealized past.

Since Reagan, presidents have barely attempted the strenuous process of inviting us to seek a new definition of what it means to be American.  Mr. Obama, gifted with both intellect and communication skills, has largely preferred to pontificate.

Rather than engage the nation in fruitful debates, he has determined policy in closed-door meetings.  He has not trusted us – and, as a result, we have never really come to trust him.

Thus, he has missed greatness.


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