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With the current Trump administration, the office of the President of the United States has faced unprecedented challenges and criticisms. One of the most prominent commentaries held in media and public debate is the lack of preparation and competency that Donald Trump has to become a successful president. It poses an important question as to what defines an effective president considering that the position requires no professional qualifications, an answer found in history based on the 44 individuals which have graced the highest office both in dignity and disgrace. A successful president is defined by highly moral character, focus on policy which benefits the public, and the ability to face crises; aspects which define their legacy and long-term impact on history.
The personal character of a U.S. President has tremendous importance in all aspects of the presidency and its position as an example in leadership and governance. While presidential ethics is an aspect of public politics, there is also a matter of representing values which are an indicator of the American democracy and Western freedoms. A president is expected to uphold a certain level of standards which honors the office. In order to govern efficiently and promote policy for the betterment of the country and its residents, a president must not only follow a specific political ideological agenda but rather display empathy, open-mindedness, integrity, and a number of qualities which would justify providing this individual with significant power and influence. Therefore, in a modern presidency, which differs significantly from the Constitutional times, accountability is key with more functional responsibility and the ability of the presidential power. As the federal government has expanded with new functions and legislative control, the presidential executive power, both explicit and implicit has increased as well.1 Thus, there is a higher level of responsibility, intellect, and understanding of governance required by a modern leader.
Moral leadership is a critical aspect of a successful presidency. The most iconic presidential figures the like of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and others demonstrated significant virtue and moral character, particularly in times of crisis which went on to define the nation. That is the primary necessity of an ethical character because every president faces new and unanticipated crises during their time in office, ones that require strong decision-making consistent with the laws and values of the country. During a situation in progress, there may be a moral grey area which a president must be able to navigate without compromise. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moral values required, nor are they going to be perfect in all situations. However, an effective president demonstrates a sense of personal virtue in a manner that does not compromise the moral status of the people and the office.2 In comparison, a demagogue is someone who demonstrates questionable morality and vice. The president must not abuse his power for personal gain, while a demagogue will seek to manipulate to the highest extent possible. While a president unites the people as a moral leader, a demagogue plays on their fears and seeks to divide to achieve greater control.
Although it is ultimately the role of Congress to pass legislation and enact policy, the concept of policy-building has consistently been an indicator of presidential success, particularly in regard to social and economic policies. Presidential-Congressional relations are one of the key components in successful policy-building as a president must find the support and votes to propose their agenda to lawmakers and interact among party members. Constitutionally, the president is the chief policymaker with a variety of mechanisms to influence and collaborate with Congress. Policy has historically defined a presidency, based on the immediate and long-term impacts which it has made. A successful president is commonly defined as someone who was able to guide through a large and widely supported legislature based on the agenda while being to manage legislative and political gridlock.3
However, not everyone would agree with this perspective, particularly proponents of a weak executive branch. For example, Sollenberger and Rozell suggest that presidents and their administrations often go beyond their constitutionally provided powers, become “presidential czars” by either using the executive order, agency leadership, or a friendly Congress to pass their politically motivated agenda and budgets.4 For them, a presidential administration should have much more limited roles in policy implementation. While both perspectives may have solid arguments, the Constitution requires presidents to sign or veto legislation. Therefore, it inherently requires a competent understanding of policy creation and implementation, as to be able to make a decision that would have positive impacts on national law. More often, legislation has a limited impact but there are instances where the law is extensive such as Obama’s Affordable Care Act or Trump’s tax reform. Since it was established that presidents are expected to demonstrate moral and political leadership, involvement in policy-building is vital since it has to consider legislative, judicial, economic, and public perception components.
Governance and Political Flexibility
Presidents must not only focus on policy creation but day-to-day governance. This includes delegating staff, communication, diplomacy, funding, and executive decision-making. This direct presidential governance and use of other instruments such as executive orders require significant competency from presidents. The administration in power is often tasked with staffing government agency leadership, courts, and advisors that requires a day to day presence, awareness, and proper exercise of presidential power. It can be argued that the president is similar to a business executive, but the administration under his command is much more complex and there are significant limitations and expectations from the governance aspect of the executive branch. 5
Reports from the Trump administration demonstrate the critical aspect of governance for a successful president. Based on accounts, it is suggested that there is strong disorganization in the White House under Trump, largely due to his poor leadership and governance style. This leads to constant breakdowns in the protocol, high turnover of staff, and a myriad of other issues, common in incompetent leadership and demagogues who seek to centralize their power. Meanwhile, successful presidents are known to have run highly efficient administrations with tremendous unity and support, with many of the officials during their time in power also known for contributions in policy or crisis resolution.
The challenging duties of the presidency in aspects such as policy-building and others often require collaboration with a variety of other lawmakers, officials, and even private citizens at every level. The commonly seen down-the-line party-based partisanship on values and policy has always been a strong concern for presidents. Administrations must learn to navigate and cooperate with all involved political parties and individuals. Successful presidencies which are judged on policy, have also been able to find common ground and offer compromises which would establish a national inter-party dialogue.6 While politicians are expected to demonstrate resolve at times, those who continuously pushed a hard line and refused to cooperate but rather attempted to divide often were regarded as mediocre or unsuccessful presidents.
Facing Crises and Long-Term Impact
Almost universally scholars and pundits alike agree that the manner in which presidents face crises, particularly ones that have profound historic significances often define their presidency. As a commander in chief, the U.S. President is provided with a wide range of executive powers which play a significant role in crisis situations, this includes declaring a national emergency and authorizing military use. Some crises may be external, such as foreign conflicts and natural disasters, while others are internal, such as a Constitutional crisis due to a president’s actions.
Referring back to a president’s moral leadership and character as well as interactions with his advisors and lawmakers, a successful president is expected to navigate crises with dignity and competency, as to protect national interests, preserve the office’s integrity, and united the nation. Even in the most divisive of times such as the Civil War under Lincoln or a critical nuclear threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis under Kennedy, presidents have demonstrated the ability to remain calm and execute solutions which were sometimes imperfect but were ultimately for the best of the country. Meanwhile, less successful presidents the likes of Trump and Nixon, not only drew the country into Constitutional crises but also chose to navigate it with instances of division and hostility. Every president has faced a crisis, and it required to take decisive actions in sometimes unclear or morally grey situations which present pressure far beyond its portrayals in media. However, competent leaders considered lives and American interests at stake, acting on reason and advice rather than impulse and self-indulgence.7 It is these characteristics and coming face-to-face with a crisis which reveals the true identity of a leader as either a successful president or a self-centered demagogue.
Finally, perhaps the most controversial indicator of presidential success is long-term impact and legacy. It is evident that the position of a president is historic and important in itself. However, legacy and long-term impact cannot be evaluated for decades or even centuries afterward. It is expected that presidents use long-term strategy and the benefit of the country in their policy and governance. Nevertheless, legacy cannot always be positive, and there are presidencies which are not defined by significant events which went down in history but remained vital for the time of the presidency and long-term impacts of some concept of foreign or domestic policy.8 Therefore, it is important to consider this aspect carefully as an indicator of success, but those presidents who are considered among the greatest earned this through their actions and governance when in office.
The political office of the president is one of the most complex professions and responsibilities a person may hold. The burden of power, governance, and influence should be given to those who demonstrate a set of qualities and skills while representing the will of the people at the given time. A successful president is characterized by high moral standards which allow to engage in beneficial policy building, uniting the country politically, the ability to face crises, and establishing a positive long-term impact on the nation. It is difficult to identify initially whether a person would make a competent president, but there are certain indicators and mindsets that determine the extent of an individual’s capabilities.
Blake, Michael. “Must the President Be a Moral Leader? “ The Conversation. Web.
Bohn, Michael K. Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions inside the White House from Truman to Obama. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015.
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Edwards, George C., Kenneth R. Mayer, and Stephen J. Wayne. Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making. 10th ed. Stamford, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2018.
Jensen, Elizabeth. ” A President’s Legacy, With All Its Complications.” NPR, 6, 2018. Web.
Sollenberger, Mitchel A., and Mark J. Rozell. The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012.
Stuckey, Mary E. Political Rhetoric: A Presidential Briefing Book. New York: Routledge, 2015.
- George C. Edward et al., Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making. 10th ed. (Stamford, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2018). 60-61.
- Michael Blake, “Must the President Be a Moral Leader? ” The Conversation. Web.
- George C. Edward et al., Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making. 10th ed. (Stamford, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2018). 355.
- Mitchel A.Sollenberger and Mark J. Rozell. The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012), 228.
- George C. Edwards et al., Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making. 10th ed. (Stamford, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2018). 260-261.
- Mary E. Stuckey, Political Rhetoric: A Presidential Briefing Book. (New York: Routledge, 2015), 40.
- Michael K. Bohn, Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions inside the White House from Truman to Obama. (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015), xvii-xxviii.
- Elizabeth Jensen, ” A President’s Legacy, With All Its Complications.” NPR, 2018. Web.