Trust Me: I Can Make It All Better
As we leave the “silly season” of the presidential campaign, we’re about to enter the “leadership” phase. From now until the election, but especially during the soon-upcoming conventions, you’re going to hear endless claims about one candidate or another’s extraordinary ability to “lead” … and, of course, about the other candidate’s profound leadership “failures.”
Here’s the thing, though: what campaigns and supporters mean by “leadership” is almost always utter nonsense.
What campaigns and candidates mean by “leadership” is “heroic leadership.” What they mean is that their candidate, like some movie president, has such remarkable skills that if elected the candidate will make an inspirational speech, engage in some politically heroic action, or otherwise pull off some grand political maneuver that transforms the political system from corruption or chaos and makes society whole again … all while protecting our economy, our natural splendor and our human rights. You can almost hear the movie music rising in the background, can’t you?: vote for me, the promise goes, and I can lead us to the promised land.
People like me look at these promises and either giggle (if we’re feeling in a cheery mood) or despair (since people seem to believe them and then get disappointed when it turns out the promises don’t come true). Why? It’s not hard to explain: heroic leadership bears absolutely no relationship to what presidents actually do or what powers they actually have.
Seriously. Presidents find significant checks and balances on their power. Congress, a body over which presidents usually have very little influence at the best of times, has to sign off on most presidential proposals. The Supreme Court can flout a president’s will. States and local governments can challenge the federal government. Bureaucrats can shape policy to their preferences, not the president’s.
Think of it this way: imagine a president goes to a hostile Congress and gives the single best speech ever given to promote the president’s goal. I’m talking “I Have A Dream” meets “The Gettysburg Address” with a little “St. Crispian’s Day” thrown in for good measure. When that extraordinary speech concludes, what powers does the president have to make Congress do what the president wants that the president didn’t have before the speech? That’s right: not one.
Rather than being heroes, successful presidents tend to be good at the give and take of daily politics. They know how to navigate Congress and appeal to the broader public at the same time. They have great patience and yet are able to move quickly when the time is right. They are, as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s biographers put it, foxes, not lions.
So as you watch the forthcoming “leadership” follies, remember that you are being lied to. No president can be heroic quite like the ones in the movies, and Congress and the rest of the political system almost never reacts to presidential heroism quite the way they do in the movies. Heroic leadership is a great film plot. It’s just not a great way to be a president.
Then again, you should also keep in mind that you are being lied to because you demand that you be lied to. You will be promised a movie president because you insist on movie presidents. You want to believe that one candidate is such a great moral, intellectual and political leader that he —usually he, but that’s another post — can overcome every challenge. And since you want to believe it, campaigns sell it to you … even though they know it’s not true.
But don’t be surprised when real presidents don’t live up to your expectations. Unlike the movies, presidents stay in office after the credits roll.