Commentary Magazine

Power and the Presidency:
Required: Pragmatic Idealism

The powers and prerogatives that President Eisenhower now invokes as a matter of course would, if foreseen back in 1930, have shocked the Franklin Roosevelt and the Harry Truman no less than the Herbert Hoover of those days. There has been a general increase in the demands made on government in our country, but those now made on the President’s office have established it as the chief focus of power within government as well as the chief focus of national political life outside it. Yet traditional American attitudes to political power and to the state still put enormous difficulties in the way of the man who tries to make the Presidency what Clinton Rossiter has described as “a clear beacon of national purpose.”

Our prejudices against the power of “big government” have been so strong that they prevented one President, Herbert Hoover, who happened to share them, from accepting the full responsibilities and enlarging the inherent powers of his office in a time of bitter crisis. To be constantly in action, innovating, directing, planning, investigating (as the state must in a modern society) may even strike the head of the state himself—it still does most Americans—as fundamentally unnatural. America’s success is credited to the efforts of the “free individual” rather than to those of the state; the conventional judgment of historians and political scientists that an American state has hardly existed seems to confirm this belief. Our history is seen as a providential escape from politics. In contrast, Europe, a complex and tightly organized civilization with a long continuous history, has for centuries found the supreme role of the state an inescapable necessity, and European politicians view the state as the most natural fact of political life.

Forty years ago Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann expressed fear lest our tradition of a weak state, as exemplified by the number of weak Presidents since Lincoln, should seriously diminish our ability to fulfill “the promise of American life.” Although “strong” Presidents like Wilson and the two Roosevelts moved far along in the direction Croly and Lippmann desired, they were limited (but also guided) by the American fear of Leviathan. It still disturbs the sense we have of America’s destiny even to anticipate the possibility of our society’s being dominated by a supreme agent of power and law who would make all the important decisions affecting our collective life. And though we may call increasingly upon the state, as indeed we have lately been doing, for help and guidance, our political image of ourselves remains remarkably Jeffersonian. Public authority is still suspect, its use an aberration or a necessary evil; “free society” is still the key phrase—and not the Hamiltonian words: government, administration, law, regulation, direction, and program.

It has been easy for recent historians influenced by the “realism” of Holmes, Dewey, Beard, and Veblen to reduce the claim that individual initiative, not the state, has made American greatness. Modern scholars have seriously undermined traditional assertions about the crucial role of “free enterprise” by pointing to the extraordinary degree of state regulation and activity that obtained in the United States in what we assume to be the palmy years of laissez-faire, and by demonstrating that if state intervention did at times cease in one area or at one level of government, it emerged soon enough somewhere else.’ Indeed, Americans have lived without “free enterprise” longer than with it. Like religious freedom, it did not come over on the Mayflower; up to the American Revolution, Colonial and local governments followed mercantilist practices, controlling wherever possible such aspects of the economy as wages, prices, and conditions of labor, and setting production quotas.



The forces that by and large worked against attempts to create a centralized American state were born in the Colonial period, when local and special interests were understandably hostile to the elaborated and centralized executive power that pre-Revolutionary regulatory policies required. But we often confuse Colonial hostility to distant, centralized power, or to executive power, with anti-statism as such. Many of the radicals of the Revolutionary period who were venerated subsequently for their healthy suspicion of the state were essentially believers in legislative supremacy, or at least champions of local rule; they were far from being all-out opponents of governmental power per se, for they supported many illiberal acts on the part of popular legislatures and local authorities during the “critical period” preceding the adoption of the Constitution—just as their populist descendants have done down to this day.

Though many of the conservative Founding Fathers themselves believed that the “excesses of democracy” and other difficulties met with under the Articles of Confederation were due in part to “a want of sufficient executive power,” the long struggle against the British Crown and its agents had given rise to a deep and popular distrust of large-scale executive power. By the end of the 18th century, Americans began to believe also that their new independence meant not only freedom from foreign domination, but a promise of freedom from the Old World “curse” of statecraft itself. America was to be a country essentially without politics—without those deep conflicts of interest and conviction which had called states into being in the first place, and which implied a constant and bitter struggle for power within a society. Even so realistic a student of politics and history as Madison thought that the new Federal system and balance of powers under the Constitution would diffuse “interests” and mitigate or eliminate entirely the “evils of faction”—strong political parties were not foreseen. The Constitutional Fathers’ hatred and fear of party government, as Franklin and John Adams saw it work in the British Parliament, had also bred a hope that, in our case, men of principle would be able to govern by virtue of popular deference to talent and experience rather than by dependence on party organization.

During the Jacksonian period (1828-1840) forces making for a weakened national state and “free enterprise,” but also for intense party rivalry, came fully into their own. Andrew Jackson liquidated the vestiges of the essentially mercantilist policies that Alexander Hamilton and his successors had tried to impose on the country. In his veto of a new charter for the Second Bank of the United States (1832) Jackson declared that state intervention to establish a near monopoly like a national bank was incompatible with the ideals of a free, equal-rights society.

At the same time, however, that the national government called for equal opportunities and limited its own role in the national economy, government intervention on the part of the individual states was increased in order to help finance the many new industrial and commercial enterprises (particularly in transportation); and often it was Jacksonians themselves who led the fight for such state assistance. And that national power itself, while retreating in one sector, might logically have to be advanced in another was shown when the Jacksonian Chief Justice Taney, in the Charles River Bridge case (1837), justified Federal intervention to break a transportation monopoly in order to uphold the same equal rights that Jackson had invoked against Federal intervention in banking. While a strong and active national state thus seemed to be required to protect equal rights, in fact the state did not assume that role in the market place, and our national ethos since the “Age of Jackson” has been permitted to remain complacently anti-state.



The Founding Fathers’ fear of “faction” and demagogues seemed only too well realized when party government and egalitarianism advanced hand in hand under Jackson and Van Buren. A class of purely opportunistic politicians sprang up, and also a popular excitement over office-seeking that Tocqueville mistakenly called a passion for politics. A new kind of disaffection with politics became evident among men of aristocratic temperament like John Quincy Adams as well as among essentially conservative “reformers” and uprooted intellectuals like the American Utopians (all of whom were also revolted by the consequences of social upheaval under emergent industrialism). This contributed one more element to the American distrust of politics and state—the actual motive in this case being the resentfulness of people who were losing power and prestige.

After the Civil War, as corruption in public life continued to increase, and at an even more rapid pace, and business began to acquire greater prestige than politics, the old arcadian hope for a land free of the curse of politics came to life again. While well-born men like Henry Adams renounced politics altogether, calls were heard from other quarters for “reform” and “good clean government”; a return was envisaged to a golden age and to the reign of truth and simplicity—again, to no politics at all.

The prestige of the state, of politics, and of the office of President sank meanwhile to a new low. Even so, the use of governmental power steadily increased, but it was a mindless, and almost surreptitious, use of that power, and the need for a strong Chief Executive became more imperative than ever.

American Hegelians, German-trained political scientists like John W. Burgess, and imperial-minded young Tory politicians drawn from an old elite—like Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Hay—now began to find new charms in “the state.” Like Plato’s republic, their vision of an ideal state was bred of a time when drastic remedies seemed necessary. Young Roosevelt shrilly advanced the idea of the state as a moral regenerator, and envisioned the transformation of what had become a corrupt and soft America into a Sparta fit for heroes.

The traditional American piety, with its Lockian conviction that legislatures spoke for the people and were the most reliable instruments of government, had been shaken by the post-Civil War corruption of politics. In view of all the local and special interests represented in Congress, however legitimately in many cases, the hope that that body would learn to speak swiftly, soberly, and effectively as the voice of the nation was seriously weakened. Woodrow Wilson suggested an alternative in 1885 in his book Congressional Government. Accepting Congressional supremacy as an incontrovertible but dismaying fact, Wilson, influenced by European and English ideas, suggested that an American variant of cabinet government would be able to give Congress direction and bring it under the control of intellect and honesty. It was only after 1900 that he began to see more potentialities in the office of the President itself, coming to conceive of the Chief Executive as the true leader of the nation, using all the powers at his disposal to push definite programs through a Congress that by its very nature could neither represent all the people nor itself govern.

But, as Wilson himself was to discover, when Presidents do have the will to act and speak for the nation as they see fit, they have to contend not only with wise if sometimes baffling Constitutional checks, but also with the anti-state traditions whose history we have just sketched. These have involved distrust of power and suspicion of strong executives; a popular inclination to follow simple political absolutes and adopt ideals that derogated politics and the state; and a sheer disgust with politics as such and a lack of faith in political action that did not exempt the Presidency.



In the 20th century the office of the President has been confronted with enormous changes, in America and in the world, which have made many of our earlier liberal institutions and beliefs obsolete, and which demand resolute state action. Yet the President must still defer to our reluctance to admit that state power is necessary, and he must construe each revolutionary step that he takes—like the subsidizing of agriculture—in such traditional terms as “the strengthening of free enterprise.” Everywhere he has more or less to disguise the hand of the state lest he be charged with encouraging “creeping socialism.” He has to use the power of Leviathan without creating or associating himself with the idea of Leviathan. We ask for and need state intervention, but continue to resent the idea of it as something that compromises our principles. In short, we expect the President to protect us from the harmful consequences of our own ideals.

Indeed, the President must often do precisely those things to “protect and defend the Constitution” which the myth of the President as servant of the creed of the “free individual” denies him the right to do. Lincoln was already confronted with this dilemma—he who had to soberly consult the needs of the day rather than the more moral demands of the Abolitionists, or of citizens genuinely anxious about suspension of habeas corpus, or of Northerners alternately saying “Let the South go” or “Crush the rebels without mercy.” For it is only when the President forsakes ideology and absolutes, no matter how morally justified, for more limited objectives that he is on the way to becoming Leviathan’s master. And this the American public has always sensed.

The best President must have a sense of institutions, and be at ease with questions of power, if he is to marshal adequate national power for truly national purposes. None of our recent Chief Executives exemplified these capacities better than Theodore Roosevelt, who is important in our history less as the progressive, trust-busting defender of the people than as the founder of “the modern Presidency.” It was T.R. who consciously started to accumulate the powers and prestige the office now possesses. Despite his sometimes boyish delight in power, he instinctively recognized America’s need for a strengthened state in the world of the 20th century. By judiciously using patronage, by publicizing important issues, and by “appeals to the people,” he was able to expand the place of the Presidency in American society, and to succeed fairly often in using his office to articulate “the will of the nation” against a Congress usually reluctant to support legislation he favored. He used his powers as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chief diplomat even more openly, and conducted foreign affairs in such a way that since his day the foreign policy of the United States has, to all intents and purposes, been overwhelmingly the foreign policy of the President of the United States.

Woodrow Wilson, like Roosevelt a statesman predominantly Tory in inclination, followed him in using patronage and the “appeal to the people” to bring pressure on Congress. Wilson also introduced close liaison between Congressional leaders and the White House, resuming personal appearances before Congress and helping to push his administration’s programs through both houses. It was T.R.’s and Wilson’s achievements as molders of the Presidency rather than as progressive reformers that set the stage for F.D.R., who not only increased the scope and prestige of the office but used it to bring about changes in American life that went far beyond anything Wilson or the first Roosevelt had ever proposed—or the second Roosevelt himself understood.



It was not until the New Deal and Fair Deal generation that the full potentialities of the modern Presidency were tested and that it could become what it by now seems irreversibly to be—the dominant branch of the national government. The Presidency now requires more than ever the Tory virtues of empirical wisdom, a sense of fact, familiarity with how the system works, and the practical ability to run it. But these very virtues have tended to discourage daring or imaginative policies such as a “brains trust” might favor, and the modern Presidency would appear to confirm the charges, leveled by conservative critics of America from Tocqueville to Raymond Aron, that our politics of compromise and expediency are dangerously resistant to and lacking in intellectual discipline and principle.

And indeed, more intellectual rigor, or some attempt at establishing seriously considered principles, might have remedied the inadequacies of the expertise that Roosevelt and Truman brought to bear on the depression, on negotiations with Soviet Russia, the postwar problems of Asia, and the problem of coping with Communist infiltration at home. Surely, as Richard Rovere’s recent study of “the Eisenhower years” shows, it is a disdain of mind and ideas rather than a failure of ideas as such, that we find in so much of the present administration’s conduct of affairs: in the Dulles foreign policy, in the White House’s role in the McCarthy-Army spectacle, in the Dixon-Yates and polio vaccine incidents, and in the field of conservation. In each case, too little was thought out in advance, and too little was thought out in action.

To call for more “mind,” however, is not to invoke Woodrow Wilson as an ideal. Of the three Presidents who made “the modern Presidency,” only Wilson was an intellectual. Reading Wilson’s speeches and writings, however, one is repeatedly struck by the strong tendencies to absolutism in his Politik, and by an arrogant intellectualism of the kind that can be more dangerous in politics than no mind at all. Certainly, a man with less brains or courage would not have taken the Presidency so seriously, but a man with more tolerance for the opinions of others would not have opposed, as Wilson did, Theodore Roosevelt’s plan to bring disinterested experts and commissions responsible to the President into government service.

Ever since the New Deal, when expertise “at the top” became a political necessity, we have waited for “mind” to become a natural rather than an incidental part of executive power. Failing this, we might expect to see in the President at least the development of a kind of pragmatic, if untutored, wisdom about power. For in our society power and responsibility seem to educate rather than corrupt Presidents—as witness the great example of Lincoln in the last century. The character that the Presidency has acquired makes demands on the Chief Executive which he has to fulfill regardless of his own personal feelings about the extent to which he wants to exercise his powers. Paradoxically, the more impersonal and larger the office has become, the more it requires qualifications of a personal, innate, concrete sort. Success or failure in the Presidency has little to do now with party affiliation or even previous public experience. What counts most is intuition, instinct, temperament. At the same time, to be too sensitive to finely drawn moral distinctions, to be too finely tuned, may be as much a weakness in a President as were such opposite qualities as Franklin Roosevelt’s lack of deep moral seriousness or Harry Truman’s and Warren Harding’s obtuse loyalty to friends who never should have been allowed to become associates.



In 1952 the liberal intelligentsia saw Stevenson as a mirror image of themselves. As such they perhaps loved him better in defeat than they would have in victory. One finds oneself asking if such a man would have been temperamentally capable of making the decision to manufacture the H-bomb, or the decision Lincoln made in the terrible year 1864 to agree to lose two or three Union soldiers to every Confederate killed. In a military crisis Eisenhower might be expected to fill the job of President better than a humanely educated gentleman like Stevenson. It might be well also to remember that it was his moral sensitivity, high-mindedness, and intellect that made Woodrow Wilson adopt “no compromise” in the League of Nations fight and thereby condemn himself to defeat; it was his belief that nothing short of unqualified ratification of the Versailles Treaty by this country could clear him personally of the responsibility for bringing the United States back into “power politics” and spilling American blood. The very qualities that people have praised in Stevenson could turn out to be limitations and impediments in the White House.

Any uneasiness about power that Stevenson may possess seems to come largely from a personal moral fastidiousness similar to Wilson’s. On the other hand, all the popularly held reservations about politics and the state in American life seem to have come together to complicate Eisenhower’s attitude toward power—and indeed to produce his personality as President. In general, he seems to have little identity apart from the ideals to which he is committed; he hardly exists as a person except in his various roles as President. Of these, he obviously prefers that of “head of state.” Like George Washington, he is intent on being dignified, disinterested, and a dispenser of justice. Somehow, he still seems to think that politics is unworthy of Americans. We can understand how this distaste for party politics was confirmed when in the 30’s, a West Pointer trained in disinterestedness, he went up to Capitol Hill to lobby for the army and was deafened by the clamor of party strife; and then when, as Presidential candidate, he had to compromise—unnecessarily—with Jenner and McCarthy. But beyond the oft acclaimed but nonetheless limited “simple integrity” and “truthfulness” of the American soldier that moves Eisenhower to reject politics, one senses something of a cultural lag.

It is taking President Eisenhower a long time to dissociate himself from the Abilene, Kansas, of his youth, the West Point civics book, Herbert Hoover’s beliefs, and a nostalgic view of American life—all of which are today not so much wrong as largely beside the point in running the Presidency. Eisenhower’s State of the Union messages may reveal his general acceptance of that “third American revolution” which was the New Deal, but he is probably moved to do so by conscious calculation rather than by deep-seated instinct. He does not know or enjoy the statecraft of which Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were masters. Intellectually, as he himself has said, he is a very simple man but, unlike Roosevelt’s and Truman’s case, this weakness is intensified rather than balanced by his political instincts. In his heart Eisenhower is still too much the servant of the moral abstractions of our old American creed, too much the anti-political and un-political American who likes neither the state nor politics, to play comfortably or for long both the lion and the fox. The retreats and compromises of political life, the evasions and double talk, the little deals for everyone and the big deals for a few must be done for him—if done at all—by an obliging Vice-President or a less conspicuous chief of White House staff. As his press conferences show, he often does not seem to know or want to hear about what must be done if his party or “team” is really to govern. He does not see, for example, what difference it makes if he endorses the desegregation decision: the Supreme Court has spoken and that makes the law. He reddens when unsavory matters are brought to his attention, things that the politicians F.D.R. and Truman would have already known about and laughed off—perhaps too easily—as part of the game.

Eisenhower’s refusal to be political; his desire to keep his hands clean and uphold the simple American virtues; his hope that the force of ideals, of character, and of truth will change the world or save it—all this has only rekindled the nostalgia on the part of many people in our country today for an older, easier America. Recently, the President was the subject of an admiring biography by Merlo Pusey, who in a previously written life of Charles Evans Hughes had showed much sympathy with the old progressivism that Hughes embodied. Here, perhaps, lies a clue to the more immediate sources of the President’s sense of politics: namely, the fact that he came of age, politically, during the years of the progressive movements.



Progressivism was, in many respects, the last great respectable American movement to incorporate all the traditional American beliefs about the state and power that we have reviewed here. For many of the more idealistic progressives, politics was, to use a word Eisenhower favors, a “crusade” to make American life, and the whole world, moral and decent by such “clean” political means as the open primary and open diplomacy.

The progressives, committed to the institutions and beliefs of the 19th-century small entrepreneur, could be found in both parties before the First World War. President Eisenhower is not so much bound to the institutions they upheld as to their sense of the world, particularly to their naive sense of what was politically possible. Like the progressives, he seems to believe that politics should be personal moral choice and private virtues writ large; if these cannot be exactly said to be his ideas, they are certainly his instincts.

This belief in the ultimate responsiveness of the world to human will and virtuous intentions is one of the oldest and firmest features of American life. An important aspect of the predominating mood of American culture, it has subsisted in uneasy alliance with the operative, pragmatic character of our institutions, whose equilibrium of balancing interest groups is rarely upset enough to permit the absolute demands of American “virtue” to assert themselves. A people’s view of itself is usually at war with its “interests,” but American interests on the whole have been sufficiently balanced and satisfied to assuage the larger aspirations inherent in our Promethean image of ourselves as crusaders of public morality.

Since the time of the progressives, our idea of ourselves and the actual demands of our interests have drifted further apart than ever. “Free enterprise” and the “yeoman farmer” do not describe how we act, but only what we still believe we aspire to. The President has the incredibly difficult job of satisfying both our proclaimed ideals and our interests. American politics has thus increasingly involved hacking at granite and evading active commitment to the moral causes and crusades to which Americans are so susceptible. As the focus of an infinite number of conflicting claims and interests, the President faces the need to act and to lead. He must play politics and cannot afford the luxury of political or moral purity. The word “deal” that has been associated with three administrations in the last fifty years really describes what Presidential politics has become, whether we designate its moral outlines as “Square,” “New,” or “Fair.” In the longer view, since the time of Washington our best Presidents have managed to straddle forces which on the one side would have debased the state, and on the other would have demanded that it serve only ideal causes.

Mr. Eisenhower has not faced crises on the scale of the Great Depression or Secession. It may be that he has been saving his strength for when it is needed, judging, correctly, that Americans are too preoccupied with their interests to be really in a mood for crusades. It is to be hoped that, should a crisis come along, the demands of the office and of the times will do for him—if he is re-elected—what they did for Thomas Jefferson, getting the better of whatever fixed ideas and personal fastidiousness he is prone to.

Whether the nation chooses Stevenson or Eisenhower, there is too much at stake in the world for us to be patient with decency that is uneasy about power, or with power that bumbles along unguided by ideas.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.