A Tale of Two Presidents

By Beschloss, Michael R. | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Two Presidents


Beschloss, Michael R., The Wilson Quarterly


At particular moments in history, the presidency has required different talents and ambitions of those who held the office, from managing a crisis to maneuvering Congress to moving the nation. No two figures better illustrate the variety of qualities the office demands than Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

For most of American history, the presidency has been a weak office, and that was very much in keeping with what the Framers intended. They did not want another king of England; they did not want a dictator. They made sure that there were checks against presidential power, one of them being impeachment, and they were very worried about the idea of a president who would do too much. Much of the power of the presidency comes not from what is in the Constitution but from two other sources.

The first is the president's ability to go to the American people and ask them for something, especially sacrifice. One very good example would be Franklin Roosevelt saying, in effect, in 1940: "You may not want to get prepared for a possible war in Europe and Asia, but this is something I've thought a lot about, and this is a sacrifice that we may have to make." Another example would be a president's appeal for a painful tax increase to achieve a balanced budget.

The second source of presidential power is a president's ability to get things out of Congress. The Founders hoped that presidents would have such moral authority, and people would think they were so wise, that members of Congress would be intimidated. If a president went to Congress and asked for something like civil rights, members would take heed. That's one reason why Lyndon Johnson was a much more powerful president in 1964, 1965, and 1966 than others might have been: because of his experience as one of the most canny and powerful leaders in the history of Congress, he was extraordinarily effective at getting what he wanted.

For most of our lifetimes, we have been in a situation that is something of an aberration. When I was 10 years old, hoping to be able to write history about presidents when I grew up, it seemed very glamorous. I thought these people were, to crib a phrase from Leonardo DiCaprio, "kings of the world." The president was the centerpiece of the American political solar system, the center of our foreign and domestic policy, the most powerful person in the American government, and America was astride the world. That was the case from Franklin Roosevelt until the last year of George Bush's presidency.

In the 1930s, Congress and the American people granted Roosevelt extraordinary influence over domestic affairs. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, they extended that power into foreign affairs. After 1945, Americans thought it was a good idea for power to flow to Washington. That enhanced the power of presidents. People liked federal action and federal programs. Congress was inclined to defer to the chief executive in foreign policy because we had to win the Cold War. Then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Americans grew more skeptical about Big Government. Power began to flow away from Washington. When the Cold War ended, foreign policy seemed less urgent. The result is that now we are returning to a time in which presidents don't have the kind of power that they had between the 1930s and the 1980s.

Dwight Eisenhower became president of the United States in 1953, at the apex of presidential power. But that power was enhanced by the man himself and the situation in which he found himself. It is hard to imagine a leader in a more commanding position. As the hero of World War II in Europe, Eisenhower enjoyed as august a national and world reputation as anyone who has ever entered the White House. With his impeccable reputation for character and integrity, he was as much a national father figure as George Washington.

Eisenhower had been elected by a landslide, and in that election he took both houses of Congress back from the Democrats. …

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