Governing, however, is a different story. The framers wanted a strong executive but one who was accountable, too, reined in by shared and separated powers. As a consequence, the president can’t simply impose — he needs consensus and cooperation. William Howard Taft lamented a century ago that the president “cannot make the corn to grow, he cannot make business good.” President Obama knows this constraint well: A president can’t create jobs, will victory in the two longest wars in American history, protect the nation from the European debt crisis or even plug an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
2. War enhances a president’s power and reputation.
This was true for Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose reputations were strengthened by wars won decisively as a result of their efforts in office. When I asked Jimmy Carter why we haven’t had a great president since FDR, he replied, “Because we haven’t had a good war.”
But for most 20th-century presidents, military conflict has hurt rather than helped them. Harry Truman left office with an approval rating of 32 percent, largely because of the stalemated war in Korea; Lyndon Johnson chose not to run again in 1968 because of the Vietnam quagmire. George H.W. Bush won his war against Saddam Hussein, but he conflated that victory with what Americans really cared about, a sagging economy, and this contributed to his failure to win reelection. George W. Bush is hoping for the best in his Iraq war, but history is likely to deliver some unkind cuts. Obama doubled down in Afghanistan and now owns that war, but is seeking an early exit. Of late, getting out of wars has been better for a president than getting into them.
3. You must have a strong character to be a successful president.
Character is critical to a president’s legacy: Think of George Washington’s probity and realism; Lincoln’s willfulness and compassion; FDR’s confidence and optimism.
But character is tough to assess. Is it defined by personal behavior? Or does it pertain only to civic and public performance? FDR was an adulterer but a great president. John F. Kennedy was a womanizer (as former White House intern Mimi Alford’s recent book reminds us yet again), but he gets high marks for inspiring a nation and averting nuclear war.
LBJ deceived the public about Vietnam, yet his civil rights legislation and parts of his Great Society programs made him a transformative president. And what about Richard Nixon, who undermined the constitutional system he was sworn to protect but was one of the most consequential foreign policy presidents?