Every president needs moral authority to lead

Every president needs moral authority to lead

The Dallas Morning News is publishing a multipart series on important issues for voters to consider as they choose a president this year. This is the third installment of our What’s at Stake series, and it focuses on presidential leadership. Find the full series here.

There is a flawed and perhaps even misbegotten public perception about the presidency that too often distracts us from accurately assessing candidates for the office. Too often, it seems, we operate with the belief that every president enjoys the same amount of power simply because he occupies the same office as his predecessors.

If that were true we wouldn’t see some presidents extending their influence while others appear to shrink in office. In fact while the office of the presidency is infused with power, much of the president’s ability to lead exists outside of the official lines of authority. Much of a president’s power stems from what Theodore Roosevelt termed the bully pulpit.

Other political offices allow the men and women who hold them to command public attention. But no other office in the United States approaches the scale or the immediacy the American president has to command public attention and thereby potentially rally public support.

But here a president’s power is tempered by outside forces. Every president may get a megaphone, but simply shouting louder than everybody else doesn’t make a person powerful. Influence often stems from the moral authority a president can amass using that bully pulpit.

When a president calls us to a greater national purpose or makes decisions that are broadly seen as fair and driven by good impulses, he (and someday she) can drive extraordinary results. He’ll have the public on his side, even when many people disagree with his policies if what he is pursuing is fair, instills pride in national action, or serves laudable goals. And such public support can transcend poll numbers, as we saw with George W. Bush when in his second term he was able to win support for military spending from an anti-war Democratic Congress. Much of the country was turning against the war, but the country wasn’t going to turn against its soldiers.

Marshaling moral authority

So what’s at stake in our presidential elections is more than who will hold the office. What’s at stake is whether the person who wins in November can marshal the moral authority necessary to unite the country, prioritize national problems, and rally our political system to carry us through perilous moments ahead.

Presidential leadership is one of those topics that fills history books. It is much harder to spot in real time than with the lens of history. But there are compelling examples from recent history and from our toughest moments as a country that offer relevant lessons for the challenges the country faces today.

First, we’ll take on a misleading cliché. It’s often been said that in a moment of crisis, this country tends to rally behind its president and therefore has built-in strength. We think of Franklin D. Roosevelt following Pearl Harbor, when he led this country into World War II, joined a coalition against two of the dangerous tyrannical regimes and prevailed.

But assuming national unity is automatic in a crisis is a false reading of history. This nation has often been united in tough moments because of the sound leadership of our president. Consider, for example, the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Many people today will remember a united country, but a careful reading of events shows deliberate approach that led the country through the shock of the moment, away from raw anger, and toward a more productive strategy of combating terrorism systematically with the help of NATO and other allies.

The groundwork for that unity was laid with speeches made in the two weeks that followed the attacks. From the Oval Office, Bush calmed the country. From a mosque in Washington, D.C., he pushed against religious bigotry. From the national cathedral he helped the country mourn. And from Ground Zero he gave a speech of just a few dozen words: “I hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people … who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon.” These impromptu remarks captured the raw emotions many Americans felt and channeled them into a productive outlook, thereby setting up his speech to a joint session of Congress that put forward a plan for responding to the attacks. The country rallied because of a broad perception that the civilian authorities had a handle on the sudden, understood what Americans felt, and were going to meet the new challenge facing us.

If that seems like a simple point, it has profound implications. In a moment of crisis a leader needs to instill confidence in his or her vision for facing the future. Had FDR waffled after Pearl Harbor, the country likely would have fractured with a debate about what to do. If Abraham Lincoln was unsure of what he wanted in 1861, it’s likely the North would have split amid competing factions, some of which wanted reconciliation with the South on any terms. And following 9/11, if the president failed to offer a response most people could believe in we’d remember that period as one of national division.

There are few permanent political victories, so partisan politics did reemerge after 9/11 and we’ve had serious debates about a series of national security decisions that followed. But, especially when our nation has been attacked and suffered great losses, there are enduring political legacies in our history, most of which stem from a president understanding the moral question of the moment and acting to meet it, even if doing so required overcoming opposition.

Lincoln sits at or near the top of presidential rankings because he understood the moral underpinnings of the Civil War and called the nation to a higher moral purpose of abolishing slavery. Lincoln’s legacy endures today because he translated the national sacrifice into a moral gain.

More recently, in George H.W. Bush, we saw a president who understood the moral power of uniting Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall even as West German officials appeared hesitant to unite their own country. Bush’s leadership ensured the arc of history would lead to expanding freedom in the eastern half of Germany and much of the rest of Eastern Europe.

There are other such historical examples. Dwight D. Eisenhower used the power of the United States to stand against communist aggression on the Korean Peninsula, which cemented the American position in the Cold War to counter the expansion of a tyrannical ideology. John F. Kennedy also showed his dedication to checking Soviet aggression during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And Ronald Reagan famously marshaled public opinion against the Soviet Union. In each case, we can see how the president offered moral clarity on fundamental issues involving human freedom and the ability of this country to defend itself against a would-be ascendant ideology.

On domestic policy, there usually isn’t a stark contrast between good and evil. Instead, what’s required of a president (or presidential candidate) is to amass moral authority by uniting Americans behind common solutions, offering an optimistic tone, and by having the courage to pay a political price to make hard decisions that might be unpopular with some in the short run but will lead the country to a better place in the long run.

Barack Obama’s speech in Dallas following the July 7 slayings of police officers helped bridge a political divide, for example. And Gerald Ford’s decision to offer a path to citizenship to people who fled Vietnam after the war put him in line with the values of most Americans whose heart broke for refugees of the conflict America had just withdrawn from.

Other presidents confront openly immoral positions. We think here of Lyndon B. Johnson pushing for civil rights legislation even while facing down bigots inside (and outside) of his party. His push to expand voting rights was difficult at the time but undeniably built a better future for the country.

Few appreciate that one aspect of Harry Truman’s successful campaign in 1948 was that he showed the limited political reach of segregationists by winning election while also facing down a third-party Dixiecrat candidate.

The success of a president

A thread running through successful presidential candidates and influential presidents is that in word and deed they demonstrated that they understood the larger moral struggle facing society and then led by inspiring other Americans to join with them. One aspect of that leadership is often successful presidents forge stable and lasting teams of advisers who serve with them for years, often in very demanding posts, and therefore can develop and implement needed reforms.

In real time, it can be difficult to see how such leadership will work out. For example, in the 1980s Reagan was castigated for offering seemingly simplistic views and millions of Americans thought he was risking nuclear war with a confrontational rather than a conciliatory tone toward the Soviets. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Roosevelt faced a large portion of the country that opposed entering World War II before Pearl Harbor even as he took steps that proved useful when we eventually did enter the war.

But in the end, the presidents who rise to the top, who prove to have enduring political legacies, are the ones who navigate past partisanship and instead focus on leading the country as a whole to serve a purpose greater than ourselves. Every president will claim to do so, of course, but not all of them actually do it. The anti-AIDS initiative, PEPFAR, endures because saving millions of people from the ravages of a brutal disease is something this country can be proud of. Lincoln and FDR will always rise to the top of presidential rankings because they were willing to rally others through prolonged and brutal wars against tyranny. We suspect the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will rise in history’s assessment if democracies long endure in those countries as well. In any case, it will prove to matter that this country responded to terrorism by supporting the spread of democracy.

At the same time, Andrew Johnson will always belong at the bottom of presidential rankings. He set the stage for the rise of Jim Crow and decades of oppression. Similarly, we suspect Richard Nixon will never be vindicated by history. His was a presidency without a moral center.

An American century

What’s at stake this year is a decision about who can better rally the country to meet its crises and orient itself toward greater purpose. History will notice if we, as Lincoln called for, serve the better angels of our nature. And history will reward us if we act on the belief, as a more recent president noted during a different time of crisis, that “[w]e are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.”

Today we face a pandemic, a recession and a rise of authoritarian states. We are faced with a crucial test of American leadership in the world and at home, a leadership founded by the sacrifice, ingenuity and commitment of the American people and their elected officials. As in the past, we need a president who believes we can learn from history and who can act on the belief that we have the power and talent to once again create “a more perfect union.”

That, we believe, goes hand in hand with defending and spreading liberal democracy well into the 21st century. There is no reason why, with the right leadership, this young century cannot be another American century; and, moreover, that a more unified United States of America cannot stand as a beacon of progress, both social and economic, for another century and beyond.


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