February 25, 2006
What Makes a President Era-Worthy?
in the future look back upon a George W. Bush era or merely a
George W. Bush presidency?
This is a
question that is almost never asked of a single-term president.
The most significant one-term president may have been the often-forgotten,
often-misunderstood James K. Polk. In four years he signed a treaty
with Great Britain over the Oregon territory, prosecuted the controversial
Mexican War, brought down tariff rates, appointed two associate
justices to the Supreme Court, and presided over the incorporation
of Texas, Iowa and Wisconsin into the Union. And yet no one has
ever spoken of the Polk era in American history.
Nor of the
Taft era, or of the Harding era, or of the Ford era, or, more
recently, of the Carter era.
of impact that comes from transforming an era -- from defining
a period of time by the personality of a president -- usually
requires two terms. (Grand exception: Abraham Lincoln didn't serve
his full two terms, of course, but he was elected twice and used
his years in office not just to change the country but to preserve
it.) And though second presidential terms are both burdens and
opportunity, putting pressure on an administration that may be
exhausted of energy and ideas, they also provide the time and
opening for a president to make lasting changes in the executive
branch, the government and the nation.
Delano Roosevelt, who in slightly more than three terms and in
four presidential elections certainly stamped his impact on an
era, once argued that greatness in the presidency required a significant
alteration in the way the nation thought. "All of our great
presidents," he said, "were leaders of thought at a
time when certain ideas in the nation had to be clarified."
In his brilliant
essay opening each volume of the new "American Presidents"
series that he edits, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. takes
his own stab at defining greatness in the presidency. "Crisis
widens presidential opportunities for bold and imaginative action,"
he argues. "But it does not guarantee presidential greatness."
Mr. Schlesinger points out that secession did not inspire James
Buchanan to greatness, nor did economic distress inspire Hoover
to the greatest heights of presidential achievement. And it is
interesting for us to note that the presidents who succeeded them
(Lincoln and Roosevelt) were the ones who did the clarifying.
All of which
makes us wonder whether Bush will clarify issues left unclarified
by Bill Clinton (whose name does not adorn an era, only an attitude)
-- or whether Mr. Bush's successor will be called upon to clarify
the issues the 43rd president leaves unresolved.
know for sure right now, of course, but we can speculate on what
those issues might be -- and in setting them forth we can clarify
for ourselves what our own time is about, and what it might be
remembered for by our children and grandchildren. Here's a guess
at what historians -- who call the period at the end of the 19th
century the Age of Imperialism, who regard the '20s as the Age
of Isolationism, and who regard the period that followed the New
Deal as the period of increased government intervention in the
economy and domestic affairs -- might consider the contemporary
questions that beg clarification:
What is the
role of the United States in the period that followed the Cold
War, when no nation-state was a credible rival to American power?
Mr. Clinton had his own answer, oddly derivative from Mr. Carter:
that the United States be the guarantor of human rights in regions
of contention and disorder, and the "indispensable"
partner and participant in multinational efforts to police and
preserve the peace. Mr. Bush came to office questioning both parts
of that approach, though events prompted him to take a kinder
look at "nation-building," in Iraq and Afghanistan,
than he ever contemplated in his debates with Al Gore Jr. in 2000.
which Mr. Clinton bequeathed to Mr. Bush, remains fundamentally
unresolved -- especially since it may be that the greatest threats
to American security and independence aren't nation-states at
all but aggregations of the aggrieved that take terror as a tactic
and then transform it into a crude ideology.
communism is gone, is it still in the American interest to promote
democracy abroad, and is it reasonable to think that American-style
democracy has worldwide appeal or applicability? This is one of
the most beguiling questions in the American debate, and it is
important to remember that Mr. Bush did not put it on the American
agenda. It was there, implicitly, during the Cold War and before,
when American policy-makers reached a conclusion, in places like
Guatemala, Iran and Chile, that is at odds with the instincts
of the Bush team.
Many of the
people who surrounded Mr. Bush in the early years of his presidency
argued that the greatest benefit of the war to topple Saddam Hussein
might be to use Iraq as a laboratory of democracy that would eventually
infect the entire Middle East. Writing in The New York Times earlier
this month, however, Francis Fukuyama, of the School of Advanced
International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, offered a counter-argument:
need in the first instance to understand that promoting democracy
and modernization in the Middle East is not a solution to the
problem of jihadist terrorism; in all likelihood it will make
the short-term problem worse, as we have seen in the case of the
Palestinian election bringing Hamas to power."
How do we
make a graceful transformation from post-industrial manufacturing
to whatever will follow the information-age economy? We struggled
with similar questions when the railroad, shoe, textile and steel
industries collapsed, and now we are struggling with these difficult
dislocations as the American automobile industry is under siege.
This comes at a time when old-style health-care and retirement
benefits themselves are being altered. Right now, few politicians
in either party are looking at these two problems as two sides
of the same devalued coin. But these issues, like the two questions
before it, are a reminder that any politician who wants his name
on an era is going to have to come up with solutions posed by
the end of an era.
2006 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette