“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
— John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States
A U.S. president is called upon to do the impossible, and when he fails, as he must in some measure, he is condemned, especially if he is a Republican. And so Republican presidents must be exceedingly prudent. Double standards cut one way.
Any U.S. president must bring certain qualities and skills to the table, for without them, failure easily drifts into disaster.
Barack Obama famously said two things that revealed inevitable difficulties: He said the great thing about being president was he could do anything he wanted to do, and his main goal was to restore trust in government in order to make Washington work.
First of all, no president is given carte blanche. No president is a king. No president instills confidence and trust by proclaiming himself a king, or by behaving like one.
Given the election last November, few would argue Obama was successful at restoring trust. Furthermore, the notion government is the answer is foundationally anti-American, for as our third president, Thomas Jefferson, rightly proclaimed, government governs best when it governs least, the very basis of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
George Washington, our first and perhaps our greatest president, did not want the job. Many people urged him to become king. He declined. Many urged him to be president, and he reluctantly accepted, viewing the job as terrifying, understanding the right posture was one of a servant, wholly dependent upon the God of all wisdom.
Washington also understood that trust was earned by deeds, not by words, and that a president was required to work with an enormous array of people with strong beliefs. He knew he was walking into storms of conflict and controversy, that if this experiment in self-government was to succeed, the chief executive must wisely manage the storm, not add to its ferocity.
The president-as-servant model has influenced the great presidents all along the line. They understood that legislating would be impossible without honestly engaging the inevitable battles, battles they would settle productively through negotiation, coalition building and compromise, urging always consensus on principles, inspiring cooperation.
Therein lies the art of the thing: the unifying voice of reason leading to patriotic inspiration.
A president becomes an artist when he strengthens his friends and weakens his enemies, without humiliating anyone or starting wars he cannot win. True artistry is revealed when a president can take an enemy and make him a friend and part-time ally. There is a certain diplomatic finesse involved, a gracious wooing, if you will, of both friend and foe.
However, choosing to insult and alienate anyone with a different idea is choosing to fight every battle to the death, resulting only in death. Proceeding in such a fashion instills distrust. It causes instability. It makes people reluctant to lend support, encouraging friends to hide and causing enemies to sharpen their knives.
No president can succeed by embarrassing his friends while provoking his enemies. And certainly, no president can succeed by handing his enemies loaded weapons they can use against him. Stepping right into traps set by your adversary is a sure way to wind up meat in his stew pot.
For the sake of the office, the general welfare, the future of the country and the world, a president is called to be a Solomon, not a Saul; a Washington, not an Obama.
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