Presidential Leadership in American History


Strong presidential leadership is not necessarily confined to periods of conflict or controversy in American History. Too often, poor leadership at critical moments changed the nation’s course. James Madison was reviled for his lack of leadership in 1812 and the subsequent war with Great Britain. William McKinley had to be politically cajoled into submitting a declaration of war against Spain in 1898. While some national emergencies, like the Civil War and the Great Depression, witnessed strong leadership by “the right men at the right time,” this was not always true, nor is it true in the 21st Century.

Presidential Greatness Defined by Character, Vision, and Strength

America’s great presidents may have suffered personal doubts during times of important decisions, but they never wavered publicly from what they believed to be the only way to solve a crisis. Political parties compromise; presidents lead. One of those was Theodore Roosevelt. Professors Kelly and Harbison state that, “He had a dynamic and powerful personality that captured the popular imagination and inspired large numbers of people to follow him in whatever ideals he proclaimed.”

Roosevelt became president in 1901 upon the assassination of William McKinley. McKinley, as historian Lewis L. Gould notes, was effective because of his own Congressional background and the political tact he employed with powerful senators. But he was not in the mold of Roosevelt, who thought nothing of going to the American people through the press when he ran into an impasse with the Congress, especially after his 1904 reelection.

Historians note that Roosevelt believed in the “stewardship theory.” As such, Roosevelt “revived the old Hamiltonian doctrine of inherent executive prerogative power.” (Kelly & Harbison) As long as the Constitution did not prohibit an action, Roosevelt felt free to pursue it. This included taking on the oligarchs in the House and Senate, captains of industry such as J.P. Morgan, and the San Francisco School Board.

Presidents Must Lead from the Position of Strength and Decision

Roosevelt was a man of action and one who spoke his mind. In 1915, he wrote, “The policy of watchful waiting, a policy popular among government chiefs of a certain type ever since the days of Ethelred the Unready…has failed, as of course it always does…in the presence of serious difficulty…” Although Roosevelt was directing his criticism against Woodrow Wilson, the same can be said of other chief executives in American History.

Were Americans better off in 1980 than they had been in 1976? This question, asked by Ronald Reagan, helped him to defeat Jimmy Carter. Americans were not better off, and neither was the world. Flawed leadership under Carter produced economic recession at home while losing U.S. prestige and respect abroad. President Carter was a great humanitarian and negotiator for peace, but a poor leader in the post-Watergate world of uncertainty and mistrust.

President Reagan, dubbed the “Great Communicator,” went directly to the American people when Congress failed to enact laws his administration wanted. Reagan may have learned leadership as governor of California, but his economic policies exacerbated conditions leading to the long and slow financial decline that impacts the United States in 2011. Reagan’s example demonstrates that leadership is not always defined solely by words and rousing speeches. His own Vice President criticized the financial policies, calling them “voodoo economics.”

Has Leadership Changed in the 21st Century?

Writing about the U.S. Senate in 1900, Gould observes that, “…the upper house had little sympathy for those Americans whom the rise of large corporations had disadvantaged.” Over one hundred years later, critics cite similar observations: Americans mistrust the Congress and note little leadership in the White House.

When George W. Bush achieved reelection in 2004, he boasted that he had earned “political capital.” Yet his legacy was a series of Middle East conflicts and the start of the so-called Great Recession in 2008. None of the warning signals were addressed. Historians of the future may equate Bush with Herbert Hoover rather than Teddy Roosevelt. Bush, like Hoover, ignored the “bubbles” that ultimately unraveled the American economy.

President Obama’s leadership is also questioned by critics. Like Woodrow Wilson, Obama was a product of the lecture hall; both men were products of Ivy League schools and both men were most at home behind a classroom podium. Leadership, however, is not learned in books but is more the product of risk and action. Wilson himself wrote that, “Leadership does not always wear the harness of compromise.” Wilson, however, viewed himself more as a Prime Minister than a President.

Analyzing Theodore Roosevelt’s successful 1904 reelection, Charles A. Gardiner referred to “absolute executive sovereignty” of the presidency. The occasion was the annual meeting of the New York Bar Association. According to Gardiner, the president, under the Constitution, executes the laws passed by Congress with “absolute discretion” as long as he acts faithfully pursuant to his oath of office (New York Times, January 19, 1905). This was Roosevelt’s contribution to the “era of executive expansion.”

Executive leadership doesn’t come with on-the-job training. There are no “entry level positions.” Decisive leadership is tied to character, honor, and the Constitutional oath to serve the American people well and honestly. Those presidents that truly believed this are deemed great. Too many others lost the power of conviction, and the nation suffered.


Lewis L. Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History Of The Modern United States Senate (Basic Books, 2005)
Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins & Development, Fifth Edition (W. W. Norton & Company, 1976)
James Ford Rhodes, The McKinley And Roosevelt Administrations 1897-1909 (The Macmillan Company, 1922)
Theodore Roosevelt, Fear God And Take Your Own Part (George H. Doran Company, 1916)