I first met President Bush about four months after he took office. I had been invited to watch him deliver
an award to an elementary school that had accomplished some good work.
In a small school room in Columbus, twenty guests sat shoulder-to-shoulder in
chairs made for seven year old children, while an equal number of reporters, some
holding large cameras, crowded around the walls. As the President came walking in, I noticed that he was conferring with aides, and that he looked young and vigorous.
He took his seat a few feet from me. On his left sat the Governor and the local Congressman, and on his right sat a teacher and the school principal. The latter stood to introduce the President, who would then say a few words and make the award.
The nervous principal tried to speak. The cameras were rolling. She stammered and halted and stammered again. No understandable sound fell from her lips. Bravely she tried again, but still she couldn’t speak. We watched her, helpless and aghast.
Then President Bush gently elbowed her and asked, “What’s
the matter?” She looked down toward him and said, “I, I, I am ner, nervous, Mr. President.” President Bush replied without hesitation,
“You’re nervous? You should try sitting in my chair.” This
friendly and witty note—delivered with perfect timing—loosened
her tongue and she was able to start her speech.
The second time I saw the President was in Cincinnati this October. Because I was to introduce him, I met him back stage and observed this moment in his day. Two things struck me that Monday afternoon. Even as he was walking toward the podium, he
was conferring with aides, but not about the upcoming talk; and his hair was now white. I later found out that just five minutes before
he entered the building, the stock market had dropped 900 points; if it had stayed there for the next hour—during which he would be on stage giving the talk printed here on the Courts—it would have
been the greatest collapse of the market, both in points and percentage, in history (As it turned out, the market finished the day down only 370 points). When I learned the reason for the frenzied consultation between the President and his aides, I marveled that he had maintained such composure and focus on a topic that, compared to the urgent concerns just brought to him, seemed almost theoretical.
Recollecting these two meetings, I’m reminded that the current duties of a president—not all of which were envisioned by the
Framers of the Constitution—arise in part from what we the people
expect from him. No wonder presidents turn prematurely gray.
The president alone, we think, must lead the nation, embody the will of the people, shape the economy, guard our liberties, and
even author legislation while, of course, commanding our armed forces. The late November Sunday talk shows are full of otherwise
rational people calling for the immediate resignation of President Bush so that President-elect Obama may take over the reigns of
government and address the current crisis. These deep thinkers would cast aside constitutional provisions to hasten the day of salvation
when the new President arrives to fix the economy, decreeing which businesses will survive or die. And while he’s at it, he will persuade the other countries of the world to fix their
economies as well. After all, they remind us, he is the great international leader, the president of the only super-power. Is it any
wonder that Mr. Obama is being compared to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, even before taking office?
The incoming President would be well served to lower our expectations. He could do this right after he takes the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. He could remind
us that—despite our elevated and unfair expectations—his powers
are limited by the document we still hold to be our fundamental law. That “the executive Power shall be vested in a President of the
United States of America” (Article II) is true enough, but that does not mean that he will be the nation’s chief economist, psychologist,
or even social worker. By reminding us of this, President-elect Obama would not only do his fellow citizens some good; he would
also worry less, and avoid premature gray hair.
The new President, appropriately, is surrounded by much good-will. He should take advantage of this by doing the hard things first, those things that may not bring immediate applause, but will build a wholesome future. During the campaign he promised, for example, to take a scalpel to the federal budget and carefully excise
the waste. As an especially persuasive leader, he could tell us that we don’t really have the right to retire at age 65 and get full Social
Security benefits; since people live longer and stay healthy longer, he could move the retirement age to 68. He could make judicial appointments that demonstrate he is willing to take the hard road of effecting change not through judicial activism, but through the legislative process—he does have, after all, a solid majority in both houses of Congress. Instead of just leading a hasty pull-out from
Iraq, he could implement reforms in the national security process. Statesmanship demands that he try to persuade opponents and even disappoint friends, in order to promote the greater good.
The authors of The Federalist Papers hoped that the presidential
selection process would give us a president who is “pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” Let us hope that this process still works,
and as we thank President Bush for his great exertions, let us hope that President Obama will become the kind of president that our
constitutional regime of self-governments requires, especially in this time of crisis.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.