Looking for the man or woman on a horse

Can the 2016 presidential race produce a transforming leader?

A RECENT BOOK by Aaron David Miller argues that the United States should be satisfied with the great presidents we have already had – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt – and that we should stop seeking greatness in our current day leaders. Although we approach politics from different political parties and are of different generations, we respectfully disagree with Miller and believe that others agree with us as to what the American people are really looking for in 2016.

James McGregor Burns, in his seminal 1978 work, Leadership, established two distinct archetypes for describing political figures:  the transactional leader and the transforming leader.  Burns, a long-time professor at Williams College who died last summer at age 95, described transactional leaders as those principally concerned with delivering tangible benefits to constituents in exchange for their support, while transforming leaders are those who seek to inspire by appealing to the higher ideals and aspirations of their constituents.

We believe the nation is yearning for a transforming leader, as Burns envisioned.

In his autobiography published in 1913, Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the “the sharp difference between what may be called the Lincoln-Jackson and the Buchanan-Taft schools, in their views of the power and duties of the President.”  Roosevelt explains the Lincoln-Jackson view: “Occasionally great national crises arise which call for immediate and vigorous executive action, and that in such cases it is the duty of the President to act upon the theory that he is the steward of the people, and that the proper attitude for him to take is that he is bound to assume that he has the legal right to do whatever the needs of the people demand unless the Constitution or the laws explicitly forbid him to do it.”

Succinctly, the Lincoln-Jackson school pushes the envelope and expands the power, and arguably the influence, of the presidency, while the Taft-Buchanan school believes in a strict construction of the Constitution and a limited role of the presidency.  Not surprisingly, Theodore Roosevelt was an advocate of the former.

As the nation was reminded by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her 2013 book, The Bully Pulpit, Theodore Roosevelt had undergone an angry falling out with William Howard Taft, his chosen successor.  Roosevelt ran against Taft in 1912. Thus, there may have been a personal aspect to his construction and naming of the two models of leadership.  Arguably, Taft’s major problem was that he was not Theodore Roosevelt, that whatever he did wasn’t bold enough or progressive enough, nor did he push the envelope with the same vigor as TR. Buchanan may suffer, given that he preceded Lincoln. Buchanan, however, was tepid in his reactions with respect to slavery-the burning issue of the day, trying to not alienate any of the elements of the coalition which elected him in 1856.  Would anyone be updating Theodore Roosevelt’s theory, certainly both Roosevelts would be included in the Lincoln-Jackson school, while Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover would be in the Buchanan-Taft camp.

Professor William Leuchtenburg has written how difficult it has been for any president since Franklin Roosevelt to match up to the image of FDR’s tackling the nation’s great economic crisis in the first 100 days.

However, after what appears to be a decade or more of drift and questionable decisions, especially regarding the tragedy of waging war without any understanding of either the short-term costs or the long-term consequences, the American people are looking for the man or woman on the horse, a bold transforming leader who will not be a prisoner to pollsters and political consultants.  We need a transforming leader who can inspire young people to enter public service as did both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Sadly, the pollster John Della Volpe has recently concluded that Barack Obama has missed his opportunity to do the same.  In 2013, Della Volpe summarized the findings of the annual survey of young Americans’ attitudes towards politics and public service.  In short, millennials – among Obama’s most enthusiastic backers – were rapidly becoming disillusioned.  “If you were to call it an Obama generation, there was a window” Della Volpe told the New York Times last year, adding that “that opportunity has been lost.”

Last year’s mid-term election provided a far worse message to Barack Obama than similar messages received by other presidents in the sixth year of their party’s hold on the White House.  Looking at Roosevelt’s fate in 1938, Eisenhower’s in 1958, Johnson’s in 1966, Ford’s in 1974, Reagan’s in 1986, and George W. Bush’s in 2006, one can see a pattern where the party in power does poorly. The 2014 election, however, delivered a message beyond that traditional swing of the pendulum. US Rep. Nick Rahall in West Virginia, who had served his district for almost 40 years, lost by 18 points. West Virginia had been so reliably Democratic, it even voted for Mike Dukakis in 1988!  Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas, whose family has been active in that state for generations, lost by the same margin. We question whether anyone in the current era can govern for eight years without being buffeted in a similar manner.

If a transforming leader emerges in 2016, our next president would fall in the footsteps of those who actions defined the 20th century.  Here are a few examples of presidential decisions which were made without reviewing the results of focus groups or polls:

  1. Franklin Roosevelt’s pursuit of Lend Lease.
  2. Harry Truman’s dismissal of General MacArthur.
  3. John F. Kennedy’s rejection of the generals’ advice in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  4. Lyndon Johnson’s advocacy of far ranging civil rights laws.
  5. Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

Compare those bold actions with the failure of recent presidents to inspire the American people.  Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” speech in 1979 tops the list, although it is a rather long one.  After sequestering himself at Camp David, Carter announced his conclusion. “The gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide,” he said, and spoke of “paralysis and stagnation and drift.”  Carter dismissed his cabinet, but nothing seemed to change.  The American people’s reaction was to vote Carter out of office 16 months later.

There is no monument to James Buchanan or William Howard Taft in Washington, DC, nor for Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, or the hapless Carter.  No dinners are held in their honor; no holidays are celebrated to commemorate their lives; few books have been written about them.  They were not transforming leaders. Students at Boys State and Girls State (see tagline below) may quote John F. Kennedy in Berlin or Ronald Reagan in Normandy, but never Buchanan or Taft.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

As we approach 2016, who will be that man or woman on the horse who will adhere to the Lincoln-Jackson-Roosevelt school?  We anxiously await.

Lawrence S. DiCara, a lifelong Democrat, is a partner at Nixon Peabody and former president of the Boston City Council.  Patrick Reynolds, a Republican, is a selectman in North Attleboro and a student at Providence College.  They are both graduates—more than 40 years apart—of Massachusetts Boys State, a week-long summer citizenship sponsored by the American Legion.