Eleven months from now, barring a return of hanging ballot chads and seemingly endless court challenges, voters in the United States will have chosen a new president. A process begun in the politics of more than two centuries ago again will have worked. Why should anyone care? Because, for better and for worse, American presidents do matter.
The presidency has mattered from before the beginning of American constitutional government. The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the drafters of the Constitution were finished with monarchs and determined not to re-create the mistake. A result was a limited tri-partite national government. Yet, in the first half of the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson challenged that design with the Louisiana Purchase, Andrew Jackson with the forced relocation of Native Americans, and James Polk with western land expansion. Just past mid-century Abraham Lincoln exercised extraordinary powers in an effort to hold the then-union of 36 states together. At the end of the century, Theodore Roosevelt, successor to the assassinated William McKinley, expanded the powers of the president to suit his ambitions and sizeable ego and (what he saw as) the needs of a more economically diverse and more influential nation.
It is with Theodore Roosevelt that the distinguished historian William E. Leuchtenburg
in The American President (Oxford University Press, 2015), a particularly insightful and remarkably detailed book, begins his analysis of the significance of American chief executives from (Teddy) Roosevelt through Bill Clinton. Presidents who, whether rightly labeled “imperial” or not, unmistakably involved themselves to greater and lesser degrees in the governing of a maturing nation.
Leuchtenburg offers unvarnished portraits: presidents taking bold actions and presidents captured by events foreign and domestic; presidents having the respect of Congress and presidents disdained by legislators; presidents shaping the courts and presidents constrained by them. Presidents as innovators, conservators, idealists, and realists. Presidents coarse, crude, witty, polished, and empathetic. Presidents excelling in tone and presidents excelling in substance. Presidents principled and sometimes less so.
In choosing a president of the United States—in this year and all years—the great American challenge is for each would-be voter and interested citizen to take a lead from Leuchtenburg and be as analytically thorough as he or she can in vetting those who would be president. Ignorance, studied or otherwise, of candidates as persons, of the content of their records, of the tone of their rhetoric, and of the substance (or lack thereof) of their principles is neither a rationally nor emotionally satisfying basis for choosing a president of the United States.
Information of, for, and about presidential candidates is aplenty. Perhaps, for some, to the point of too much information. Particularly with the sophistication of social media and the immediacy of the Internet, direct and indirect access to candidates is without precedent.
The ways and means for informed opinions and informed votes exist. Informed opinions and informed votes do matter, for presidents of the United States matter.
This is another of a series of occasional essay by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer and photographer who for four decades covered international economics, public policy, and management principles for IndustryWeek.