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WWFTD- What would Franklin and Teddy Do? Leadership for the 21st Century

Rip Walsh is an Adjunct Professor at Long Island University who writes about U.S. History and Politics.







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The inspiration for this book was a poll taken after the 2016 presidential election, when there would be a new occupant of the White House. In it, 100 of the most eminent presidential historians in the US were asked to rate the presidents on various attributes. The top four presidents were: Abraham Lincoln (1), George Washington (2), Franklin Roosevelt (3), and Theodore Roosevelt (4). I whole-heartedly concur with this assessment, as those four men were the best at executing the extremely difficult office known as the Presidency of the United States. As the famous novelist John Steinbeck once noted, “We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. He is ours and we exercise the right to destroy him”. These prominent statesmen were able to handle the rigors of the job and accomplish great things for the nation. Not all presidents have been so fortunate.

The other forty men to hold the Executive Office for the most part were good and honorable men, but could not master the intricacies of the position. After the four great presidents at the top and a handful of good presidents that follow, historians for the most part are comparing decent, mediocre, and downright bad presidents to one another. It might be beneficial for someone entering the office to study and emulate the four great presidents, but that seems not to have happened. The federal government, as a whole, has fallen into crippling indecisiveness, partisanship, and stagnation, which sadly means very little gets done. Congress is as responsible, if not more so, than the president for the current state of affairs, but the nation looks to its highest elected official to boldly lead the way forward. Lincoln and Washington obviously have a lot to offer in terms of leadership skills, and they will be consulted on occasion here, but I am concentrating on the two Roosevelts, as their presidencies are more relevant to our three 21st Century occupants of the Oval Office- Donald Trump. Barack Obama, and George W. Bush. We will examine the main areas a president must content with- the economy, foreign affairs, and domestic concerns, and speculate how Franklin and Teddy might have handled things differently than Trump, Obama, and Bush did.

First, a brief overview of the presidency itself. What makes a president great? Top of the necessary attributes would be the ability to lead, especially during times of crisis. A president must lead the nation from the front, pointing the people down the right path. To assist in leading, a president has to be an excellent communicator; informing the country of what needs to be done and how it will be accomplished. He or she needs to create a feeling of shared endeavor with the American people, thus a communal triumph when the task is complete. Lincoln and FDR were the best communicators the presidency has known, though they employed different methods. Abraham Lincoln used the spoken and written word to get his sentiments across, in speeches, addresses, letters to newspapers, inaugural utterances, and annual messages to Congress. In contrast, FDR engaged the nation through the fairly new medium at the time of radio, to rally the populace behind him. Speaking in calm and reassuring tones, FDR, in his famous “Fireside Chats”, explained to the country in words everyone might understand, what the situation was and how it would be handled. Today, presidents have the immense influence of Internet social media at their disposal. Has their use of it be more detrimental than positive? An issue we will examine in the domestic affairs section.

Not every president, thankfully, faces a national crisis when he or she enters office, but still must strive to move the country forward, toward a fuller realization of our national ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Washington, Lincoln, and FDR all encountered serious threats to our national existence, and handled them with a poise and dignity which ensured their spots among our top presidents. George Washington had to convince a skeptical populace that the new federal government under the Constitution could govern better than the powerless Congress of the Articles of Confederation, while not trampling the people’s basic rights. Abraham Lincoln tackled the toughest crisis of any president, a country breaking apart even before he took the oath of office. Lincoln not only re-united the splintered United States, but initiated the biggest social change in our history, the freeing of 3.5 million slaves. FDR led the U.S. during its largest economic downturn, the Great Depression, and then through the greatest war in human history, World War II. Theodore Roosevelt did not face an existential crisis, but tackled the major issue of his time, capitalism run amok, with a gusto not seen before or since by any president.

It is a sometimes overlooked truism that not all presidents enter office with the same mandate or popular support. Our three 21st century presidents were not given ringing endorsements by the electorate. Both George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote to their opponents and gained the presidency via the Electoral College. Barack Obama defeated John McCain in 2008 in both the popular and electoral count, but it appeared a portion of the nation had trouble accepting that an African-American had actually become president. Under such circumstances, a president must expect to work extraordinarily hard to win over the people to his program. Abraham Lincoln was not even on the ballot in most of the Southern States during the presidential election of 1860. When he took the oath of office in March, 1861, seven states had already declared themselves out of the Union; faced severe opposition from Northern Democrats and his own Republican party was divided into numerous factions. Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt became president upon the death of President William McKinley in September, 1901. Dubbed the “Accidental President” by the press, TR needed to prove himself worthy of the office that had been unexpectedly thrust upon him.

On the flip side, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower took office with popular support not enjoyed by any other president. Both were war heroes, beloved by the people, and in Eisenhower’s case, a renowned world figure. Each had an opportunity not readily available to other presidents of marshalling public sentiment toward solving the country’s most pressing social issue- equal rights for all citizens. Sadly, neither took full advantage of the chance. Grant and Eisenhower both gained in popularity during the last presidential poll; Ike rising to number five among historians. Grant also moved up numerous slots due to his dismantling of the KKK in his first term. He deserves credit for his actions to protect the newly freed slaves, but a great president guides to the future as well as the present. It is interesting, as well as tragic, that the major domestic concern for both Grant and Ike would be civil rights, highlighting that no lasting improvement in the status of African-Americans had been made in the 90 years from the 1860’s to the 1950’s.

Grant employed the army between 1869 and 1875 to guarantee that African-Americans could exercise the right to vote and hold public office. African-Americans were elected to the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and to the governorships of several Southern states. The nation and Grant himself, however, wearied of Reconstruction during his second term, and it would be the president himself who put the final dagger into the heart of progress. Fearing voter backlash for the Fall 1875 state elections, Grant refused the governor of Mississippi’s request for federal troops to protect black voters. Reconstruction died as Jim Crow descended, returning control of the Southern states to whites, and assigning African-Americans to second class status, as they lost the right to vote and hold office.

The situation in the South had not changed substantially when Ike won the presidency in 1952. Eisenhower was not a big supporter of civil rights, believing it an issue best handled by the states (which was the main problem all along). If given his druthers, Ike probably would have ignored civil rights as much as possible during his time in office, while concentrating on the Cold War. Fate intervened, and it would be Eisenhower who inadvertently set the wheels in motion. Appointing the “safe” Earl Warren to the post of Chief Justice in 1953, Ike would be flabbergasted when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregation in the famous 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education. Eisenhower did send federal troops to Arkansas in 1957 to enforce integration of schools, but remained a lukewarm supporter of the movement. A president must be cognizant of the time and place he occupies in history, and strive to permanently remove obstacles in the path of equal rights for all Americans. Grant and Eisenhower were not able to do this, despite the tremendous support they bought into the Presidency. Should it damage their standing among presidents in future polls? I will leave that for presidential historians to debate. For this book, the bigger question is, have the American people become satisfied with mediocre at best leadership? A strong argument can be made that the presidency has been in decline for the past half century, with the government as a whole falling into inertia. Will it take another Franklin or Teddy to break it out of its lethargy? The populace will ultimately decide.

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