The Myth of the All-Powerful President: A Very Brief History
FDR with Ibn Saud, first king of Saudi Arabia, in February 1945.
In a column I’ve just posted on Tomdispatch.com I summarized the tremendous task Barack Obama seemed to commit himself to, in his recent Middle East trip, as he once again took on the role of peacemaker:
[He] must satisfy (or mollify) both the center-left and the right in Israel, strike an equally perfect balance between divergent Israeli and Palestinian demands, march with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu up to the edge of war with Iran yet keep Israel from plunging over that particular cliff, calibrate the ratcheting up of punishing sanctions and other acts in relation to Iran so finely that the Iranians will, in the end, yield to U.S. demands without triggering a war, prevent the Syrian civil war from spilling into Israel, which means controlling Lebanese politics too -- and do it all while maintaining his liberal base at home and fending off the inevitable assault from the right.
That’s a tall order, indeed. But in American political culture we expect no less from any president. After all, he is “the most powerful man in the world” -- so he should be able to walk such a high wire adroitly, without fretting too much about the consequences should he fall.
Whenever an American president travels abroad, his overriding plan is to act out on the world stage the fantasy that so many Americans love: Their leader, and the nation he embodies, have unlimited power to control people and events around the globe.
In this imaginary scenario, the president can do all because he knows all. He is above every fray, understanding the true needs of both sides in every conflict. That’s why he can go anywhere and tell the locals what is true and right and how they should behave.
With his awesome wisdom and omnipotence, the mythic president can deftly maneuver his way across the most challenging and dangerous situations and settle every dispute with god-like justice. He can be all things to all people. So he never has to make painful sacrifices or suffer any losses, as he proves that the American way must eventually triumph over all.
Historians should wonder: How did this mythic image of the all-powerful president arise? Already in late eighteenth-century writings we can find confident claims that the fledgling United States of America is destined to play a unique role in bringing peace to the world.
But the idea that the president would personally have such power has its earliest seed in Theodore’s Roosevelt’s successful mediation to end the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. TR was probably motivated mostly by concern that the war would interfere with burgeoning U.S. trade interests in east Asia. But the Nobel Peace Prize he received seemed to mark him as less interested in national power than world peace.
That image of a disinterested pursuit of peace and justice was magnified manifold by Woodrow Wilson, who truly founded the myth of the omnipotent president on the global stage. Wilson deftly blended appeals to the idealism of the Progressive era (and the Christian Social Gospel) with warnings that Americans would never be safe until the world was “safe for democracy.”
To what he extent was he an idealist, and to what extent did his idealistic words mask a crafty pursuit of U.S. interests? Historians will probably debate that question forever. But there’s no debating his profound influence on the image of the presidency as an office responsible for bringing peace and justice to all lands.
That image languished during the Republican presidencies of the 1920s, waiting to be revived by Franklin D. Roosevelt. He always cited “cousin Teddy” and Wilson as his two great political heroes. So it’s not surprising that FDR followed their lead. In private conversations and letters, he promoted a vision of a unified democratic capitalist order spanning the entire globe, with America leading the way. And he was more than ready to play the role of omnipotent dispenser of peace and justice to maintain that order.
But he knew that the American people were hardly ready to see the nation, or the president, take on that level of international involvements. Even when war broke out in Europe, FDR had to confront a public deeply divided on whether they and their should get involved. Like Wilson, FDR mounted a major public relations campaign to gain support for his efforts to use America’s mighty power to control events around the world. Like Wilson, he appealed to both idealistic traditions and vivid depictions of threats to U.S. interests and American lives.
Once the U.S. entered World War II, resistance to this new global role pretty much evaporated. But FDR continued to worry that, once the war ended, the public would revert to its “isolationist” tendency to ignore issues of peace and justice in the rest of the world.
Roosevelt had underestimated his own achievement. By the war’s end, his skillful rhetoric had persuaded nearly all Americans that their own safety depended on their government's -- and especially their president’s -- ability to control events everywhere. With all the other major powers devastated, the U.S. had such preponderant power that the fantasy of total control seemed quite realistic.
Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union quickly burst that bubble. But by the late 1940s American public discourse had settled on a seemingly comfortable consensus that lasted through the Cold War era: The U.S. would control everything of significance that happened in the “free world,” on our side of the Iron Curtain, while exercising enough control over the communist bloc to “contain” it.
Once the Cold War ended FDR’s vision of a single global order seemed genuinely within reach. So there was even more reason to embrace the mythic vision of the president’s unlimited power.
There’s a good argument to be made that the most important results of U.S. foreign policy ever since the 1940s -- for better and for worse -- have flowed directly from this image of the omnipotent president, representing the omnipotent nation, trying to exercise unlimited control.
The most vivid lessons came from presidential (some call it imperial) overreach, most notably in Vietnam and Iraq. Yet despite these remarkable evidences to the contrary, many Americans still cling to the mythic narrative of “the most powerful man in the world,” able to control events in every corner of the globe. Why?
The question can be answered in many ways. If we stay strictly within the confines of the study of myth, one explanation seems most compelling.
The claims for presidential control have always grown hand in hand with fears about what we now call homeland security. There’s a straight line leading from Wilson’s warning that Hun victory would spell the end of all civilized (read: American) values to the Obama administration's warnings about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the Syria’s chemical weapons. All the fears built up along the way created what I call the myth of homeland insecurity: the conviction that the very existence of America is constantly in peril.
The best way -- perhaps the only way -- to allay that fearful belief has been, and apparently still is, to accept the myth of the omnipotent president: “The most powerful man in the world” can manage every situation, no matter how perilous, with wisdom and skill. He can give a cleverly calculated prod here and a perfectly calibrated nudge there, pull all the strings with unfailing precision, without ever losing his perfect balance. Thus he can guarantee a safe outcome for America.
How reassuring it must be to believe that. And how predictable it is that, as long as this mythic story prevails, presidents will continue to overreach their true, limited power, with results that most of America will come to regret.
Yet the irony is obvious: The more regret, the more insecurity; the more insecurity, the more powerful the appeal of the myth of all-powerful president. And the cycle just keeps on turning.
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