Roosevelt had come to power 12 years before in the bleakest of hours. No one knew whether the world as it was known could long endure amid destabilizing unemployment, Dust Bowl dislocations and plummeting confidence in the familiar American order. Yet, under Roosevelt’s leadership, the Constitution and the market economy survived, and Nazi tyranny and Japanese imperialism fell. Now, in our own extraordinary moment, facing pandemic and panic, we are desperate for the steadying hand that Roosevelt offered America not so very long ago.
Alas, there is no such hand in the White House. Consumed by his own narcissism and will to power, President Trump has failed to rise to the occasion as he attacks the media, exaggerates progress and indulges in public self-pity. The presidency, as Roosevelt knew, is “pre-eminently a place of moral leadership,” a beacon of stability in unstable times. In this hour, the office isn’t broken, but the incumbent is.
In the 1880s, the British writer and statesman James Bryce observed that the American president has “a position of immense dignity, an unrivaled platform from which to impress his ideas (if he has any) upon the people.” His influence can therefore be nearly total. “As he has the ear of the country,” Bryce wrote, “he can force upon its attention questions which Congress may be neglecting, and if he be a man of constructive ideas and definite aims, he may guide and inspire its political thought.” Our incumbent’s only definite aim is to justify his actions (and early inaction) and rile up his base in pursuit of reelection.
As we enter a prolonged period of disease, death and economic pain, we must think hard about presidential leadership — about what we need, what we want and what we must demand. Roosevelt met the moment because of his empathy, his life experience, his faith in America and his insistence on the centrality of fact. We are almost certainly facing a choice in November between Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. So, it’s time to ask: Which of these men is more likely to approximate our greatest 20th-century crisis president?
Offering both faith and facts are essential. “The people of the United States have not failed,” Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address. “In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. ... They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.”
He understood, too, that we need a leadership grounded in reality, especially in wartime. “Your Government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst, without flinching or losing heart,” Roosevelt told the nation in 1942. That same winter, he leveled with us, saying, “The news is going to get worse and worse before it begins to get better. The American people must be prepared for it and they must get it straight from the shoulder.”
Presidents must give it to us straight. Those who get in trouble — Johnson and Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate — think they can sugarcoat the truth or deny reality outright. I fear Trump and the coronavirus pandemic have now joined that dispiriting list of presidential failures, and we are only beginning to count the wages of misleading the people.
This has not been a week for horse-race politics. Americans are settling in for a long, Great Depression-like siege. Americans will soon turn to assessing whether Trump or Biden would be the better president — whether an unstable, demagogic, self-absorbed fantasist or an imperfect but stable, accomplished and empathetic public servant should preside over a depleted and fearful nation. Biden is no Roosevelt — no one is or may ever fully be — but he can lead us in an ethos informed by the lessons of history and of hope. Trump has not and cannot.
In 1933, a friend told Roosevelt that he might well be remembered as the greatest of presidents if he succeeded in defeating the Depression, but that he would go down as the worst if he failed. “If I fail,” Roosevelt replied, “I shall be the last one.”
Donald Trump won’t be the last American president. But history — ancient and recent — tells us that, come November, we ought to make Joe Biden the next one.