Saturday, February 16, 2013

Who is our greatest president?

The Davis Enterprise, this week, asked people on the street, "Who is our greatest president?" Most of the respondents got it wrong. 
“I guess I would have to say Obama, I think because he’s an excellent mediator.” ... “Woodrow Wilson, because of his idealism.” ... “Bill Clinton, because he fixed things.” ... “Bill Clinton. He’s a great president; he should be a king. Policies, charisma, leadership, you name it.”

Two, at least, had smart choices, although the person who picked Franklin Roosevelt had poor reasoning:

“FDR, I guess, because I like social programs.” ... “Lincoln. Saved the union and ended slavery.”
There are three possible right answers: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


Our first president did two things as president which have served our nation extremely well ever since he held that office:

First, Washington, by choosing to step aside after his second term and leave it up to the citizens to pick their new leader, established a democratic precedent for an office which inherently has many of the trappings of a king. He could have won a third and (had he lived) a fourth term, and effectively made the presidency a job for life, albeit with elections every four years. That would have been in line with how kings and other potentates worked. Once in office, they are there for the long haul. In that course, we would have lacked the new blood we get by regularly turning over the office, often changing parties, every four or eight years. With a limited amount of time, our presidents are compelled to do all they can to improve the country, while managing its business, in the limited time they have.

Second, Washington, with the great help of his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, effectively created the federal government out of nothing. It was not clear, even in the Federalist Papers written by Hamilton, exactly what the size and scope of our new central government would look like. The Washington Administration built it up dramatically, figured out how to use taxes and debt to pay for our needs, and established a working relationship with the states, respecting the division of responsibilities. Had Washington not been there, and had we started with someone less wise (like Thomas Jefferson), the federal government would not have gotten off to such a strong start, would not have built a healthy foundation and perhaps would have collapsed not long after the Constitution was adopted.


The argument for Lincoln is almost entirely built on the fact that he saved the union. Abraham Lincoln ascended to the presidency at the time of our nation's greatest crisis, and he was uniquely able to guide us through it. Lincoln deserves high praise for his leadership in the Civil War and historic greatness for emancipating the slaves. Lincoln won the war by employing large numbers of black-American soldiers, many of whom were escaped slaves. Their war efforts permitted and effectively required President Lincoln then to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. A secondary part of Lincoln's greatness, as president, was his greatness as a writer. His words, written and spoken, are themselves more eloquent than all other presidents we had before or have had since.


Despite the fact that FDR violated the Washington precedent of stepping aside after his second term--leading the Republicans, when they had a chance, to amend the Constitution to prohibit any later president from serving more than 8 years--his claim to greatness was built on three big factors: his profound leadership in the Great Depression; his leadership in our nation's largest military effort, World War 2; and his policies created during the War which served the cause of peace among all the major powers and the cause of economic prosperity in the decades after he died.

In hindsight, there are reasons to doubt some of the approach that Roosevelt took to solving the Depression. Much more is known today about the inadequacies of our Federal Reserve policies, which starved the nation's banks of cash and kept the economy sluggish much longer than it should have. However, in his time, Roosevelt is rightly credited with lifting the spirits of a sunken nation full of unemployed workers. FDR was a great public speaker, who inspired his country, when the people needed it. Using radio addresses, he was the first great figure of the mass media. It is overstated to say that Roosevelt "saved capitalism"--that was the argument of business honcho Joe Kennedy (father of JFK), who served Roosevelt as his first head of the SEC. However, FDR's reforms in the banking system and his regulations of the stock markets (designed smartly by Kennedy) ultimately helped to restore lost confidence and in doing so have served our nation well ever since. FDR's legacy of Social Security and other welfare programs is more of a mixed bag, as these ideas have been beneficial in some respects but harmful in others. None of his job's programs really accomplished anything in terms of getting us out of the economic swamp.

Much like he did throughout the Great Depression, Roosevelt used strong and comforting rhetoric in radio addresses to lead our nation in World War 2. Among his best decisions in the war were to put in place great generals at the top of his command, among them George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, and of course Admiral Chester Nimitz running the Navy. Roosevelt deserves extra credit for winning unconditional surrender from Germany and Japan (even though he died shortly before this took place). By completely destroying our enemies, we were able to help them rebuild as countries which could prosper without being threats to their neighbors. That decision played a large role in keeping the peace in Europe and around Japan since WW2.

Lastly, Roosevelt's Administration during the War set up the economic structure which allowed for more and more trade, and hence more prosperity after the War, than had ever taken place before in history. Additionally, the basic design of NATO (which came about under Harry Truman) was agreed upon during the War and served as an effective block on the communist powers and held the free Europeans together.


So who was our greatest president? Lincoln. Ultimately, it was Lincoln because he faced our nation's greatest crisis and brilliantly led us through it. Had Lincoln not been killed, it seems highly likely to me that he would have also done a much better job than Andrew Johnson did in leading our country's reconstruction.

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