William Casey King, the author of “Ambition, a History: From Vice to Virtue,” is the executive director of Yale University’s Center for Analytical Sciences.
Ambition is a strong component of the American character. From rags to riches, log house to White House, community organizer to commander in chief, nowhere is this idea more pronounced than in the American presidency. But the presidency has a complicated relationship with ambition. It takes enormous ambition to win the job, but the position is structured to restrain its expression.
President Obama is well acquainted with these constraints. You can hear it when says he won’t have another debate with Congress about raising the debt limit. Or when he pushes for “common sense” gun-control measures that an “overwhelming majority of Americans agree with” — but that are possible only if Congress passes them.
Our founders, in their wisdom, saw to it that presidents’ ambition would be constrained. Our system of checks and balances was driven in part by a desire to mitigate ambition’s destructive potential by frustrating the president’s ability to get things done. This idea is reflected in “The Federalist 51,” in which James Madison wrote, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
Often the greatest American presidents find opportunity in adversity, welding their ambition to a higher cause and thereby becoming elevated. Comparisons have been drawn between Obama and both Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But these earlier presidencies were coupled with greatly increased executive powers that often overstepped the bounds of the office. Lincoln assumed them as a necessary expediency of civil war, though many blasted him for trampling on the Constitution. FDR explicitly asked for increased powers in his first inaugural address, but it took four terms and a surprise attack on America for him to fully assume them.
And therein lies the difference with Obama’s presidential ambition. Obama the constitutional scholar seeks change through consensus rather than overstepping. On the heels of George W. Bush, who greatly expanded executive power, Obama was elected as much for what he was not as for what he was. After Bush, we became deeply suspicious of growing executive power. The nation craved a quieter type of ambition, focused on forging consensus in enacting big changes.
In 2008, Obama seemed to embody this new ambition. His confidence in himself — and in our chance for redemption in a time of war and economic adversity — was infectious. His victory was as much a repudiation of what had brought us to those depths as it was an affirmation of American ambition. His election made us feel that, even in an era of constrained economic drive, if we could make Obama president, our ambition was not only alive and well, it was healthier than ever.
Since then, Obama has attempted to realize ambition in ways not often applied to great presidencies. He has made generous efforts of conciliation in the Middle East, in early visits with Republican leaders in Congress, in his rhetorical commitment to “not red states and blue states, but United States” and in his inclusion of Republicans in top Cabinet spots.
So, if Obama’s presidency is deemed great, it must be in terms not often applied to presidents: compromise and consensus. He took power while the nation’s youth were consumed in a war in Iraq launched on false evidence. The economy seemed in free fall. The automobile industry was floundering. Millions of jobs were lost in the year before he took office. And in every state, people were losing their homes and their self-worth. With a calm hand, he has steadied the ship of state.
He has pursued big changes but hasn’t been afraid to compromise for much less than he’s sought. Unlike Lincoln and FDR, he has stayed within constitutional limits. In his campaign for health-care reform, for example, he let go of the public insurance option. He wanted more stimulus than $787 billion but stopped pushing when it became clear he wouldn’t get it. He extricated us from Iraq, brought Osama bin Laden to justice and advanced far-reaching policies to regulate Wall Street. He has championed gun control, knowing the struggle that will ensue, because he believes that the right thing is not always the popular thing. And he did this all within the rule of law and the constitutional boundaries of his office.
Neither FDR nor Lincoln were known for their ability to build consensus among the opposition — in fact, quite the opposite. Whether or not Obama’s new definition of ambition takes hold will take time to assess. But calls for a return to greatness are the wrong impulse, nothing but a frightened clinging to the past.
Republicans and many Democrats have criticized Obama for being a weak leader, a charge that has stemmed from his inability to fully achieve his lofty legislative goals. But this criticism misunderstands the strength of Obama’s restraint, the courage of his patient belief in compromise.