Triumphs and Tragedies Await Next President
With the entertainment spectacle and reality TV vibe of modern presidential campaigns, it’s easy to get distracted from just how much is riding on the outcome. Yet the accumulation of presidential power in the modern era, and the United States’ outsized role in the world, ensure that the winner will instantly become the most influential person on earth. For a timely reminder of what’s actually at stake when voters close the curtain on the voting booth on November 8th, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress has just released the new anthology “Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Presidency: Case Studies in Presidential Leadership” (Praeger, 2016).
The modern era of dominant presidential power arguably began with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who aggressively pushed a New Deal agenda through a complacent Congress in order to pull the nation out of the Great Depression. Before that, in the early 20th and 19th centuries, Congress dominated national policy making except in times of war. World War II further extended the power of the presidency and the role of the federal government in the economy, and thrust the United States into a leadership role in world affairs. That superpower cape grew longer during the decades-long Cold War, with the authorities of the commander-in-chief expanding in the arena of national security and foreign policy. As “Triumph & Tragedies” reminds us, it was the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who in the early 1970s first described this fundamental shift in power as the era of the “imperial presidency.” Even Schlesinger could not foresee the expansive powers that would accrue to American presidents in the post-9/11 era.
The case studies in “Triumphs & Tragedies,” written by some of the top historians, journalists and political scientists in the country, underscore how the domestic agendas of presidents have shaped the modern United States, defining American life as we know it today. We are this country in large part because Dwight Eisenhower pushed through the interstate highway system; John F. Kennedy determined to put a man on the moon, launching the modern space program; Lyndon Johnson advanced the civil rights movement, and strengthened the social safety net with Medicare and Medicaid; Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air and Water Acts and other critical environmental legislation; Ronald Reagan cut taxes and increased peacetime defense spending, pressing our advantage in the Cold War; Bill Clinton and Al Gore laid the groundwork for the Internet, giving America a head start on the freewheeling Information Age; George W. Bush launched the “No Child Left Behind” federal education reform; and Barack Obama expanded access to health care for millions with the Affordable Care Act.
The national security and foreign policy decisions made by modern presidents of the past seven decades built the “American Century.” For a public grown accustomed to the idea of “American exceptionalism,” it may seem that the nation has always cast an oversized shadow over world affairs. “Triumphs & Tragedies” recalls, however, that as recently as the first half of the 20th century, the United States was largely a strategic ward of the British Empire on which the sun famously never set. Only at the end of World War II in 1945, with Europe in ruins and Great Britain exhausted by two world wars, did the United States truly assume the mantle of Western leadership.
Victory in the Cold War and success in building and sustaining a liberal world order were never preordained, and coupled with the imperative to avoid a potentially apocalyptic World War III involving nuclear weapons, the effort has weighed heavily on every commander-in-chief of the modern era. Nearly all of them sent troops into harm’s way only to have some return in flag-draped coffins, and each man emerged from his tenure in the White House prematurely aged. Such are the burdens of global leadership.
The lessons of history contained in “Triumphs & Tragedies” suggest that voters will do well to look beyond shiny campaign slogans like “Make America Great Again” and “Stronger Together,” and look under the hood at the candidates’ policy proposals. Contrary to popular wisdom, presidents tend to implement the policies they promote and field test during the campaign, often in their first one hundred days of their administrations. During that brief window presidents are at the height of their power, and their agendas have yet to be buffeted by political headwinds and unforeseen crises. That window inevitably closes as presidents lose popularity over time, and their parties almost always lose congressional seats in midterm elections. Master legislator Lyndon Johnson said it best in explaining his push for immediate congressional action on his Great Society programs: “I keep hitting hard because I know this honeymoon won’t last,” said Johnson. “Every day I lose a little more political capital.”
While presidential campaigns distract with spectacle, infomercials and spin masters, the case studies in “Triumph & Tragedies” are a helpful reminder that the issues at stake are nothing less than global leadership in uncertain times, and effective national governance. The liberal global order that America has underwritten for more than a century is under unprecedented strain from an ascendant China, a revanchist Russia, rogues like North Korea and Iran, and a proliferation of failed states and nihilistic extremist groups. The recent Brexit vote and the slow motion disintegration of Europe reveal that there is no ward waiting in the wings ready to relieve America’s burden. At home infrastructure that was once the envy of the world crumbles, the space program is hobbled, racial tensions have reignited, and environmental protections are dwarfed by the effects of global climate change.
Above all “Triumphs and Tragedies” reminds us that the act of voting is ultimately an exercise in imagination. Imagine that the candidates will try to do what he or she promises. Try to picture what that will actually look like in practice. Then imagine them sitting alone in the Oval Office in the midst of a potentially existential crisis, the ghosts of their predecessors staring down from portraits on the wall, with the fate of millions and the weight of the world on their shoulders. Then pull the lever and vote.