Leadership and change

With four months to go in this, America’s most expensive presidential campaign, it’s still impossible to predict whether President Obama will withstand the determined challenge of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Come November 6, someone will win, and someone will head for the celebrity golf and lecture circuit.  But, as any student of history knows, the results will not necessarily be “historic”.

Of course, every president makes history.  But only some presidents seem to change the course of the nation’s destiny.  

For several years now, the American people are in a restless mood.  We want a new direction – a new vision.  But which candidate, if either, offers the prospect of historic change?

From time to time in American history, a president, confronted with a particularly critical situation, has changed America’s destiny by the way he managed that crisis.  These presidents resembled skilled whitewater canoeists, negotiating the powerful rapids of a fast-flowing river.  Three of them, Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, are ranked among the all-time greats.  

A number of other highly-regarded presidents, including the first Adams, Jefferson, Truman, and Eisenhower, likewise distinguished themselves by making significant change by their management of dangerous times.

A few presidents have possessed the skill, vision, and tenacity to change the nation’s course despite the absence of a major crisis.  Teddy Roosevelt is probably the outstanding exemplar of this presidential type.  Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan also qualify – as does James K. Polk, a president finally beginning to get his scholarly due.

Other presidents have fared less well before the bar of history.  These have often been presidents who failed to appreciate the historical context in which they operated.

Some were simply inadequate – small men in a big job.  Antebellum presidents Taylor, Pierce, and Buchanan proved incapable of dealing with the “impending crisis” of slavery and sectionalism.  Likewise, Harding and Coolidge presided, rather than led, as the forces of history swept the nation toward the twin disasters of World War II and the Great Depression

Other presidents have been wedded to personal ideals or formal ideologies, which blinded them to reality.

Woodrow Wilson, whose first term was so promising, ended in failure because his ambitious vision of world peace ignored the contemporary realities of European politics.  Herbert Hoover, a brilliant administrator in peace and war, was hamstrung by a market ideology which rejected the need for bold government action in a time of unprecedented economic paralysis.   Jimmy Carter, idealistic and visionary, could not persuade his fellow citizens to address problems which seemed far in the future.

It’s possible to categorize presidents in many ways, but over the long-term, the judgment of history seems to come down to one thing – the match between the leader and his times.

Some presidents have found themselves in situations which perfectly suited their personal strengths.  Lincoln, with limited administrative experience and only one term in Congress, might easily have failed in peacetime.  But his rare combination of stubbornness, strategic flexibility, single-minded focus  and genius for communication, all traits of a veteran trial lawyer, were exactly those needed to win the Civil War.

Other presidents, often capable men, have found themselves perplexed by circumstances to which their gifts were not suited.  William Howard Taft, a capable administrator, who later distinguished himself as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, lacked the personality and energy to follow the dazzling Teddy Roosevelt.  Taft became the only incumbent to finish third in his re-election bid.

The fit between a leader and his times should be among the key factors as Americans choose their next president.   At the same time, we must keep in mind how seldom we can foresee all the challenges which our next president will face.

It seems clear that the next president will have to deal with a painfully slow recovery, made worse by the continuing turbulence in the Euro Zone.  America’s competitiveness, and especially the quality of our educational systems, will still be an issue.   And the looming questions of providing for the aging of our largest  generation, the  Baby Boomers, will no longer  be avoidable.

Other issues will come out of nowhere – like the four hijacked airliners which instantly transformed George W. Bush from an “education president” to a wartime commander-in-chief.

None of us possesses a crystal ball, but these three things seem to me clear:

First, by the end of this campaign, American voters, overwhelmed by the massive ad wars unleashed as a result of Citizens United, will demand new controls on campaign spending.

Second, as a result of a demographic shift, the libertarian attitudes of younger voters will render social conservatism increasingly irrelevant.

Third, the winning candidate will be the one who can spell out, in relatively specific terms, a new vision for America.  Both parties have long built their strategies on a nostalgia for some past era.  This year, that will not work.

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