The study of the aspects of individuals who become Presidents is a rich field with many different perspectives. Scholars utilize many different factors in determining two basic ideas about the presidency. Those ideas are the characteristics needed to become the President and the characteristics needed to do a good job being president. One of the perspectives of presidential research is the psychological perspective. Using this perspective, scholars claim to be able to identify some characteristics of “successful” presidents. There are many difficulties attached to this concept.
The first is that, from a psychological perspective, the sample pool is extremely small, another is the ambiguity attached to the notion of applying personality traits to person based on their entire lives, and the final difficulty is in evaluating the presidency in terms of success. In trying to determine what personality traits are most amenable to becoming president, scholars are limited by the simple fact that there have only been 44 presidents, and of those, only 43 were ever elected (President Ford was an appointee to Replace Nixon).
Also, when examining personality traits of a pool of individuals, it is important to control for factors other than personality that may be contributing factors. This further limits scholars because all presidents to date have been male, all but one have been white, none have served or been elected below the age of 42, and nearly all of them came from privileged socioeconomic circumstances. As all of these demographic elements can have significant impact on personality, it is difficult to associate personality alone with any commonalities noted in this group.
A second difficulty in assessing personality as a function of presidential success lies in the study of personality itself. In the field of psychology there are dozens of tests, measures, and categories that can be used to type an individual. One of the problems with these measures is that they rely, at least in part, on self-reporting. Thus, for any president who has never participated in such an evaluation (most of them), and attribution of traits or categories of personality would be speculation at best.
Further complicating the issue is attempting to discern whether a President’s behavior either in or out of office is consistent enough across his life to be considered a personality trait. Scholars have only the reports of the Presidents themselves and their contemporaries to make that determination. Political scientists, therefore, cannot have much ground to associate personality traits with presidential success. The field of personality study is sufficiently ambiguous that, given the small sample of presidents, nearly any conclusion can be supported by some evidence.
In addition, a scholar would run into the question of causation when determining the Presidents’ personality. If, for example, a President is deemed to be decisive based on their conduct in office, the question would remain as to whether that trait was a result of being President when many critical decisions had to be made, or whether the President was always decisive. Even if scholars could quantify personality traits on a consistent basis, presidential performance is even more difficult to quantify. A President may be judged a success or failure on any one of a number of categories.
Even the Presidents’ career path offers differing notions of success. One segment of Presidential success is the ability to be elected or re-elected. A second is their performance while in office. A third might be their conduct and life after the presidency. Scholars have picked and chosen the criteria for a successful president, but those choices are largely self-fulfilling, and often, beyond the control of the Presidents. Presidential performance is predicated on the historical context more so than any other job.
A President who was, for example, very conservative fiscally could gain the reputation as a “good” President when economic times are flush (as with Coolidge in the 1920s) and a President with the same ideals and personality could fail miserably if conditions were different during their presidency. i. e. Hoover) The Illustration of Coolidge and Hoover brings to light another problem with evaluating the performance of a President. Although he presided during an economic boom, Coolidge was in fact responsible for the policies that led to the financial crisis which began in Hoover’s Administration.
In contrast, Hoover was given a window of barely four years to “fix” a depression that he neither caused nor was chosen to deal with. A further point is that the president who is credited for ending the crisis may have been nothing more than the fortunate beneficiary of a huge worldwide conflict that would have stimulated the economy regardless of who was in the White House. Unfortunately, one of the most popular ways of assessing presidential success is on the basis of popularity polls.
This is unfortunate for a number of reasons. Most notably, those who respond to those polls are relying on incomplete information. The average citizen may be able to identify Abraham Lincoln, for example, as the President who preserved the union, but few could identify James K. Polk as one of the few Presidents in history to have kept all of his campaign promises (including the promise that he not seek a second term). Depending on the measure of performance applied, the “most popular” Presidents can actually be among the worst.
For example, if foreign policy success were the measure, George Washington, an avowed isolationist, John F. Kennedy, whose actions embroiled us in Vietnam, and Bill Clinton, whose administration failed to capture Osama Bin Laden after a 1993 attack on the World Trade center might be ranked among the worst. In contrast, Richard Nixon (opened talks with China, achieved Detente with USSR) was probably among the best. Even in the abstract, it is difficult to identify personality traits that would make an effective president.
The job changes on an almost daily basis, and the actions and behavior of the president must be flexible enough to deal with new situations and a near-constant air of crisis. Most historians and presidential scholars admit that it takes at least a generation or two after the presidency to even begin to evaluate its success, and doing so on the basis of personality traits is extremely problematic. Question 2 The Modern presidency is a result of over two hundred years of trial and error with respect to the use of power.
Over the time of the nation’s history, the Presidential usage of power has varied from near-inertia, to near-dictatorial powers. In the modern era, the Presidency has become increasingly powerful. Using the tools of command of the Armed Forces, executive orders, and political influence, the Modern president is now a political creature totally different from that envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, and while not necessarily in keeping with democracy, the modern Presidency is much better equipped to deal with crises than a Presidency as viewed by the framers of the Constitution.
The President exercises much authority in foreign policy through his command of the armed forces. The congressional check on this power by the president is twofold. First, congress issues forma declarations of war, and second, it provides the money needed for extended military actions. Modern trends have completely neutralized both of these checks. In the first case, the United States does not need to formally declare a state of war in order to send troops into combat.
In Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, the US has entered combat without a formal declaration of war. The second check, the so-called “power of the purse” has been neutralized by modern politics. If congress refused to fund a military effort, they would be painted as being “against the troops” and would face political repercussions. Thus, politically and practically, the Modern president has nearly unilateral control over the military. This, while not the intention of the Framers, is not necessarily a bad thing.
Modern technology causes events around the world to happen much more quickly than in years past, requiring, at times, quicker responses than one is likely to get from Congress. The ability of the President to react unilaterally to military crises is a necessary development in response to a changing technological and geopolitical circumstance. The modern President has made a habit of circumventing the proper law-making processes through the use of executive orders and agency regulations.
Since the executive branch is meant to enforce the laws of Congress, it is left with the power to formulate a mode of enforcement that suits its own interpretation of the intent of the law. Again, this goes well beyond the intention of the framers of the Constitution, who feared exactly this sort of power invested in a single individual. Fortunately, modern government being as large and cumbersome as it is, not all policy decisions are made directly by the President. A vast majority of them are made by underlings following general guidelines of the administration.
This practice has made it so domestic policy in particular does not reflect necessarily to will of Congress. Historically, the President has used executive orders to circumvent the constitution, going so far in recent years as to deny citizens certain protections provided in the Bill of Rights. This practice is neither new nor unique among Presidents. From the time of Abraham Lincoln, presidents have used the exigency of war as justification for ignoring the Constitution.
At times, it seems that this mode of lawmaking is actually advantageous, given the partisan bickering that accompanies Congressional lawmaking, and, again, in times of crisis, when quick, rational action is needed, Congress is better off outside the loop. The modern President also uses his role as head of the Political party to exercise policy control. Particularly if his party controls the majority of Congress, he may make his law-making wishes known and receive a good deal of support in Congress for his initiatives.
Using his veto authority, he can make sure that policies contrary to his parties’ views do not become law, unless met with overwhelming support from both sides. This practice is more in keeping with the intention of the framers. Congress can still overrule the President if there is sufficient sentiment that a given law is necessary, but, for the most part, the modern President sets lawmaking priorities for a friendly Congress. This is in keeping with the Ideal of democracy in only a limited way.
The people choose the President through the means of the Electoral College, but have very limited input into policy once that decision is made. The framers set thins up intentionally in this manner because they feared direct democracy. They only went so far as to allow the people to choose their representatives in the hopes that they would pick able people who could exercise their own judgement in determining the best interests of the nation. The unilateral nature of the Presidency has had mixed results in modern history.
It has allowed the nation to respond quickly in crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the First Iraqi War, but has also sent us into ill-advised military actions in Vietnam, Central America, Africa, and the Second Iraq War. The power of the presidency was utilized well to handle crises such as the attacks on the world trade center, but not as well in response to some natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. On the whole, it seems that it is better to have the ability to act quickly in the modern world, than not be able to do so.
However; it is in the nature of reality that the first response to a problem is not always the best one, and some issues require deliberation and time to solve. If a president recognizes these facts, and acts accordingly in the appropriate situations, he or she can be a very effective leader while honoring the spirit of Constitutionality. Question 3 The Modern Presidency has become a centralized and politicized position, more so than in any other era. More than any time historically, citizens cast their vote for one of two parties, relying on their platforms to indicate how they will conduit the government.
As a result, the Presidency has become the centralized embodiment of principles that appeal to the mainstream of political thought. This politicization was not what the framers intended, but the centralization has served the nation reasonably well in practice. In the modern era, scrutiny on presidential candidates is extremely close and getting closer and closer. Since the first televised debates in 1960, unprecedentedly large numbers of people have been privy to the record, reputation and history of presidential hopefuls.
This forces the candidate to be careful to articulate viewpoints in a manner that will be least offensive to the most people. Part of this dynamic is the fact that those with more radical viewpoints, no matter which side of the political spectrum they lie, have a disproportionately loud voce in modern media to support or decry a given candidate. If a candidate is unfortunate enough to offend one of these groups, he or she is facing opposition from an extremely well-funded, vociferous group. Because of this, political hopefuls, particularly presidents have to be, or at least appear, to be politically moderate.
This engenders an environment where the politically moderate become the primary pool from which candidates are selected. The result has been, in recent elections, that barring an extremely charismatic candidate, the choices are so near each other politically as to be nearly indistinguishable. The elections of 2000 and 2004 are examples of this phenomenon. The absence of a charismatic challenger made it impossible for the voters to distinguish between the candidates, resulting in one of the closest elections in history in 2000, and one of the poorest-attended elections in 2004.
The Framers of the United States Constitution did not envision a two-party system when they designed the government. Nevertheless, one quickly developed, first in the debate for ratification of the Constitution, and later around the principles of federal power. Although the foundations of the various parties have varied historically, the two-party system has remained in place for most presidential elections. The modern era may be witnessing a major change in the party system.
One of the parties suffered a severe defeat in the 2008 election cycle and appears to be reevaluating its platform. If the party chooses to embrace the more extreme portions of their platform, it could lead to the creation of a new centralized party, which would draw support from the more moderate elements of the two major parties. A large amount of institutional inertia has been set against this development, but there is nothing in the Constitution that forbids it, nor is such an event unprecedented in the history of American politics.
These developments illustrate a move from the extremism that had dominated politics since the beginning of the Cold War. More and more individuals are becoming sensitive to the voice of reason, cooperation and compromise, which weakens the position of the radical groups, and limits their ability to influence policy or elections. While it is important and permissible for these radical opinions to be heard, it is equally important that be considered from an even-handed and rational perspective, which is what a centralized president offers.
Centralization of the Presidency is more in keeping with the notions of Democratic government than politicization. The more people whose viewpoints are represented by the President, the more democratic the government. A centralized presidency philosophically meshes with the majority of citizens. This observation is circular in nature. Absent compelling events such as war, the a majority of voters will embrace a more moderate candidate, and thus, candidates will endeavor to be more moderate in order to court such votes.
Politicization is a positive thing in the political process. It allows all viewpoints to be aired and discussed. Centralization of the presidency is also a positive thing because a moderate president will be more likely to make pragmatic choices, rather than ones based in dogmatic ideals with little relationship to reality. Additionally, a moderate president is more likely to act in interests that mirror those of the majority of citizens. Thus, a moderate, or centralized presidency is good for both the execution of government, and the promotion of democracy.
Courtney from Study Moose
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