When George Washington arrived in New York City in late April of 1789 to assume the presidency of the United States, he was uncertain as to how he should approach the new office and had no clear plan for the many challenges facing the young republic. His fellow citizens were just as uncertain about both their new system of government and the nature of the presidency. The “Chief Magistrate,” as Washington called himself, had no precedent to follow in forging his duties. No nation and no people – not the ancient Greeks, not the Roman Empire that had inspired the Founders – had ever put into practice a government that was truly of, by, and for the people. The Constitution had only recently been ratified, and only after much bickering among the states. Moreover, Article II, which deals with the presidency, said little more than the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons” and that he “shall from time to time give to the Congress” information on the state of the union.
One of the first affairs of state facing Washington was the inauguration itself. But even here there was much confusion as to how, when, and by whom the new president should be inaugurated. Indeed, Washington even arrived a month-and-a-half after the presidential term was supposed to officially start.
After taking the oath of the office on the balcony of Federal Hall, the newly sworn-in president entered the legislative chambers and gave his address to a joint session of the First Congress. Beginning very matter- of-factly with the words, “Fellow citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives,” Washington chose not to spell out details of how government would work or the responsibilities of his new office. Rather, Washington offered only one specific policy recommendation that day – a hope that the Congress would add a bill of Rights to the Constitution. In fact, an early draft of the inaugural address, written by the general’s friend David Humphreys, ran to seventy-three pages. Washington wisely discarded it. He knew that the details of public policy were not what the people wanted and, more importantly, not what needed to be said.
Washington’s relatively brief remarks – only 1,425 words on eight neatly- written pages – were designed to show restraint and humility. And so were his actions. William Maclay, a senator from Pennsylvania seated in the gallery, noted that Washington seemed nervous during the ceremony and “embarrassed” by all the attention. The president’s hands and voice even trembled while reading the address, more so, quipped Maclay, than had been the case during the Revolutionary War when the general faced a “leveled Cannon or pointed Musket.”
But Washington looked the part. He wore the uniform well and had been the “man on horseback” who had, against all odds, led a ragtag band of poorly trained blacksmiths and ill-equipped farmers to victory over the world’s greatest military. During the inauguration, he spoke modestly about his reluctance to assume power and reassured his fellow countrymen uncertain about their future. Washington struck the perfect chord – he played to the heart and soul of his countrymen.
This inauspicious but symbolically powerful beginning for the nation captured the mood of the people and established Washington as the embodiment of republican ideals. Ever since then, presidents have been expected to do the same – to be both head of government and figurehead of state, and be able to both reflect and nurture the nation’s heart and soul. Most have struggled with the charge.
It has been the same for candidates. Those who have been successful in getting elected understood that the quadrennial presidential contests are more than civic rituals for selecting a leader. At certain critical moments in history, a presidential election ends up being a national referendum on the state of American democracy. A democracy, after all, is not a static form of government. Democracies are works in progress, continually dealing with new challenges and the age-old issues of the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the role of government. During such critical elections, voters find themselves confronted with the matter of whether to reaffirm or reform, or perhaps even “reboot,” the great experiment in popular government.
When Americans go to the polls on November 6th they will have a ballot full of choices, including an important race for president. But, they will be voting for something even larger and more important than the President of the United States. The year 2012 is another one of those elections – a contest for the very heart and soul of the nation – and it is not the first time this has happened.
THE GREAT CROSSROADS OF HISTORY
The nation periodically finds itself at a crossroads, facing historic struggles over not just public policy issues, but over far more fundamental matters such as what it means to be an American, the proper role of government in society, how to create economic opportunity, and our collective vision for the future. Indeed, even a cursory glance at history shows presidential elections to be situated at the great crossroads of the American adventure.
Case in point: If ever there was a battle for the heart and soul of the nation it was the 1860 election. The United States was racing toward war and disunion, being torn apart by contradictions inherent in the existence of slavery in a democracy.
The election of 1860 thus ended up being a referendum on the national identity, whereby Republican Abraham Lincoln, whose victory in both the primary and general elections in 1860 was the political equivalent of a “hail-Mary” pass, kept the union together and delivered the great founding promise of equality.
Lincoln’s reelection four years later was no less important for the nation’s heart and soul. His message of unity and magnanimity resonated during those troubled times, and is best illustrated by his continual appeal to the “better angels of our nature.” It was Lincoln, after all, and not his opponents or critics, who sought to make the nation whole, preaching during his Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all… let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…” The Great Emancipator understood that these elections were about much more than himself or his opponents. And so the soul of the nation was cleansed and the experiment in popular government made more perfect.
In 1932, the nation was again poised at an impasse. The debate that year asked whether government had a responsibility to care for those less fortunate and to mitigate or manage the economy, which had collapsed into depression. Beyond the question of whether Franklin Roosevelt or Herbert Hoover was the man for the job, the election was as much about morality as it was about economics.
FDR’s New Deal set a bold, costly new direction for government, providing Social Security to seniors, bringing electricity to rural areas, and employing the jobless to build public works projects. When banks collapsed and businesses failed, capitalism was resuscitated as much with compassion for those adversely impacted and policy as they were through the rebound provided by the mobilization of America brought on by World War II.
In a larger sense, FDR’s success was because he recognized what Hoover never understood: that the presidency was “not merely an administrative office,” but rather “preeminently a place of moral leadership.” During his famous “fireside chats” which reassured the public, Roosevelt assumed the role not of commander-in-chief but of preacher-in-chief, capturing the imagination and spirit of the people and in so doing, the heart and soul of the nation.
This struggle for the heart and soul of America has been played out time and time again in American history. It happened in 1948, when the plain-spoken haberdasher from Missouri, Harry Truman, connected with average voters across the country during his “whistle-stop” campaign. It also happened in 1960 when the torch of leadership was passed to John Kennedy, who’s “New Freedom” policies both reflected and harnessed the national mood. More recently, in 1980, Ronald Reagan campaigned in a way that captivated the public with a new direction for America.
THE GLORIOUS BURDEN
Campaigning for the presidency and serving as president are, arguably, among the most challenging endeavors imaginable. Truman, for instance, likened being president to riding a tiger, noting that “a man has to keep on riding or he is swallowed.” Warren Harding complained that it was not his enemies, “but my friends… They’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights.”
At the same time, in terms of formal powers of governance, the presidency is by design one of the least powerful offices of its kind. The Framers, after all, concerned about the potential for an abusive tyrant, focused their energies on limiting presidential power. Authority in the White House is thus a product of influence and persuasion, requiring candidates and even commanders-in-chief to keep a finger on the pulse of the country.
How candidates have gone about doing this has been more art than science. Although scholars have long studied voting behavior, they have discovered that casting a vote for president is a complex calculus and an inexact science (think of the premature “Dewey defeats Truman” headline from 1948). Single-issue voters, straight party-line voters, and rational voters, who college textbooks suggest vote for their economic self-interest, make up the electorate. But voters have also shown themselves to be susceptible to forces as divergent as Bill Clinton’s oratorical skills, Ronald Reagan’s one-liners, Gerald Ford’s stumbles, and John Kennedy’s good looks. These days, voters must also contend with the unprecedented spending by Super-PACs on negative ads as well as the fear and misinformation being spread through the social media.
It is generally postulated by scholars that people do not vote based on the vice presidential nominee, same goes for the prospective first lady. But, it is not so simple. Like a bowl of New Orleans gumbo, the voting recipe contains a pinch of vice president, a dash of the first lady, two cups of economic policy, and seasoned to taste with the candidate’s experience and previous voting record. And that is just for the broth!
What is clear is that some people cast a vote more with their hearts than their heads. Accordingly, voting is more than narrow economic self- interest. It includes matters of the heart and character, as they relate to the core values and direction of the nation. The transformational leaders recognize this.
Voting in presidential campaigns is not unlike youthful contests for class president or prom queen. Both are, to a degree, popularity contests. Cynics might even suggest that some sort of role-reversal episode of the Twilight Zone has befallen the American electorate whereby they now pick their Miss America winners by what they say about public policy but their presidents by how they look. But, it is more complex than that. Popularity and personality include a candidate’s ability to connect to the social and moral fabric of America. Here, many candidates have struggled mightily to make a profound and meaningful connection with voters and to understand the larger trends and concerns facing society.
Mitt Romney is not the first presidential candidate whose initial “likeability” has been questioned and whose “authenticity” seems slow to manifest itself with the people. Al Gore and John Kerry were both dogged by suggestions that they were “wooden” and “robotic.” The average voter had trouble relating to them, and vice versa. During the 2000 campaign, commentators even famously joked that many Americans would rather “have a beer” with George W. Bush than with Gore. Likewise, compared to Ronald Reagan, who had a magical rapport with people, some voters found Jimmy Carter lacking in substance. George Bush, who had trouble understanding the experiences of ordinary voters, contrasted poorly with Bill Clinton’s almost instinctual understanding of what people felt and wanted. All this figured into the outcomes of the elections of 1980 and 1992.
THE HEART AND SOUL
Obama and Romney have become standard bearers in a full-fledged struggle between the left and the right and business and entitlement. Their supporters advocate substantive and seemingly irreconcilable differences on the issues. Perhaps nowhere are the vast ideological differences more apparent than with the core debate over the role of government. For example, while there used to be broad consensus that government funding for infrastructure projects was good for the economy, today federal support for road, bridge, and school construction is decried as reckless overspending at a time of great recession. Even the modernization of sewage systems and airports has become politicized. It appears that there is now a Democratic and Republican way to fill in a pot-hole.Yet, it was not that long ago that Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, prioritized the interstate highway system as not only essential for national security, but as a lucrative jobs project and a vital investment in America. Not anymore.
With Romney pushing the conversation about American values in new directions, positions that have been accepted for a century are now open to vigorous debate. Debate over the size of legal immigration quotas has been replaced by how to deport illegal aliens and how best to empower police to prevent illegal immigration.
Sadly, the American experiment has been infested with a bitter anger, irrationality, fear, and incivility from both sides. This element in our body politic, however, is not new. Throughout American history there have been periods when fear replaces fact and incivility replaces a sense of common purpose. In the 19th century, the “Know-Nothing” party and Ku Klux Klan, which arose after the Civil War, were forged from xenophobia and bigotry. In the 20th century, Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest, and Senator Joe McCarthy, whose red-baiting soiled the political system in the post-World War II period, were both peddlers of fear and paranoia. More recently, the John Birch Society, Sagebrush Rebellion, and now the Tea Party have promoted a brand of politics that scorns negotiation and compromise in favor of ideological purity.
On the other hand, Americans are great people – we are philanthropic, indefatigable, optimistic, and hardy. America defeated global fascism in the 1940s and global communism in the Cold War. The American Midwest feeds a great deal of the world and American ingenuity has put a man on the moon, cured diseases, and established a beacon of hope and liberty for much of the planet. However, we are an easily excitable people.
Historically, the periods of incivility that strained our political and social order rose out of fear and paranoia. Generally, one of three factors has been present: a downturn in the economy that threatens job security and savings; a national security threat; or times of rapid and dramatic social change. Today it is something of a perfect storm in that all three elements are present. In many ways, the tone and tenor or politics might be the worst it has been since the Civil War.
Making matters even more challenging is the propaganda power of social media. The proliferation of news and political chatter on countless social media platforms has made it easier to spread messages of fear and misinformation. Much of the battle has been occurring online despite the awful truth that the lion’s share of it has not been edited, fact-checked, peer- reviewed, or even spell-checked.
Today’s decay in political and social civility coupled with the dysfunctional and divisive nature of politics is unsustainable. Dissent, debate, and dialogue are necessary ingredients for a healthy democracy, but only if they are civil in tone and constructive. A vibrant opposition party is essential, but a baseless obstructionist party is not.
The Framers understood this when they met in Philadelphia in 1787 to debate constitutional government. Men of great ambition and ego, they therefore disagreed philosophically on fundamental points of governance. Debates were as heated inside the chambers as the weather was outside that summer. But, they made it a point to value such guiding principles as cooperation and consensus. How else could they accomplish their task? The Constitution they produced is an invitation to struggle. Conflict is built into every nook and cranny of American democracy. The President appoints judges and cabinet officials, but the Senate confirms them. The President initiates a treaty, but the Senate ratifies it. The president can veto a bill, but Congress can override the veto. Accordingly, with a system built on checks and balances, a separation of powers, and conflict at every turn, the only way to govern or get things done is to compromise. It is a necessity ingeniously built into the system by the Framers.
Tragically, cooperation, compromise, and consensus are now seen as signs of weakness and condemned. It is no longer a matter of disagreeing over public policy. Rather, there is complete disdain for other points of view and opponents in a political contest or debate are viewed as enemies. Not only is it difficult to find common ground, there is no interest in doing so and those who attempt as much are viewed with contempt.
American voters have a choice in the 2012 election. Of course, there are many Americans who cast informed and judicious votes based on deeply- held views on an array of policy issues. But for others, the election is as much a choice between two competing visions of American culture and values as it is between two candidates. As such, politics is also a reflection of culture. The stage that Obama and Romney find themselves on is an outgrowth of the “culture war” against “secular liberalism” announced by candidates in the 1980s and 1990s, only it is more profound and divisive.
Consequently, parties have campaigned on such themes as: “win America,” “renew America,” and “take America back.” Romney recently proclaimed to a Republican audience: “I love America. I love the beauty of its rocks… and templed hills but a lot more than that I love the beauty of the American soul.” He has even belted out “America the Beautiful” on the campaign trail.
In this contest for the heart and soul of the nation, the candidate’s core values have assumed a central role. America is a land of opportunity and freedom, be it religious, social, political, or economic. In America, one has the ability to succeed wildly or fail miserably. Hard work, risk taking, and the entrepreneurial spirit helped forge the American success story. By any definition, Romney is a hard worker, a risk taker, and an entrepreneur. Romney is an adherent to the American creeds of individualism, opportunity, and capitalism.
Romney is also religious. A devout Mormon, it is undeniable that his faith is another core value. Romney reminds audiences that he was “brought up with Judeo-Christian ethics” and has positioned himself politically to reflect the conservative Christian fabric of American society.
Another core value would seem to be opportunism. Romney has adopted policies and politics he needed to embrace in order to succeed and grow business. He has, however, lately been running back to the political center, much as he did when he ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in Massachusetts.
And Obama’s core values? Like Romney, Obama is a complex person. Indeed, both men seem to be notoriously private and guarded.
Whereas his Republican opponents tout the Christian heritage of the nation, Obama has publically acknowledged the pluralism of America. He has therefore repeatedly suggested that the forces that bind us together as a people include tolerance, fairness, and diversity. A former community organizer, Obama’s penchant and preference for cooperation and consensus can be seen in his approach to governing and likely constitute another core value.
But his 2008 gaffe at a San Francisco fundraiser suggests he is less comfortable with the types of values espoused by his opponents. It was then that Obama off-handedly suggested small-town voters “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” as a way of dealing with their frustrations. Obama and Romney reflect the complexity and pluralism that is America. In so many ways, their campaign themes reveal longstanding threads in American character.
So, once again the nation finds itself at a crossroads. Mitt Romney has announced that the presidential debates and the election itself are “about something bigger” than the winner. He is right. This election will be a contest for the heart and soul of the nation. And so, Obama and Romney will need to rise above their personal differences and help to usher in a renewal of the American political experiment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert P. Watson, Ph.D. is Professor of American Studies at Lynn University, site of the final presidential debate of 2012, a newspaper columnist and frequent media commentator, and the author or editor of 34 books on American politics and history, including his latest: Affairs of State: The Untold History of Presidential Love, Sex, and Scandal.