Wanted: A New Messiah

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano

Who best fits the radical mold of Reagan and FDR--and why can't we find them?

On Sept. 27, the governor of New Jersey gave a speech. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal: there'd be a press release from Trenton, a segment on the 6 o'clock news, and then, bada-bing, bada-boom, fuggedaboutit. But when Chris Christie completed his remarks on "American exceptionalism" at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., capping a week of frantic speculation about whether the reluctant Republican would finally give in and join the GOP presidential race, a grandmotherly woman stood up and begged him to run in a register that was reverent enough, one imagines, to bring a blush to the bearded cheeks of Lord Jesus himself.

"I say this from the bottom of my heart," the worshiper began, her fingers gripping a railing and her eyes glistening with tears. "We can't wait ... and I, I really implore you, as a citizen of this country, to please, sir, reconsider ... Do it for my daughter. Do it for our grandchildren. Please, sir. We need you." At this, her fellow congregants applauded so long, and so lustily, that they appeared ready to hoist Christie aloft and head off in search of Mitt Romney's scalp.

America is desperate for a messiah. Christie Fever would seem a little more remarkable, for instance, if conservatives hadn't already contracted Bachmania, Donalditis, and Restless Perry Syndrome, then cast aside each of their would-be saviors as soon as he or she showed the slightest earthly imperfection. Meanwhile, on the left, and in the center, the very voters who fueled President Obama's landslide 2008 victory are now awarding him the lowest job-approval ratings of his career. Christie summed up popular sentiment in his speech. "If you're looking for leadership in America," he said, "you're not going to find it in the Oval Office." Never mind that the administration just assassinated yet another Al Qaeda kingpin, Anwar al-Awlaki, out-Bushing Bush and further discrediting the old canard that Democrats can't protect America. The belief that there's someone better out there--someone who can lead us not into recession, but deliver us from unemployment--now extends to both sides of the aisle.

History explains why. With nearly one fifth of the population either out of work or looking for more, it's no surprise that voters long to be saved. But not every recession-era president has roused as much disappointment as Obama, and not every crop of challengers has seemed as unsatisfactory as Romney & Co. In fact, the most consequential political leaders of the 20th century, FDR and Ronald Reagan, won the White House during economic crises and achieved lasting influence because (not in spite) of the traumatic times they presided over. Figure out what they had in common and you'll get a pretty good sense of what kind of leadership works in a downturn. You'll also start to see why everyone's unhappy with Obama, no matter how many terrorists he kills.

Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale, has already done the difficult spadework of identifying leadership patterns among presidents. According to his influential classification system, both Roosevelt and Reagan were "reconstructive" leaders, which means they rose to power by opposing a vulnerable administration, then "cut the knot, raise[d] a new standard, and [promised to] restore to American government the ancient truths that had first inspired it." Every reconstructive president razes the old order and forges a new one in his own way: while FDR experimented with a panoply of reforms, Reagan always stuck to a stubborn script about the causes and cures for Carter-era malaise. The important thing is that both of them blamed the crises they presided over on the failed, un-American ideology of the previous regime and relentlessly positioned their sweeping proposals as part of a grand project to undo the damage and revive real American values. …