Presidential Qualities Essay

What Makes a Great President?

By Sean Stewart Price

You have probably heard the old saying that "anybody can grow up to be President." But, not everybody is cut out to be President. It takes a special kind of person, someone tough, smart, and driven, just to run for the job. It takes still more talent and character to hold up under the pressures of life in the White House.

Great Expectations

Americans expect a lot from their Presidents. Understandably, they want the President to take quick action on problems facing the nation, such as crime and drug abuse. However, the U.S. Constitution limits the President's power to act. Only Congress can pass legislation, and Congress sometimes moves slowly. The President can only approve or veto (reject) legislation that Congress passes. Even then, Congress can override a veto and make it the law. The Supreme Court can also limit the President's power by ruling that a law or action violates the U.S. Constitution. "The President has less power than the average voter thinks he does," says presidential expert Paul Boller. "He can't simply by himself make major domestic policies."

In dealing with foreign countries, the President has more freedom. That is because he must react quickly to threats and opportunities from other countries. Even so, Congress and the courts can limit the President's actions. Also, the President must get Congress to approve any big decision, such as declaring war or approving a treaty.

The "Bully Pulpit"

Despite these limitations, Presidents have incredible power. Much of that power is informal, meaning it is not spelled out anywhere in the U.S. Constitution or laws. For instance, President Theodore Roosevelt (in office 1901-1909) said that his office gave him a "bully pulpit" a powerful platform that lets him draw attention to key issues.

Theodore Roosevelt was an expert at using the bully pulpit to drum up support for his policies. So was his cousin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). Franklin Roosevelt led the U.S. through two of its greatest crises: the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II. His radio addresses, called "fireside chats," drew huge audiences. Before one speech, Roosevelt asked people to buy maps so that they could follow his explanation of World War II events. His request produced a nationwide run on maps, and about 80 percent of Americans listened to his speech.

Facing Crises

Franklin Roosevelt is considered one of the best Presidents, in part because he was so good at communicating with the public. What other skills do you think a President needs? Consider these three crises faced by past Presidents:
  • The Louisiana Purchase: In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) had an opportunity that came in wrapped in a big problem. France had offered to sell the U.S. a huge chunk of land west of the Mississippi River for just $15 million. That was a bargain. The problem was that the U.S. Constitution gave Jefferson no authority to make the purchase. But Jefferson went ahead and bought the land, nearly doubling the size of the U.S. He later admitted that he had "stretched the Constitution until it cracked." Congress later approved the purchase.
  • Risk of Civil War: Abraham Lincoln was elected President in November 1860, but he did not take office until the following March. During that time, seven Southern states voted to secede (leave) the Union because they feared that Lincoln would abolish slavery. The new President had to choose: Should he oppose secession and risk civil war, or should he let the Southern states secede and see the U.S. break apart? Lincoln chose to oppose secession. The U.S. Civil War began one month after he became President.
  • The Berlin Airlift: After World War II ended in 1945, the German capital city of Berlin was divided. West Berlin was occupied by troops from the U.S. and its allies; East Berlin was occupied by troops from the Soviet Union. The whole city was located in Soviet controlled East Germany. In June 1948, the Soviets cut off all land routes to West Berlin, trying to force the Western powers out of the city. U.S. President Harry S. Truman (1945–1953) could either back down and lose the respect of his allies, or stand firm and risk starting a war with the Soviets. Instead, he chose to go around the blockade by sending supplies by air. Within a year, the Soviets ended the blockade.

Who Is Best Qualified?

How can voters be sure that a candidate will hold up during those kinds of pressure situations? The short answer is that they can't. Even so, a candidate's character often gives clues as to how the person will react under stress. People disagree about what character traits are most important in a President. But there are some commonly accepted things that people look for, such as integrity, strength, and caring.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who grew up near New York's Hudson River, said that his character was rooted in his childhood. "All that is in me goes back to the Hudson," he once said. Youthful experiences are also credited with shaping Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Experts say that the misfortune that both faced at a young age helped make them very determined men.

For instance, 14-year-old Bill Clinton was a star student in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He seemed to excel at everything he did. Yet his sunny attitude and good grades masked terrible problems at home. His stepfather was an alcoholic who abused Clinton's mother. Clinton testified at their divorce trial that he had tried to stop his stepfather's violence. In response, he said, the older man "threatened to mash my face in."

On the other hand, Bob Dole was a shy, athletic boy who grew up during the Great Depression in a poor neighborhood of Russell, Kansas. At 18, he joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. When he was 21, Dole was wounded twice. His wounds almost killed him and they left his right arm useless. "I do try harder," Dole once said. "If I didn't, I'd be sitting in a rest home, in a rocker, drawing disability [pay]."

Washington's Struggle

Experts say that adult experiences can be just as important in shaping a future President. "It's their adult experiences that help them form their [political] opinions," says presidential expert Joan Hoff. For instance, during the American Revolution, General George Washington struggled to keep the Continental Army going. He received little help from the 13 states, and the Continental Congress had no power to force the states to pitch in. As a result of that experience, Washington pushed hard while he was President (1789–1797) to create a central U.S. government.

Paul Boller says that it sometimes is difficult to compare modern candidates with the candidates of the past. In the first place, technological advances such as television allow the press to follow every move that a modern candidate makes. Second, Boller says, people's attitudes about both Presidents and candidates often become more romantic with the passage of time. "George Washington is rightly considered a model character," Boller says. "[But when he was President], he had enemies who didn't think he had any [good qualities] at all."

Passing the Test

How important is character in deciding which candidate to vote for? Some experts say that voters today worry more about the issues: what the candidates plan to do about crime, health care, education, and other problems. From now until next election day, the major candidates for President will be talking about their plans for dealing with the major problems facing the country, and will certainly have different ideas for dealing with issues ranging from violent crime to the growing use of tobacco by young people.

Excerpted from an essay by Michael R. Beschloss:

More than any other leader portrayed in this book save Eisenhower, Bush based his three campaigns for the presidency less on issues and ideology than on his persona as a leader of experience and character.

Born in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1924, Bush matured in Greenwich, Connecticut, a setting that gave him little inkling of the political culture in which he would spend his adulthood. The boy was surrounded mainly by Anglophile, moderate Repubicans, for whom politics was Good Government and the town meeting, who minimized partisan confrontation and overstatement. As Bush's mother, Dorothy, admonished, one did not brag about oneself....

Had Bush in 1948 stayed in Connecticut after his heroism in the Pacific War and graduation from Yale, he would have been well poised to succeed his father in politics. As senator from Connecticut, George Bush would have been temperamentally and ideologically in tune with his state and party. Instead, eager to hack out his own business career, the young man took his wife, Barbara, and son, George, to the oilfields of Texas. This meant that from the day he entered politics, he would have to submerge many of his views and instincts to please an electorate that was notably more conservative than he. Politics was easier for Ronald Reagan: for every minute of his political career, he had the luxury of being in natural harmony with his party.

Not Bush. The first harbinger of this was in the spring of 1962, when Houston friends persuaded him to run for chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, whose slogan was "Conservatives Unite!" The local party was in imminent danger of takeover by the John Birch Society. During a speech near Houston, Bush was asked where he stood on the "Liberty Amendments." This referred to planks in the John Birch program such as "get the U.S. out of the U.N." and "abolish the Federal Reserve." Baffled, Bush turned to his wife, working on her needlepoint, who could offer no help. Bluffing, he told the questioner he needed time to study "these important amendments." Like a Puritan in Babylon, Bush tried to broaden his party and mollify the Birchers, telling a colleague, "There's some good in everybody." The reply: "George, you don't know these people. They mean to kill you!"

Having learned that lesson, Bush swung to the opposite extreme when he ran for the Senate in 1964. He opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He wished to arm Cuban exiles to go after Fidel Castro. He denounced the United Nations. The Democrats were "too soft" on Vietnam: if the generals asked for nuclear weapons against the North, they should not be ignored. .....

Amid the national Johnson landslide, Bush lost the election with only 44 percent of the vote. He told his Houston minister, "I took some of the far-right positions to get elected. I hope I never do it again. I regret it."

Never again during his career did George Bush wage a campaign so unrelievedly conservative, or so oriented toward issues. When he ran for Congress from Houston in 1966, he created the archetype of the Bush campaigns of the future: the candidate's personal qualities were emphasized over stark ideological commitments. Bush told a reporter, "Labels are for cans." ......

Another sign of Bush's new moderation was his vote in April 1968 for Lyndon Johnson's Fair Housing Act, which banned discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. In his district, Bush told a town meeting, which jeered him, that it seemed "fundamental that a man should not have a door slammed in his face because he is a Negro or speaks with a Latin American accent." He wrote a friend, "I never dreamed the reaction would be so violent. Seething hatred--the epithets... The country club crowd disowning me and denouncing me.... Tonight [I was on] this plane and this older lady came up to me. She said, 'I'm a conservative Democrat from this district, but I ....will always vote for you now.' ...Her accent was Texan (not Connecticut) and suddenly somehow I felt that maybe it would all be OK--and I started to cry--with the poor lady embarrassed to death--I couldn't say a word to her." ......

During his first presidential campaign in 1980, Bush bowed to no one in denouncing Carter's softness toward the Russians. But... he grounded his appeal for votes on his own persona. Bush strategists gushed about "the best resume in America" .....

This approach brought Bush victory in the Iowa caucus, where Reagan scarcely campaigned. With the national spotlight shining on him the weeks before the crucial New Hampshire primary gave him the opportunity to explain with Reganesque clarity what he would do if elected. Instead, Bush prattled away that he had the big momentum--the "Big Mo"--which suggest to conservatives that he was not a leader who took their causes with due gravity. Bush later confessed that such "preppy phrases" gave "an impression that my campaign lacked substance." In New Hampshire, Reagan turned the tide, besting him by more than two to one......

At the Republican Convention in Detroit, Ronald Reagan worried about the depth of Bush's convictions. At first he resisted advice to choose for Vice President the man who had gotten the second most votes in the primaries. He privately disparaged Bush's ability to "stand up to the pressure of being President": "I'm concerned about turning the country over to him." But after former President Ford withdrew his name from consideration, Reagan swallowed his doubts, made the call, and asked Bush whether he could support the party platform, the most conservative in forty years.

This was no small question. During the primaries, Bush had derided Reagan's hallmark pledge to cut taxes while hugely increasing the defense budget as "voodoo economics." He had supported abortion rights. But, willing to pay the price for political rebirth, Bush immediately told Reagan that he could support the platform "wholeheartedly." .....

Bush's eight years as Reagan's number two were made miserable by his ostentatious effort to convince what he privately called the "extra-chromosome" conservatives that he was not some kind of closet one-world liberal. Bush's vice-presidential predecessor, Walter Mondale, had warned him after the 1980 election that "a President does not want and the public does not respect a Vice President who does nothing but deliver fulsome praise of a President." ....

But Bush now felt his only chance for President in 1988 lay in winning over Reagan and his increasingly dominant wing of the party. On the simple level of private character, he showed admirable loyalty. More than any other vice president of the post-war era, Bush refused to allow sunlight between himself and his President. He eschewed background interviews with reporters designed to make himself look good at the boss's expense and used all public opportunities to demonstrate himself as a Reaganite, at one moment incautiously saying, "I'm for Mr. Reagan, blindly!" He defended himself by saying that in his family, loyalty was "not considered a character flaw."

It was the unrelenting ardor of that loyalty, from a Vice President who had once so disagreed with the Reaganites, that critics considered a character flaw. .......

During the (1988) campaign, Bush had encouraged the impression that his first years in office might be tantamount to Reagan's third term, with many Reagan appointees held over and the former President perhaps flown in from California from time to time as a kind of political godfather. That did not happen. Few high officials survived from the era of Reagan into that of Bush. During the Bush presidency, the forty-first President, who still held the hearts of most Republicans and to whom Bush owed his office, appeared in the White House exactly twice. Many conservatives suspected that by thumbing his nose at Reaganism, the new President, intoxicated by victory, was paying them back for all the years of humiliations while courting the right.

If they were correct, Bush was showing dangerous hubris and self-indulgence. The Republican Party, if anything, was growing more conservative than ever. If Bush did not wish to expend the effort to try moving his party to the center, as Eisenhower had attempted and failed to do, it would have been more sensible for the President to show that he understood the balance of forces within his party. But, buoyed by his high approval ratings, Bush gave signs of allowing himself to believe that he was unsinkable. His "what-me-worry?" attitude culminated in July 1990, when he reneged on his supreme campaign promise not to raise taxes. This told conservatives once and for all that Bush was not really one of them. .....

Had someone other than Bush been President during those years it is conceivable that the Cold War could have ended under terms less favorable to the West than it did. Bush's gift for building relationships with other leaders was put to excellent use with Gorbachev. Like Bush, Gorbachev had spent his political career concealing his private views from superiors and a party that did not share them. Like Bush, he was uncomfortable with the intense emotion and the unpredictability unleashed by ideological true political believers like Boris Yeltsin. The two men felt that they spoke the same language.

Through their summits and other means, Bush succeeded in putting the Soviet leader at ease that if he made dangerous concessions, such as allowing his Eastern European satellites to go free, he could expect Bush not to exploit them or embarrass him for domestic political gain. When Gorbachev allowed the Berlin Wall to collapse, Bush denied himself considerable domestic capital by refusing to go to Berlin and capitalize on the victory. .....

The Persian Gulf War displayed Bush's best political self: a President of stature, willing to take risks and exert himself to educate the public in international relations, in ways that he was never willing to do in domestic affairs or party politics.

Bush emerged from the Gulf War in March 1991 with a public approval rating of 91 percent, but with the recession in earnest. Some political advisers proposed that he wage an "Operation Domestic Storm" to strengthen the economy and address other domestic problems ignored during Bush's first two years. The President refused. He saw his Gulf victory, the approaching end of the Cold War, and his commanding popularity as a vindication of his decision to concentrate on world affairs. Calling attention to the weak economy would merely damage public confidence and prolong the recession. And who could unhorse a President so clearly indispensable in foreign policy? Rather than respond to increasing signs of public discomfort, he looked the other way.


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