Over to you, President Bush

by Robert Schmuhl

Theodore Roosevelt, whose vigor as president prompted an observer to describe him as “a steam engine in trousers,” once remarked that “if there is not the great occasion, you don’t get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now.”p. Roosevelt’s century-old words are worth remembering as we look ahead to Saturday’s inauguration and think about today’s presidency. The office that George W. Bush assumes and Bill Clinton departs might be defined in the Constitution, but it is also one that’s shaped—and changed—by the people who occupy it and the circumstances when they serve.p. Clinton’s two terms took place in a much different environment from the one that existed for any of his predecessors since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Beginning with the Great Depression and continuing through World War II until the end of the Cold War, the White House served as the nation’s crisis-control center, and the president was viewed as the singular figure of authority who, for better or worse, had the responsibility for leadership during perilous times.p. Back in 1956, with the United States and the Soviet Union locked in what John Kennedy five years later in his inaugural address called “a long twilight struggle,” the noted political scientist Clinton Rossiter declared in “The American Presidency” that “the president is not a Gulliver immobilized by 10,000 tiny cords, nor even a Prometheus chained to a rock of frustration. He is, rather, a kind of magnificent lion who can roam widely and do great deeds so long as he does not try to break loose from his broad reservation.”p. After impeachment, magazine cover stories about “The Incredible Shrinking President” and countless late-night jokes, President Clinton resembles Gulliver or Prometheus more than a “magnificent lion.” Although he leaves the White House with a high job approval rating, that regard didn’t come easily or carry with it much respect for him as a person.p. Besides being the first post-Cold War president, Clinton served six of his eight years with Republicans controlling both the House of Representatives and Senate. Traditionally, power flows to the White House in times of crisis and back to Congress otherwise, as we see now. Major presidential initiatives became more difficult after 1994 and next to impossible following the 1998 impeachment.p. In addition, the multiple investigations begun under the Independent Counsel Act (a post-Watergate reform) did not only lead to revelations that weakened Clinton but also to tell-all stories in the current anything-goes media environment that tarnished the presidency itself. As a Franklin Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan understood, a certain distance and mystery enhance someone’s leadership ability.p. Clinton recently told a reporter during an exit interview, "We need to demystify the job. It is a job . . . "p. Practically and symbolically, the presidency is much more than a job, and worry about long-term consequences of the darker moments of the Clinton years looms as a legitimate concern. However, the Independent Counsel Act was not renewed in 1999—sparing future presidents and their subordinates from a type of outside investigation Kenneth Starr (among others) considered unconstitutional—and time itself has a way of restoring public esteem for the nation’s highest office.p. Ten years after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, Reagan’s re-election of 1984 featured the theme that it was “Morning Again” in America. Ad after ad, we saw a happy, if somewhat romanticized, period of renewal with a respected leader at the helm.p. Almost 30 years ago, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. warned that undue emphasis on White House power could ultimately lead to an “imperial presidency.” He went on to argue, “The answer to the runaway presidency is not the messenger-boy presidency. The American democracy must discover a middle ground between making the president a czar and making him a puppet.”p. Finding the middle ground—the vital center, if you will—is a tricky and continuing balancing act between principle and pragmatism, between domestic concerns and international affairs, between traditional practices and new initiatives, between statecraft and stagecraft, between governing and campaigning, between appealing to the public at large and wooing a partisan base and so on.p. As history taught Theodore Roosevelt that leadership often comes from the trumpet-call of crisis, so, too, does the past educate us that the presidency is resilient and elastic. As George W. Bush takes the oath at noon Saturday, he not only shoulders what’s been called “the glorious burden” of White House responsibilities, but he also begins his own balancing act in confronting an unknown future.

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