The Search for Bold Leadership

Illustration by Gluekit: (source photo left) Mandel Ngan/ AFP-Getty Images, (source photo right) Jason Redmond/ Reuters-Landov

On Sept. 27,the governor of New Jersey gave a speech. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal: there'd be a press release from Trenton, a segment on the 6 o'clock news, and then, bada-bing, bada-boom, fuggedaboutit. But when Chris Christie completed his remarks on "American exceptionalism" at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., capping a week of frantic speculation about whether the reluctant Republican would finally give in and join the GOP presidential race, a grandmotherly woman stood up and begged him to run in a register that was reverent enough, one imagines, to bring a blush to the bearded cheeks of Lord Jesus himself.

"I say this from the bottom of my heart," the worshiper began, her fingers gripping a railing and her eyes glistening with tears. "We can't wait ... and I, I really implore you, as a citizen of this country, to please, sir, reconsider ... Do it for my daughter. Do it for our grandchildren. Please, sir. We need you." At this, her fellow congregants applauded so long, and so lustily, that they appeared ready to hoist Christie aloft and head off in search of Mitt Romney's scalp.

America is desperate for a messiah. Christie Fever would seem a little more remarkable, for instance, if conservatives hadn't already contracted Bachmania, Donalditis, and Restless Perry Syndrome, then cast aside each of their would-be saviors as soon as he or she showed the slightest earthly imperfection. Meanwhile, on the left, and in the center, the very voters who fueled President Obama's landslide 2008 victory are now awarding him the lowest job-approval ratings of his career. Christie summed up popular sentiment in his speech. "If you're looking for leadership in America," he said, "you're not going to find it in the Oval Office." Never mind that the administration just assassinated yet another Al Qaeda kingpin, Anwar al-Awlaki, out-Bushing Bush and further discrediting the old canard that Democrats can't protect America. The belief that there's someone better out there—someone who can lead us not into recession, but deliver us from unemployment—now extends to both sides of the aisle.

History explains why. With nearly one fifth of the population either out of work or looking for more, it's no surprise that voters long to be saved. But not every recession-era president has roused as much disappointment as Obama, and not every crop of challengers has seemed as unsatisfactory as Romney & Co. In fact, the most consequential political leaders of the 20th century, FDR and Ronald Reagan, won the White House during economic crises and achieved lasting influence because (not in spite) of the traumatic times they presided over. Figure out what they had in common and you'll get a pretty good sense of what kind of leadership works in a downturn. You'll also start to see why everyone's unhappy with Obama, no matter how many terrorists he kills.

Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale, has already done the difficult spadework of identifying leadership patterns among presidents. According to his influential classification system, both Roosevelt and Reagan were "reconstructive" leaders, which means they rose to power by opposing a vulnerable administration, then "cut the knot, raise[d] a new standard, and [promised to] restore to American government the ancient truths that had first inspired it." Every reconstructive president razes the old order and forges a new one in his own way: while FDR experimented with a panoply of reforms, Reagan always stuck to a stubborn script about the causes and cures for Carter-era malaise. The important thing is that both of them blamed the crises they presided over on the failed, un-American ideology of the previous regime and relentlessly positioned their sweeping proposals as part of a grand project to undo the damage and revive real American values.

Obama's conditional posture has its upside. The problem is that it's a terrible fit for a recession.

Reconstruction is the most resilient model of presidential leadership because it serves as a one-size-fits-all justification for everything the White House does. FDR had high hopes for his central New Deal agency, the National Recovery Administration; to him, it was "a supreme effort to stabilize for all time the many factors which make the prosperity of the nation." Two years after the NRA was created, however, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. While this setback may have deterred a nonreconstructive president, Roosevelt simply cited it as further evidence of the old regime's intransigence and again started "promising to reconstruct the very terms on which American government operated," as Skowronek puts it. By 1936—after forcing Congress into the summer session that produced Social Security, the Wagner Act, and the Banking Act, among other reforms—he had. He won reelection with 523 electoral votes.

Reagan adopted a similar approach, framing his New Beginning—lower taxes, higher defense spending, tighter monetary policy, less regulation—in archetypal reconstructive terms: to him, it represented both "the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers" and the only appropriate response to LBJ's "government largesse." This pitch helped Reagan pass the largest income-tax cut in history. But soon after, the economy tanked. By 1982, more than 10 percent of the country was unemployed, and Reagan's approval rating fell to 35 percent the following year. And yet, like Roosevelt, the Gipper was resolute. "We're going through a period of difficult and painful re-adjustment," he said, "but there is no alternative." Eventually, the Fed rejuvenated the economy by manipulating the money supply and lowering interest rates. But Reagan got the credit because he kept harping on his reconstructive storyline (tax cuts = growth), which provided the public with a more intuitive explanation. In 1984 he carried every state but Minnesota.

Obama ran as a reconstructive leader, but he has governed as something else entirely. It's absurd to say, as Christie did in California, that the president has been "a bystander in the Oval Office," or to claim, paradoxically, that he's a socialist bent on "transforming" America into France part deux. As Obama's advisers often remind us, he has accomplished a lot of unradical things as president (preventing another Great Depression, passing private-health-insurance reform, saving Detroit). But FDR and Reagan didn't survive economic crises like the current recession bill by bill; they survived, Skowronek writes, by "harness[ing their] power to the task of sweeping away a degenerate order and reaffirming ancient truths." Obama, in contrast, has been content to search, as he recently told Ron Suskind, for the "perfect technical answer" to every problem—policy proposals, like the stimulus or health-care reform, that respectfully weave opposing viewpoints into some sort of pragmatic whole. As president, Obama has assumed the role of the bipartisan realist—the leader who prides himself on seeing the world as it is, with all its political limitations, and doing the best he can within those constraints.

Obama's conditional posture has its upside. The problem is that it's a terrible fit for a recession.

Obama's conditional posture has its upside. The problem is that it's a terrible fit for a recession, because that's exactly when Americans are least willing to accept the world as it is. They don't expect the president to change everything overnight. But they do expect him to act as if he's trying. As Skowronek writes, reconstructive leaders "have never been especially adept at solving the problems that brought them into office in the first place"; both Reagan and Roosevelt failed more often than they succeeded. But the politics of reconstruction gave meaning to their victories, kept them buoyant during dry spells, and defined the opposition before the opposition could define them. The approach also assured voters that Reagan and Roosevelt shared their deep dissatisfaction with the way things were.

Christie's appeal may lie along similar lines. Shortly before the messiah moment, he read out a sentence that reeked of reconstructive, un-Romney-like ambition. "Real leaders, they don't read polls," he said. "They change polls." One George Bernard Shaw fan watching on C-Span was reminded of a passage from the 1903 play Man and Superman. "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself," Shaw wrote. "Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."