How im­por­tant is the US Pres­i­dent – or any leader?

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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