Americans are presidency-addicted. We can’t get enough information about our presidents, yet there is a woeful misunderstanding of the office. The president is more often than not at the mercy of events rather than a master of them. Our greatest presidents were also lucky: They inherited national crises and times that were ripe for change — and had the skills and capacity to act. As we prepare to celebrate Presidents’ Day, let’s correct some common misconceptions about the job and the people who have held it.
1. The president has the power to get things done.
Aaron Sorkin, whose NBC series “The West Wing” helped keep this myth alive, described the White House as the “the single greatest home-court advantage in the modern world.” The presidency was not designed to fix every problem, yet we view our presidents as superheroes who can scale tall buildings in a single term, reduce the deficit and protect us from terrorists. The trappings of power (Air Force One, Marine One, Secret Service protection) are impressive. So are the realities of power: executive orders, executive actions, ordering troops into battle and the ever-present briefcase with the nuclear launch codes.
Governing, however, is a different story. The framers wanted a strong executive but one who was accountable, too, reined in by shared and separated powers. As a consequence, the president can’t impose — he needs consensus and cooperation. William Howard Taft lamented a century ago that the president “cannot make the corn to grow, he cannot make business good.” President Obama knows this constraint well: A president can’t create jobs, will victory in the two longest wars in American history, protect the nation from the European debt crisis or even plug an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
2. War enhances a president’s power and reputation.
This was true for Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose reputations were strengthened by wars won decisively as a result of their efforts in office. When I asked Jimmy Carter why we haven’t had a great president since FDR, he replied, “Because we haven’t had a good war.”
But for most 20th-century presidents, military conflict has hurt rather than helped them. Harry Truman left office with an approval rating of 32 percent, largely because of the stalemated war in Korea; Lyndon Johnson chose not to run again in 1968 because of the Vietnam quagmire. George H.W. Bush won his war against Saddam Hussein, but he conflated that victory with what Americans really cared about, a sagging economy, and this contributed to his failure to win reelection. George W. Bush is hoping for the best in his Iraq war, but history is likely to deliver some unkind cuts. Obama doubled down in Afghanistan and now owns that war, but is seeking an early exit. Of late, getting out of wars has been better for a president than getting into them.
Read the rest of this article on The Washington Post.