Toward a More Realistic View of the Presidents

I second Andrew Rudalevige’s suggestion of continuing this conversation in a post-COVID environment, and I have no doubt that the Trump post-presidency, as it unfolds in the coming months, may very well bring into sharper focus some of the points discussed in this forum. Since writing my first contribution, as I have continued to think about this important topic, I keep going back to one particular line from Paul Musgrave’s opening essay: “One way to achieve workable informal sanctions would be to intentionally and systematically reduce the symbolic size of presidents—and especially former presidents—in our political culture.”

In recent weeks, it has been hard to miss the fact that news coverage has been crowded with stories on several presidents. In addition to the expected coverage devoted to President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet picks, we have also watched President Donald Trump refuse to concede the election and continue to push forward with lawsuits challenging the results in several states. News about former presidents has also been prominent. Barack Obama is seemingly everywhere while on his book tour to sell copies of his new memoir, and even Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are making headlines with their promise, along with Obama, to get the COVID-19 vaccine in public to encourage others to do so (Jimmy Carter has also given his full support behind the vaccine effort).

The point here is that presidents, whether past, present, or future, are dominant players within political news coverage. Not only does leaving office not diminish the news value of former presidents, but it continues to showcase the powerful role that media play in shaping all things “presidential” within our political environment. From telling voters which candidates are viable in the earliest days of the pre-nomination period to shaping a president’s legacy once they leave office, the news media in recent decades has helped to elevate presidents and their families to mega-celebrity status (a trend well underway before we elected a former reality television star as president in 2016). Former presidents have star power within our culture, and it feeds into the cult of personality that now dominates presidential politics.

For several years, during conversations with students enrolled in my presidency course, I have found myself advocating for American citizens to bring presidents, both current and former, down from the pedestal on which they have been placed. Hero worship of presidents, no matter from what era of American history or which political party each has represented, does not further good government, and it falls short of the framer’s ideals on the topic of executive leadership (regardless of one’s opinion on how to interpret the U.S. Constitution and the role of the executive).

However, the theoretical views of what makes a good president and the role such a figure can play within the American political, cultural, and social milieu stand in stark contrast from the many flawed individuals (some more than others) who have held the office. Our expectations of presidents—who they are as individuals and what they can accomplish while governing—are too high right from the start. The skills that presidential candidates display, despite our excitement during the campaign, are not necessarily the ones that will help them govern effectively once elected. Transformational leadership may be what voters are seeking, but it is often an unrealistic expectation, and one that certainly does not take into effect the harsh partisan environment that all politicians must navigate. My views on this subject may sound pessimistic, but I hope they are seen as pragmatic, which is the spirit in which they are intended.

The bottom line—a more realistic view of presidents and their role within our constitutional system of government, one that is not driven by media’s obsession with personality and style, would go a long way in reducing the oversized symbolic space that presidential candidates, presidents, and former presidents occupy. If we have three co-equal branches of government, if “we the people” are sovereign, and if we are a nation of laws and not of men, then behaving as if presidents are at the center of the political universe misses the mark for those whose goal is good government.

My musings on this topic, which come at the end of the semester and in the middle of a presidential transition, may pose more questions than answers for the discussion at hand. I do, however, support the idea of the Musgrave “either/or” proposal for former presidents—either take the official government compensation package or pursue post-White House wealth through speeches, books, et cetera. While it may never come to fruition, it seems fair to the American taxpayer and may help to normalize post-presidential norms a bit. I also support the idea of the federal government (presumably NARA) having a more pro-active role in preserving White House documents during a current administration. My own bias as a presidency scholar who relies on archival research notwithstanding, transparency of government and making documents readily available to the public in the post-presidential years (perhaps even sooner than the current timeline allows) is always preferable.

Finally, regarding the 22nd Amendment, there is a strong argument to be made for its repeal though I realize that will probably never happen. I am not the first political scientist, nor will I be the last, to point out that voting can and should be the equivalent of term limits. The lame duck status looms large throughout a president’s second term and can work against effective leadership in many areas. It also forces presidents and their staffs to focus attention on post-presidential matters (like where to locate the library and setting up a foundation) for several years while still in office. A potential third term for some recent presidents may not have been viable and could have worked against the downsizing of presidential symbolism, but keeping the option open might shift a president’s focus away from their legacy in some small way in order to keep them focused more on the task at hand, which is governing within a system dominated by checks and balances and separation of powers.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Paul Musgrave argues that both formal laws and informal norms shape an ex-president’s obligations and opportunities. Not only that, but a sitting president’s expectations about their future will shape their behaviors while they serve. Musgrave recommends several measures both formal and informal that he argues would lessen the influence and the dangers that ex-presidents can present.

Response Essays

  • Lori Cox Han characterizes the norms governing former presidents as mostly informal. Under them, modern ex-presidents have pursued a wide variety of activities. Regarding the newest member of the club, she writes, “The many things that made Donald Trump unique as a candidate and president… are exactly the things that will drive his post-presidential years.” She predicts that we may see renewed attention to post-presidential ethics, and perhaps new formal restrictions on former presidents’ behavior.

  • Lisa Anderson writes that the integrity of the institution of the presidency is the most important consideration in crafting our rules and norms for ex-presidents. She agrees that presidential libraries and foundations should likely be abolished, among other reforms. She closes by recommending a set of new disclosure requirements for presidential candidates, writing, “the character of our ex-presidents will never be better than the quality of our presidents.”

  • Prof. Andrew Rudalevige invokes Machiavelli to discuss the institution of the former president. Those who have served are likely to be motivated by the judgment of posterity, and that judgment should be used to keep them acting in honorable and useful ways. To that end, presidential recordkeeping should be reformed and centralized, aiding scholars in their work while limiting former presidents’ powers to hide documents from public view.