WASHINGTON – Americans are presidency-addicted. We can’t get enough information about our commanders in chief, 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.
A week after celebrating Presidents’ Day, let’s correct some 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, once described the White House as “the single greatest home-court advantage in the modern world.” The presidency was never designed to fix all our problems, yet we continue to 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, presidential findings, ordering troops into battle and the ever-present briefcase containing 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 simply 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 Barack 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 certainly 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 in 1953 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 quagmire in Vietnam. George H.W. Bush won his war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, but he conflated that victory with what Americans really cared about, a sagging economy, and this contributed to his failure to win re-election. George W. Bush is hoping for the best in his Iraq war, but history is likely to deliver some very 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’s reputation than getting into them.
3. You must have strong character to be a successful president.
Character is critical to a president’s legacy: Think of George Washington’s probity and realism; Lincoln’s willfulness and compassion; FDR’s confidence and optimism.
But character is tough to assess. Is it defined by moral and ethical personal behavior? Or does it pertain only to civic and public performance? FDR was an adulterer but a great president. John F. Kennedy was a serial womanizer (as former White House intern Mimi Alford’s recent book reminds us yet again), but he gets high marks for inspiring a nation and averting nuclear war with the Russians over Cuba.
LBJ lied and deceived the public about Vietnam, yet his civil rights legislation and parts of his Great Society programs made him a transformative president. And what about Richard Nixon, who undermined the constitutional system he was sworn to protect but emerged as one of the most consequential foreign policy presidents?
Americans want and deserve presidents who play by the rules in public and private, but we seem confused about what’s acceptable. Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky undermined the integrity of the presidency — yet he left office with one of the highest approval ratings of any president.
4. The best presidents are highly educated and have long experience in government.
There’s no school or job that’s ideal preparation for the presidency. Experience in state and public affairs can be critical; of our 43 presidents, 34 had backgrounds in law, government or the military. But James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover had two of the best resumes in the business and yet were ill-equipped to handle the crises they confronted — the drift toward civil war and economic calamity, respectively.
Jimmy Carter was a nuclear engineer, Naval Academy grad and submariner, yet he was not nearly as consequential a president as Truman, our only 20th-century president without a college degree. Washington and Lincoln had little formal education. FDR finished Harvard in three years and dropped out of law school, but he had deep experience in government as assistant secretary of the Navy and governor of New York.
We’ve had only one Ph.D. president: Woodrow Wilson. Professors in chief are rare, largely because life experience, usually with some hard knocks along the way — not fancy degrees — is the critical preparation for being president. Emotional IQ can be more valuable than intellect: Can you keep your internal demons under control, exercise good judgment, and read people and situations accurately?
JFK was lucky to be sure in his showdown with Russia over nuclear missiles in Cuba, but he was also grounded enough to balance the strength and prudence necessary to get out of the nuclear standoff with Nikita Khrushchev.
5. The stresses of the presidency are hazardous to your health and shorten your life span.
Unless you fall to the assassin’s bullet (as Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and Kennedy did), the presidency isn’t a killer job. Our first eight presidents lived an average of 79.8 years, in disease-ridden times when life expectancy for American men was around 40 years.
S. Jay Olshansky, an expert on aging, found that many presidents have lived much longer than expected, particularly in the modern era. He subtracted two days of life for every day in office to compensate for claims that presidents age twice as fast, and then he compared the estimated life span at age of inauguration with the actual life span of each president who died of natural causes. From Hoover through Ronald Reagan (excluding Kennedy), seven of eight lived longer than expected.
Johnson was an exception; he died of a heart attack at 64. But the average age at death was 81.6 years. And four of our 43 presidents lived to their 90s: Gerald Ford, Reagan, John Adams and Hoover.
The presidency will certainly give you more wrinkles and gray hair, but it’s not likely to kill you.
Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, is the author of the forthcoming book “Can America Have Another Great President?”
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.