Making the Presidency Great Again

10/30/2016 11:42 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2016

In our last entry, we examined the challenges to the businessman politician, and offered unsolicited advice to the aspirant president.

Why? Because to make America great, and to be a great president, you have to become president.

If you ask Americans to list the great presidents, the beginning is easy. Abraham Lincoln almost always come in first, followed by George Washington. From there, there’s some debate – Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan? Teddy Roosevelt or Thomas Jefferson? Everyone agrees that James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson are fighting for least great. How do we know who was great? For that matter, can great people become presidents, and can presidents still be great be great?

Donald Trump is great. Many people think he is great. He has told us he is great. All of his presentation of his business record and the rhetoric of his campaign is focused on one word: great. Make American Great Again (#MAGA). American political history is built around the themes of transformation and eras. Donald Trump has promised to be a great president, a transformative president who will set off a new political era.

Transformative presidents create changes in the American Political System. Stephen Skowronek’s book The Politics Presidents Make identified five such presidents who transformed the American political system: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abe Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. Their presidencies are largely coincidental to the political eras identified by folks like Walter Dean Burnham in Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics) and James Sundquist in Dynamics of the Party System.

But can great men really be president? Especially great men without political or public service experience? Only two presidents have been elected with absolutely no elective experience. Both were successful war generals who served under transformative presidents (Ulysses Grant under Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower under FDR). Can a celebrity businessman make the leap?

One theory is that politics doesn’t really allow for great people to be president. This argument came from James Bryce, who was the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the United States in the late 19th century. An Irishman, scholar, and lawyer from Belfast, he recreated Alexander de Tocqueville’s journey across America, writing a book on American institutions titled The American Commonwealth. In the book, he asked the questions, “can great men be president?”

He said “no.”

Why?

Lord Bryce said there were several reasons great men did not become presidents. First, he contended that persons of first-rate ability didn’t go into politics. The great men of the time (like the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Vanderbilts, whom he knew) were in business. Business offered great risk and also great reward and freedom of action. This distinction was absent in politics. The political system and its style of affecting change and making choices left few opportunities for personal distinction.

But Bryce also contended that the American system itself did not desire great men. Politics wanted safe men.

Bryce conceded that “quiet times do not require great men.” So, do the times make the (wo)man?

This was the perspective of another British politician and scholar, Harold Laski. Laski, a Labour socialist and faculty member at the London School of Economics, published The American Presidency just before World War II. In his book work, he argued that context matters. Quiet times don’t require great men. But, when the times require great men, they are chosen. Or, possibly, they emerge as great because the times demand them to be great. In the 20th century, the times repeatedly demanded great leaders, and they came forward.

Have the times changed, that men of business ability are drawn to politics? And, they can succeed in politics? And, in undertaking politics, are they making greatness? Perhaps we need to consider what happened in the cases for greatness.

Abraham Lincoln’s case is his Civil War success, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and his creative use of emergency powers to get around an obstructing Congress. He forged a nation. And, then, an assassin killed him.

FDR salvaged the U.S. political and economic system, created the modern social welfare state in the New Deal, successfully prosecuted World War II, and won election four times. The job killed him.

Ronald Reagan rejuvenated the philosophy of limited government, and actively moved to end the Cold War. His rhetorical style rejuvenated American nationalism. An assassin tried to kill him, and he lived into his 90s. While many living Americans do not care for Reagan’s politics, they are hard-pressed to dispute his transformative role.

In each of these cases, presidents were elected in the wake of a significant disruption of the economic or social order of the United States. And, they came to office in the company of crisis, and of great uncertainty regarding the ability of institutions to manage change with confidence. And, to a man, they all restored confidence in the union and the institutions of government.

Is Donald Trump transformative? Is Hillary Clinton? What have these times demanded? Are they great? And do we really want a great president or the crises that cause greatness to emerge?

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