Is Obama Destined to Fail? The Character Question

Why is Obama headed for failure?  And what makes for a “great president”, at least during the post-World War II modern era?  According to columnist Ralph Peters, it’s primarily a question of character.  The great presidents of the modern era – and for Peters this includes Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan – all suffered adversity before reaching the White House.  By overcoming this adversity, they developed an inner strength that enabled them to reach the pinnacle of power, and to achieve greatness once there. In contrast, Peters argues, more recent presidents, including Obama, have failed (or are, in Obama’s case, on the road to failure) because they combine ambition with a “fateful sense of entitlement.” In Peters’ words: “[Y]ou don’t build character by punching your ticket at today’s Ivy-League universities, then dashing straight into politics.”

What is one to make of Peters’ assertion?  I’m in the process of writing a longer post evaluating George Bush the Younger’s presidency, but Peters’ column gives me an opportunity to begin the discussion regarding how to “rate” presidents more generally.

Let me start by accepting, for the sake of argument, Peters’ opening premise that Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan were the three “greatest” president of the post-FDR era.  This is consistent with the evaluations of most political historians, as contained in the numerous polls ranking the presidents.  I leave aside for the moment any discussion regarding the validity of these polls, whether we can trust historians with this task, or the criteria for evaluating presidential greatness more generally.

Let me also say that I’m sympathetic with portions of Peters’ argument, particularly this part:   “These profoundly different men [Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan] had two other things in common: They weren’t lawyers, and they had the courage to make tough decisions, from dropping the first atomic bombs to telling the chieftain of an evil empire to tear down a wall.”  (As the prelaw adviser, I remind my students that if Peters is right, by choosing to go to law school, you close off the road to presidential greatness. Just saying… .)

For Peters, one develops the character needed to be a great president not by attending an ivy-league institution, but by experiencing hardship and overcoming failure. Rather than a life of affluence and entitlement, this typically means growing up of modest means in a rural or small-town background.  The great presidents knew what it was like “to sweat for a living.”

As someone who was raised in a hard-scrabble environment (I sweated when I wasn’t freezing in my daily walk to my high school – up hill – across the street and back, for four years) and who faced adversity (cut from my high school baseball team twice before finally making it!), I’d like to think I’ve developed character worthy of the great presidents.

Unfortunately for my presidential aspirations, Peters’ argument appears less persuasive upon closer inspection.  To see why, let’s consider the backgrounds of the modern presidents who are deemed less than great: Johnson, Nixon and Carter.  LBJ grew up in rural Texas. When he was 15 he ran off to California, and spent the next two years washing dishes, fixing cars, and surviving in part on the grapes he picked.  He later returned to Texas to attend San Marcos College, and his first job after graduation was teaching high school.   Nixon came from equally humble roots; his memoir begins, “I was born in a house my father built.”  His parents ran a “Mom and Pop” grocery store, and when Nixon was old enough he took responsibility for buying the fruits and vegetables, which required him to be at market at 5 in the morning. Medical expenses due to his brother’s illness (he had tuberculosis) stripped the family finances to the bone and as a result Nixon couldn’t afford to attend an expensive college.  At Whittier College, he played on the football team but only got into the game when it was either hopelessly won or lost.

How about Jimmy Carter?  Same story.  Carter remembers his childhood:  “We had a good life. We lived, along with everyone else, with no money and no electricity and no running water, hard work and that kind of thing.”  (A lot like my life today in Ripton.)   And, like Eisenhower, he attended a military service academy and later spent seven years as an aide to Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear navy.  When Carter’s father died, however, he chose to resign from the Navy and take over the family peanut farm.

We see, then, that the three worst presidents in the modern era were not the product of privilege.  Instead, all three came from humble backgrounds and certainly knew what it meant to “sweat for a living.”  Moreover, if we move back chronologically by one president, Peters’ argument grows weaker still.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt is typically viewed as the first modern president – and the greatest of this era.  He certainly did not come from “modest means”, as a visit to his house (which I recommend) in Hyde Park, overlooking the Hudson River and just down from the Vanderbilt’s mansion, will confirm. As an only child, FDR had an idyllic upbringing, much of it spent traveling overseas. He attended Harvard University (living in one of the Gold Coast houses) and was also a lawyer before entering politics.   Somehow he was able to overcome these handicaps to become one of the three greatest presidents, along with Washington and Lincoln.

I don’t mean to suggest that Peters is completely wrong, and that character is unimportant.  Indeed, one of the best-known studies of presidents is James David Barber’s book Presidential Character.  But even Barber uses a rather expansive definition of character to include background and temperament in his effort to explain, and predict, presidential greatness.  More generally, Peters’ argument suffers from a very common mistake – he chooses those examples that appear to confirm his hypothesis regarding the importance of character.  To see what I mean, suppose I wanted to explain what factors contributed to “presidential failure” and I chose Nixon, Carter and LBJ as my examples.  As I hope I’ve made clear from these brief biographical glimpses, the common factor leading to failure seems to be a humble upbringing and a formative period of struggle and adversity – exactly the personal traits that Peters cites for producing greatness!

There is a larger point here. We can’t be sure that these presidents’ “greatness” is not due to other factors, such as taking office when there was simply a greater opportunity to do those things that history deems worthy of “great presidents” rather than character.  Was it Truman’s character that determined his greatness, or the fact that he became president at the start of the Cold War and the establishment of the national security state, and due to his central role in a number of momentous policy choices more generally?  Similarly, how do we know presidents failed because they lacked the requisite “character”?  Maybe they failed because they governed with a polarized Congress and faced insurmountable policy problems?   If health care goes down to defeat, is it due to Obama’s character defect?

Note that I am not trying to dismiss the importance of the presidents’ personal qualities in explaining their performance in office. Clearly they matter – but which qualities are most important? What personal characteristics position an individual to achieve presidential greatness (assuming the opportunity for greatness arises), if not humble origins and a formative period filled with suffering and adversity?  A complete answer would require a separate post, but let me suggest a key component: great presidents have a core set of beliefs, or convictions, that guides decisionmaking when the outcomes of those decisions are both momentous and uncertain.  Character may be part of this equation, but I think without the judgment, experience and core set of values by which to make the right choices, character alone is no guarantee of success – never mind greatness.

6 comments

  1. Matt,
    A fascinating discussion during the last 15 minutes of today’s Meet the Press which was guest hosted byTom Brokow… Friedman and Brooks were commenting on a change in the personalties of this new generation of Presidents…referencing both Obama and Bush in contrast to a generation of leaders stretching from Eisenhower through Bob Dole. Their point was that the previous generation of Presidents were not big risk takers…willing to accpet singles rather than roll the dice on home runs. But in contrast, Brooks especially feels that Obama is willing to roll the dice on a 50-50 chnce of getting health reform passed. Shoud it not pass, his first year will be labeled a failure. Bush took a similar gamble with the war… it was an interesting discusson that your students may want to watch…again the last 15 minutes of Meet the Press…under no circumstances would I subject them to the segment with Karl Rove… Best regards, Ed

  2. Works for me. Call it the “common man” theory of history. Thomas Carlyle, eat your heart out.

    As you point out, the record of a presidency can’t be turned into a reputable question without splitting it into two sides of White House operations. Leadership challenges as a member of the legislative process, and leadership on global strategy have very little to do with one another. Global challenges are not of a President’s choosing, while legislative challenges decidedly are.

    Character may straddle the two, but doesn’t determine outcomes.

    Except for elections, we’re all our own scorekeepers when it comes to historical greatness.

  3. Marty – By endorsing the “common man” theory, are you saying you agree with Peters’ argument that Obama, due to the unfortunate combination of ambition and entitlement, is likely to be a failed president?

  4. Ed,

    I will be sure to take a peek, but my first reaction is that I disagree that presidents of the previous generation were not risk takers. Whether it was Reagan taking the “riverboat gamble” on reversing decades of the New Deal statism, Johnson pushing civil rights at the risk of losing the Democrat-controlled south, or Truman going all in to Korea, I see no evidence that presidents prior to Obama were any less willing to roll the dice. Indeed, one of the progressive criticisms of Obama has been his tendency to “play it save” by searching for the moderate policy alternative.

  5. Hi Matt – I thought Peters’ op/ed was nonsense, so no.

    I’m afraid my comment was a little too meta. Thomas Carlyle was the 19th century exponent of the “great man theory of history,” putting leaders in the drivers seat. As you’ve pointed out, it is a major oversimplification.

    Geek that I am, it struck me that you could characterize arguments in the vein that Peters has made as of basically the same sort of historiography, but with a twist — one might instead call it the “common man theory of history.”

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