Presidential leadership has produced as many aphorisms as examples. “Leadership is the ability to get men to do what they don’t want to do and like it,” said Harry Truman. President Coolidge defined the other end of the action spectrum: “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.” It’s not just presidents who weigh in. Presidential critics have a lot to say about leadership too. It’s what they say a president lacks, when the president doesn’t do what they want him to. In this collection, presidential leadership is defined by men who on at least one occasion focused their energies, and chanced their political fortunes, on something larger than their self-interest. Instead of the easy win, or easy out, they took the long view.
This is usually called “presidential character,” and it was the original conception of the job. The founders believed that the mental and moral makeup of the chief executive would keep the nation in sync with its founding ideals of liberty and equality. A presidential leader had to be “fixed on true principles” as George Washington put it, in order to do the right thing for the country.
These leadership moments meet that original definition, but the office has changed since its launch date. Presidents now campaign for office. Washington and his colleagues didn’t. They thought the low business of grubbing for votes was antithetical to the job. It would lead to presidents who made decisions not by reason, but by what they thought the people wanted.
These stories highlight presidents who faced down political pressure, either by winning over the public or by doing what they thought was right in the face of criticism.
For FDR, leadership meant not resisting the electorate but recognizing that in a large, interconnected nation, only one person could meet the desperate national need. When America’s longest-serving president took office, the unemployment rate was 25%, 5,504 banks had closed their doors, and families gathered dandelions for dinner salad. His relationship with the country, built by his innovative communications skills on the radio, allowed him to take enormous risks on behalf of a trusting public. Those risks fundamentally transformed the government into a tool to manage the social impact of the modern age and propelled the presidency toward a celebrity office. The bond between the president and the nation was so profound that the nation grieved as if they had lost a loved one. As Doris Kearns Goodwin put it, “Isn’t an incredible thing that one man dies and 130 million people feel lonely.”
Though FDR knew how to minister to a needy public, he understood that even with the license to experiment granted during a time of national emergency, a president cannot push the country where it does not want to go. “I can’t go any faster than the people will let me,” he said. Move too fast and the people will not only revolt, but they’ll vote you out of office. So a successful president must know how to lead the public only as far as it is willing to go, without inciting revolt.
Truman and LBJ each pushed beyond the political status quo to advance civil rights for African-Americans. Controversial at the time, both were nevertheless being consistent with America’s founding concern for equality. When Truman desegregated the military, it was “not clear that Truman understood his actions would work out for him,” says Cornelius Bynum. That’s what makes it such a courageous decision. “The idea here is that he didn’t know, but what he did know is that the idea of segregation in the military didn’t sit well with him.”