On December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan, which had carried out a surprise attack on Hawaii a day earlier.
He sought to inspire Americans to fight in the new world war. “The American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory,” he said.
He said nothing about America First, the national organization determined to keep the country out of the war. Instead of gloating about his wisdom in starting war preparations or sneering at his critics, he focused on national unity at a time of crisis.
On March 4, 1865, at the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln did not glory in victory, but called upon the country to show “malice toward none, charity for all.” He did not even mention the defeated Confederacy.
Both Lincoln and Roosevelt are considered to be among the greatest American leaders. They earned their greatness not because they claimed it for themselves, but because their actions led others to honor them for their courage and leadership.
When the entire country is under attack, presidential leadership comes sharply into focus. Pearl Harbor in 1941, 9/11 in 2001 and Covid-19 in 2020 have all been national threats, whose outcome has been uncertain. All have caused harm and fear.
Whatever Americans thought of their leaders’ policies, in these crises each found words to reassure and encourage the entire country.
While Americans cannot expect that the president will always have the right answer to a crisis, the people benefit from a president who exhibits qualities of leadership that ignore partisan battles and stresses common values and hopes.
What are characteristics of leadership that are needed?
Above all, the people seek a call to unity. Lincoln understood that Americans were linked by common ideals and a shared history, which he believed should be stronger than any dividing force. It explains why African-Americans, Indians, and people of Japanese descent fought in World War II in the armed forces of a country that severely discriminated against them.
Leadership also requires presidents who tell the truth. Americans expect to rely on what they are told. Then, they will act as the situation requires, whether that means enlisting in the armed forces or wearing a face mask.
People also look for consistency in messages from the White House and government. If they are to commit to a course of personal and community action, they want to know that their leaders are also committed. An unsteady signal undermines a willing response.
In a crisis, people will work together. Cooperation and shared sacrifice may come naturally, but they respond to leaders who set the example by setting aside past grievances and partisanship.
Leadership requires courage. Leaders, like all people, make mistakes, and we expect them to acknowledge their errors. Even more important, leaders need to have the courage to do what the situation requires, no matter the cost to themselves or their political futures. This is the basis of greatness.
President Donald Trump fails these tests of leadership.
The main point of his presidency is a focus on himself and his hope that winning in 2020 will remove any doubt about the legitimacy of his 2016 election. Everything about government is subject to that interest, not about leadership.
He awards himself greatness, an attribute that can only come from others. He uses self-congratulation mainly to promote what he thinks is his standing with voters, always with an eye on his re-election. He glories in his title and his false sense of success.
Not all presidents are great leaders, even when the times call for leadership, but few are destructive. Unfortunately, Trump is among that few.
“When somebody is president of the United States, his authority is total,” he said. That view would destroy the legacy of the American Revolution, which toppled the total authority of Britain’s king.
The essence of the American system of government is that no person or group of people in it has total authority. It may not be efficient, but it’s what we want.
“The federal government has absolute power,” he proclaims. If so, how can shared sovereignty, the keystone of federalism itself, survive?
The states created the federal government and kept for themselves all the powers not given to that government. The federal government’s power has increased, but it has no power to abolish federalism.
In the face of criticism from across the political spectrum, Trump acknowledged that governors would decide on when and how recovery would occur. But he did not withdraw his assertion of power, saying, “If they need to remain closed, we will allow them to do that.” He has no power to “allow” states to exercise their powers.
Only the people have total authority and absolute power in America.
Voters will soon decide either to legitimize Trump’s theory, changing the Constitution, or to protect the Constitution by changing the president.