“A partisan (party politician) thinks of the next election, a public servant thinks of the next generation. ”
The American presidency is a peculiar political institution. Unlike its counterparts throughout the world the American president is both head of state and head of his party. Unlike other political executives it is an institution in of itself, a separate branch of government. There are no comparable political offices throughout the world. This only heightens the mystery and mystic of the office. Throughout its history scholars have tried to erode that mystery by studying every aspect of the institution. Almost every possible characteristic, quality, and feature of the presidency and of its occupants have been studied. However, over the course of its 223 year history many fundamental questions of the presidency still remain. This includes the question, how does a president succeed?
We should start with asking the question, which presidents were the most successful? The consensus among experts is that Lincoln and FDR are considered the top two best presidents in American history. One governed in the 19th century, the other in the 20th century. One was a Republican, the other was a Democrat. Is there anything in common between these two excellent presidents? What is the common denominator to their success?
Both presidents approached governing in the same manner. Neither were idealists advancing an ideological agenda, rather both were pragmatists focused on solving the problems of the present and choosing solutions no matter which party supported them or which special interest opposed them. Pragmatic policy is neither liberal nor conservative; it is the right thing and the most effective thing to do at the time. It’s choosing what works, government or the free market, conservative proposal or liberal, Republican or Democratic. For example, Roosevelt’s solutions included both conservative ideas and liberal policies. One political historian observed that, “In 1933, FDR moved left and right simultaneously.” And Lincoln famously quipped, “My policy is to have no policy.” Lincoln and FDR's pragmatism allowed them to be open minded and choose a wide range of policy options.
According to author T.P.M. Barnett, “Lincoln’s legislative agenda included: the Homestead Act [which transformed the American west], the Pacific Railroad Act, which quickly led to the first transcontinental railroad line; the Morrill Act, which provided public lands for land-grant colleges; the Legal Tender Bill, which created the first, single paper currency the United States had ever enjoyed, and allowed the federal government to raise, in conjunction with a second National Bank Act, $450 million of wartime finance through the issuance of Treasury bonds; and finally, an omnibus tax act that both established the forerunner of today’s Internal Revenue Service and, for the first time in American history, taxed the incomes of individual Americans.”
These accomplishments matched Lincoln's governing and political philosophies. Lincoln argued, “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or cannot, so well do, for themselves -- in their separate, and individual capacities.” Lincoln believed that the government should play a pragmatic role in society in order to provide the services individuals could not or should not do alone. Lincoln acted upon this belief and spurred growth and prosperity in the United States even during the Civil War. The agenda he enacted rival that of FDR’s New Deal.
Yet, the most important achievement Lincoln is remembered for is his success in winning the Civil War and uniting the country. Pragmatism was also critical in this accomplishment. Every step along the way to victory Lincoln kept his options open and made practical, pragmatic policy decisions. This even included his stance on the issue of slavery.
“My paramount abject in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it: and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what forebear, I forebear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that men everywhere could be free.”
Leading presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek wrote of Lincoln, “Pragmatism worked for Lincoln because legitimate order and radical change were virtually synonymous in his basic leadership stance. Pragmatism proved an effective stratagem for Lincoln because he operated within the contingent structure for action in which it was most appropriate, the one that maximized presidential independence from received governing formulas. The authority to repudiate gave Lincoln’s pragmatism its range and vitality.”
Seventy years later, Lincoln's pragmatism was a template for FDR. Jonathan Alter once described Roosevelt as the “most pragmatic modern American president” and “that strong sense of pragmatism remained the defining characteristic of FDR’s entire presidency.”
FDR’s advisors would have agreed with that assessment. David Ginsburg, advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “His key was somehow to prop up capitalism, but he was a pragmatist. He was seeking to find solutions to the practical problems that beset people of the day.” Another FDR advisor Eli Ginzberg stated, “He was the least ideological person that ever lived. That’s why I think he was such a great success.”
And According to Clark M. Clifford, a former presidential aide to four presidents, pragmatism is the best approach to have. “I would urge a president to approach new problems with an open mind and not from a standpoint of previous determination. Flexibility in a president is a quality to be highly prized.”
That is exactly what Roosevelt did. He went into office with all possible options on the table. Roosevelt discussed it in a speech he delivered at Oglethorpe University. He declared that the Depression would only be overcome by “bold, persistent experimentation.” He articulated this view further by arguing, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. One thing is sure. We have to do something. We have to do the best we know how at the moment... If it doesn't turn out right, we can modify it as we go along.”
Some historians perceived this as “lacking any sustained political vision.” President Hoover even labeled Roosevelt as a “chameleon in plaid.” But presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek argues, “Historically, the pragmatic approach to policy questions has not signaled the absence of something else, but the presence of something quite rare. A president can be a pragmatist only to the extent that he commands political independence from the existing state of affairs and asserts an expansive warrant for discarding received political formulas.” Skowronek is arguing that pragmatism challenges the status quo and offers innovative solutions, but it is only attainable when the old guard is weak. Skowronek also wrote, “Roosevelt was least successful when he was least pragmatic.”
Presidents must be able to adapt to the challenges they face. They must be able to consider all possible options. A predetermined course of action increases the likelihood of presidential failure. A rigid ideology is equivalent to a predetermined course of action. A rigid ideology will paint a president into a corner. It will limit his options.
Take for example Herbert Hoover. Hoover has become a synonym for failure, because Hoover’s presidency is considered one of the worst administrations in our nation’s history. During the Great Depression Hoover rigidly conformed to his ideals of individualism and the belief that government shouldn’t help combat the economic crisis. A newspaper columnist at the time wrote, “It must be philosophical, because it’s certainly not practical.” His principles made him overlook the pragmatic possibilities. Hoover’s presidency revealed the consequences of conforming to a rigid ideology.
In the current political environment, building political support by emphasizing an uncompromising and inflexible ideology will help campaigning but hurt governing. Ideology will straightjacket a president limiting his policy options and increasing his chances of failure.
The exceptional presidencies of Roosevelt and Lincoln illustrate the possibilities when ideology is replaced by pragmatism. Presidential success must be built upon pragmatism. That is what history has repeatedly taught us. Pragmatism allows flexibility and thus the ability to adapt. Presidential success is not possible without it.
Pragmatism should be used to enact policies which promote the president’s principles, but when challenged pragmatism must trump principles. That is the key to presidential success.
For more in-depth research on this topic please read “The Pragmatic Presidency”
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