During the debate over ratification of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists argued for “energy in the executive” — a strong president who would set the national agenda and be the center of legislative and policy initiative in the national government. Fears of just such executive power were one arrow in the quiver of the Anti-Federalists. For the first century and a half of our national life, the balance of power and influence shifted between president and Congress; the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War brought us to what now seems the final resolution of the argument. Hamilton won.
The United States has been remarkably fortunate in its presidents: of the 43 to date, only a handful were, by everyone’s account, duds. Some thought to be failures when they left office — John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower — have been vindicated by history and historians. Others, venerated at the time, are no longer so well regarded: Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson are two examples. Ronald Reagan, dismissed by Beltway insiders as an “amiable dunce,” turns out to have been one of the few presidents with some claim to having been a political philosopher.
Among those presidents typically cited as our finest, Washington alone remains above reproach. For all that he created the United States as the subject of “is” rather than “are,” there remain large gaps in our knowledge of Abraham Lincoln, his personality and his ideas; fierce (if blessedly nonviolent) arguments continue over his manner of waging the Civil War. The debate over whether Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies exacerbated or resolved the Great Depression is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
Contemporary presidents must pass a threshold test that their predecessors couldn’t have imagined, in the days before television began to dominate our public life: Do I want this person in my living room for the next four years? Beyond that basic test, however, are important questions of character, personality, leadership, competence, and vision. The American president is an elected king, with far more power than the constitutional monarch the Founders overthrew. Knowing who this person is, and what makes him or her tick, is essential in making an informed judgment. To elect a president is to make a moral, as well as a political, judgment. Thus Catholic voters will want to ponder these and other questions with respect to the two major candidates:
1. Books on the Founders are now found regularly on the best-seller lists. These books, and a brilliant TV series like “John Adams,” remind us that, while we read history backwards, statesmanship requires an ability to look forward, in typically confused and confusing circumstances. Presidential statesmanship also requires the courage to act with conviction despite uncertain outcomes. Which presidents do you admire for their ability to see clearly through the fog of immediacy, and for their willingness to choose wisely on the basis of what they saw? Which presidents strike you as essentially time-servers, men who were more careerists than leaders?
2. For what are you willing to risk your popularity, and perhaps your re-election?
3. How do you conceive the presidential bully pulpit? In an age of cable television and talk radio caterwauling, can a president help recreate a civil, rational discourse in American public life?
4. Are you prepared to dismiss a subordinate who may be your friend, but who is manifestly not up to the demands of the office to which you appointed him or her?
5. Do you enjoy argument? Do you invite challenge? Can you live with able subordinates who are prepared to tell you, “Mr. President, you are wrong”?
6. There are things a president cannot tell the American people. But are there circumstances in which you would deem it your responsibility to mislead the American people? To deny what you know to be true? To affirm what you know to be false?
7. What are the last five books you have read?
8. Presidents must govern amidst innumerable aggravations. How do you handle your temper? Can you laugh at yourself? Can you take a joke?