Every era faces its own set of issues, and every president attempts to address the challenges and opportunities of American life and to reset the country to the extent that it is possible.
It was easier to influence what Jefferson called “the course of human events” back then because we were just beginning. Decisions made then were going to percolate down through the decades and centuries. For example, George Washington decided he wanted a Cabinet, so he simply created one, even though the Constitution is silent about how the executive organizes his administration. Washington had just four Cabinet officers. Today’s presidents have 15, but the administrative structure is the same. Jefferson chose to send his annual messages to Congress by courier and not go in person. That tradition endured until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
Today, though the Constitution is once-again silent, a president would be roundly condemned if he emailed his annual message to Congress. His annual January appearance before a joint session of Congress feels constitutional, but it is just a piece of invented political theater.
My point is that today most traditions are set — baked in, as the pundits said during the election of 2016. A modern president can whittle around the edges, but America is more or less what it is now. Once in a while, a modern president tries to eliminate a federal program — the Department of Education, for example, or something as puny as the National Endowment for the Arts — and almost invariably winds up failing to succeed.
Let’s look for a moment at the array of challenges our presidents have faced.
- The 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, wanted to hold the union together no matter what. That was his sole fundamental purpose, as outlined in his famous letter to Horace Greeley. Lincoln’s agenda was made the more difficult when seven states left the union even before he was inaugurated in 1861. He did somehow manage to knit the union back together, but it took the blood of more than 800,000 Americans to do so, and the fault lines are still visible 153 years later. And that work cost Abraham Lincoln his life.
- The 11th president, James K. Polk, wanted to annex much of Mexico and expand the United States in the Pacific Northwest. He did just that. In a single term. He was the president most closely tied to what we call “Manifest Destiny,” the metaphysical notion that God wanted North America to be owned and operated by Anglo-Europeans rather than brown people of any sort, including American Indians. Apparently, we needed the lebensraum.
- I won’t try to make sense of Theodore Roosevelt’s plans for America because it would be, like his endless first annual message to Congress, 20,000 words long. Suffice it to say that TR wanted America to take its rightful place in the world’s arena — and it did, including his pet Panama Canal — and he wanted the national government to be big enough to address all the domestic issues of America life, chiefly conservation of our natural resources and the growing disparity between the rich and the rest of us. That was his Square Deal. Roosevelt was an unapologetic Hamiltonian.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president, faced two existential challenges — the Great Depression and World War II. We don’t really know what kind of president he would have been, or what he would have advocated, had he presided over a prosperous America that was at peace with the world. Roosevelt was elected four times — thus breaking another American political norm that was not then enshrined in the Constitution. That’s how serious the crisis of the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s was.
- John F. Kennedy was afraid we might lose the Cold War, so he was prepared to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” That seems a little quaint today when the current president seems to view Russia as a well-run autocracy with which we can do real estate deals.
- George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president, sought a way of winning and winding down the Cold War without touching off chaos and civil wars in all the newly detached satellite nations and without doing a victory dance that would harden the damaged hearts of the Soviet leadership at one of the most critical times in modern history. Plus, he wanted to make sure that the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal was properly secured, in the right hands, as the empire collapsed.
- The current president, the 45th, has determined to reset America’s place in the world — NATO, NAFTA, international environmental protocols, the China trade — with a sole eye to maximizing America’s advantage and repudiating the philosophy of the Marshall Plan — that is, when America helps the rest of the world prosper and maintain order and due process, we wind up being the prime beneficiary. Donald Trump is attempting this fundamental reset using some of the most unorthodox and at times shocking methods of any president in our history.
I could continue to try to make sense of the challenge agenda of each president, but I want to turn my attention briefly to Thomas Jefferson.
He called his election in 1800 the “Second American Revolution.” Jefferson was not one to throw words around so he must have meant something by that potent phrase.
Jefferson faced two great challenges as the third president. Remember, he was far upstream of us in terms of American habits and traditions and expectations. He was up near the source of the River of America, near the Three Forks, while we are downstream from New Orleans in a broad, deep, incredibly powerful river that often feels more like a sewer than a purling mountain stream.
Jefferson wanted to reset the size and scope of the national government until it represented the minimum quantity of federal public authority that could protect us from foreign invasion, settle disputes between states, coordinate our international commerce and hold 17 states together as one nation — at least with respect to foreign affairs. He wanted to pare down the national debt as severely as possible — get rid of it altogether if possible.
That’s it. Feeble though it was, he felt that the U.S. government of the first two presidencies — George Washington and John Adams — was already too big, intrusive and self-aggrandizing, and it needed to be whittled down immediately, before it was too late. Jefferson rightly understood that it would soon be too late. And when we look at America in the second decade of the 21st century, we realize how woefully too late it now is. America, with its hundreds of military bases around the world, its gargantuan national debt, its Leviathanic regulatory system, its willingness not just to do those things that a national government must do, but tens of thousands of things that are merely deemed desirable.
Not long ago, the National Endowment for the Humanities spent nearly $1 million to promote romance novels, including a $616,000 documentary “Love Between the Covers.” We taxpayers spent $1.9 million for “lifestyle coaching” for Senate staff and $1.5 billion for the maintenance of vacant federal buildings. Sixty-five million dollars in Hurricane Sandy relief went to tourism ads. Etc. ad nauseum. Not to mention National Step Parent Day, National Cat Day, National Eat Brussels Sprouts Day and National Handwriting Day. If you thinking I am exaggerating, look them up.
When I see a giant electronic sign along a rural Interstate flashing, “Drive safely” or “click it or ticket,” I ask myself what it cost and who paid for it? The cost would easy enough to ascertain. Who paid for it? Assuredly not a state or local government. That’s federal largess, or — as they like to say — your tax dollars at work. Ask yourself this: Would the state of Wyoming ever have spent its own limited public resources on that sign?
Jefferson understood that permitting the national government to swell meant that it could also suffocate, that it wasn’t just about government waste and frivolity, it was about whether we can maintain our liberty in the shadow of a large and ever-growing national government. In other words, for Jefferson it wasn’t about NAFTA or trade with France, it was about whether we can remain a republic dedicated to the maximum freedom of every individual American. Jefferson’s basic view of any government program would be: we can probably do without it. If you rigorously ask yourself that question of every U.S. government program, you would answer as Jefferson more often than not.
Jefferson’s second agenda was to keep America safe and sovereign in the face of the Napoleonic Wars. This proved to be much more difficult because he had no leverage to control the behavior of either France or Britain as they were locked in a world war for national survival. He did the best he could under extremely trying circumstances. And since he ruled out the usual tool of such struggles — war — he had a very difficult final three years of his presidency. James Madison couldn’t figure it out either, and eventually we had to go to war with Britain, the second war of national independence.
Jefferson left office on March 4, 1809, exhausted and somewhat disillusioned. He had done his best to reset America along Jeffersonian republican lines. But during those final months as he assumed more and more executive power to enforce his pet economic embargo program — his peaceful alternative to unthinkable war — Jefferson must have realized that Benjamin Franklin was wiser than we thought, when at the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, asked by a woman what the founders had created behind closed doors, he said, “A Republic if you can keep it.”
We didn’t. Alas.