How important is the US President – or any leader?
This phenomenon is composed of two dimensions. The first is that voters are searching for a solution to their problems and unhappiness and look to the political sphere for solutions. In doing this, they i mbue leaders with extraordinary powers. A leader becomes an icon of all the hopes and fears of a nation. The second dimension is that different sorts of leaders draw different sorts of followers. They differ by region, class, ethnicity and a host of other distinctions. Constant hostility very often occurs between these groups because all societies are divided. An election forces a confrontation between these different groups, their competing hopes and mutual contempt. The distinct groups want to elect a leader who will help them and punish the others. In the end, most of the political maneuvering entails convincing enough people that you speak for them and not the others.
Leaders aren’t iconic, they are human beings. The idea that they will rebuild society in a manner that is more just to one group vastly overstates their power. Obama is a case in point. He was expected to end all wars, end the rage against the United States in the Islamic world that led to terrorism, create jobs and so on. He likely believed in many of these things, and he may well have expected to accomplish them as president. The expectations were global. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize merely for his good intentions.
Leaders inevitably disappoint, because they must claim extraordinary powers, and voters need leaders to have those powers. Their election is followed by great excitement and long periods of growing disappointment. This happened during Franklin Roosevelt’s and Ronald Reagan’s presidencies. As reality collided with intentions and hopes, a sense of betrayal crept in. Opponents felt vindicated, and supporters betrayed.
Roosevelt and Reagan were both regarded by opponents as completely unsuited for office. Reagan was called an ignorant and evil actor, and Roosevelt was a rich dilettante with an empty head. Abraham Lincoln was likened to a monkey and regarded as an ignorant and uncouth lout who would shame the country. And these weren’t Southerners talking. Supporters worshiped them. But the issue wasn’t about them personally. In talking about candidates, detractors really were talking about the kind of people who supported them.
None were devils and none were miracle workers. Lincoln’s performance in the Civil War was criticised then and now, and had he not been assassinated, our view of him might well be different. Roosevelt failed to end the depression, and the country plunged back into it in 1938. His erstwhile supporters were the most bitter about his performance. Reagan did not perform an overnight miracle. Over the course of eight years his limited powers, combined with shifting global realities, brought about changes he participated in and didn’t control. And his supporters were most critical of him when he discovered the limits of his powers and the need to compromise. “Let Reagan be Reagan” was the chant of the day by supporters who felt his advisers, not reality, held him back from performing miracles.
In thinking about the presidency – or political leaders anywhere – it is important to distinguish between ambitions and constraints. Giving presidents the benefit of the doubt that they meant what they said during a campaign, it must be remembered that the president’s powers by design are limited. Beyond constitutional limits on a president, reality imposes others. Lincoln did not want a civil war; Roosevelt wanted to end the depression; Reagan wanted to energise the economy; and when he took office, Bush had no intention of invading Afghanistan nine months later. But it really didn’t matter what they wanted. Other forces were at work shaping and undermining their presidencies. Given their circumstances, some could achieve some of their goals, none could achieve all of them, and few could achieve them in the manner they planned.
The U.S. president leads a country of 320 million people. The country’s economy is about 25% of the world economy today. Roosevelt and Reagan struggled to impose their will on the economy. That failed. They finally had to align their will to the economy, while struggling with Congress and the Supreme Court. What they accomplished had more to do