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Character Counts:
What to Look for in a President

This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of the Intercollegiate Review.


All this week I have seen the hashtag #CharacterCounts pop up. No surprise there. 

Last weekend America was treated to the 2005 video of Republican candidate Donald Trump’s extremely lewd hot-mic conversation about women with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush. In the immediate aftermath a number of Republicans withdrew their support for Trump over the question of character. Other Trump supporters have argued that the moral flaws of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton are at least as dangerous as Trump’s, if not more so. Just yesterday, author and radio host Eric Metaxas wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making the case that Christians should vote for Trump despite the Republican nominee’s odious behavior.

The recent fevered debate over the character of the candidates makes the 2016 presidential race unusual in yet another respect. In typical races, voters often cite any number of other reasons for supporting a particular candidate: agreement with the candidate on important issues or on his or her “vision” for America, the belief that the nominee’s experience (or sometimes his or her “outsider” status) is what the country needs, or simply a desire to see another candidate lose. Character isn’t usually at the top of the list, or a focus of so much discussion.

But being a successful president involves much more than adopting the right policy positions. Think of the great presidents in our nation’s history: they have typically been people not only of ability and personality but also of high character.

This is no accident.

What is greatness, after all? In 2,400 years we have not surpassed the understanding of Aristotle, who summed up political greatness as the ability to translate wisdom into action on behalf of the public good. To be able to do this, Aristotle argues, requires a combination of moral virtue, practical wisdom, and public-spiritedness. It is not enough to have a high IQ; in fact, Aristotle goes to great lengths to show that practical wisdom “is at the opposite pole from intelligence.”

The character of the individuals who seek the presidency cannot be understood apart from the character of the office itself—both what it was designed to be and what it has become. The Founders would be appalled by the modern presidency, which bears little relation to the office the framers of the Constitution created.

The behavior of most modern presidents and candidates—personally ambitious politicians making populist appeals and offering lavish promises, often impossible to fulfill, of what they will do for the people—is precisely what the Founders wanted to avoid when they established the presidency.

George Washington’s “Untrodden Ground”

Most citizens today regard the president as the center of gravity in our political system; it’s not for nothing that the president is referred to as “the leader of the free world.” But this is a wholly modern phenomenon. The Constitution begins—Article I—with Congress rather than the presidency, and before the twentieth century, Congress was considered the most important branch of government. Thomas Reed, the legendary Speaker of the House in the 1890s, turned away suggestions that he run for president because he considered it a lesser office than Speaker. Today Congress is arguably the least important of the three branches. The slow-motion inversion of constitutional philosophy that has licensed judicial activism on behalf of a “living” Constitution also aggrandized the office of the president beyond what the Founders intended.

It is remarkable nowadays to reflect that America’s Founders doubted whether our new republic should have a president or chief executive officer at all, and that it was only after long debate that they settled on creating the office of the president. Keep in mind that the chief object of criticism in the Declaration of Independence was King George III, and the political history that the Founders studied reinforced the conclusion that kings or tyrants who exercised unconstrained power are a constant threat to liberty. Many among the Founders doubted not simply whether a president or other chief executive was necessary but in fact whether it would be dangerous to have one. An “elected king” was thought no better than a hereditary king. (See Brion McClanahan’s article.)

But remember, too, that the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, conspicuously lacked a chief executive. The absence of an executive—the lack of a source of the necessary “energy” (Alexander Hamilton’s phrase)—contributed to the short life of the Articles. Because there were (and still are) no serious examples of a collective or plural government executive, the Founders grudgingly concluded that our young republic needed a national chief executive with sufficient powers. 

Odd as it may sound today, president was chosen as the title for the chief executive because it was considered a lesser term than governor, which was the alternative title the Constitutional Convention of 1787 considered. President derives from preside, as in an officer who presides over a meeting the way a chairman sits at the head of a committee. The Latin root term from which it derives, praesidere, means “to sit in front or at the head of” and, significantly, “to defend.” 

Clearly the Founders had in mind that the president would be the chief defender of the Constitution against the populist furies of Congress, chiefly by conducting himself in the mode of an agent—someone to execute the laws “faithfully.” 

The fundamental ambivalence to the idea of the constitutional executive can be seen in the brevity of Article II of the Constitution. Whereas Article I enumerates the powers of Congress in specific terms, Article II is very general about the powers of the president. Just as “parchment barriers” alone would be insufficient to protect liberty, the Founders understood that the character of the people who held the office would be more important than whatever specifications they attempted in the text of the Constitution. The success of the republic would depend on what Thomas Jefferson called the “moderation and virtue” of the individuals who led it—especially of the president.

In fact, the Founders may not have agreed to create the presidency were it not for the reassuring prospect that George Washington would be the first, precedent-setting occupant. Washington was highly conscious of this historic role. “Few who are not philosophical spectators,” he wrote, “can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation has to act. . . . In our progress toward political happiness my station is new; and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”

Presidential Restraint

Washington’s republican modesty provided a powerful model for his successors. Americans like to speak of having a president who is “above partisanship,” and Washington was, of course, the only U.S. president who did not belong to a political party. Partisan divisions quickly emerged in this country, taking decisive shape in the quarrels within Washington’s own cabinet. Still, for more than a century after Washington, presidents operated on the understanding that the president’s primary responsibility was to defend the country against threats from enemies abroad and the Constitution against threats at home. 

Prior to the twentieth century, presidents tended to be more reticent in their public profile and restrained in their understanding of how to conduct the office than what we are accustomed to today. Most presidents exercised their veto power only over legislation they thought violated the Constitution, and not because they disagreed with the policy judgment of Congress. Presidents did not give many public addresses. Even the State of the Union, now a prime-time television event in which the president addresses both houses of Congresses, was a quiet affair: for well over a century presidents simply wrote an address and had a clerk read it to Congress.

According to Jeffrey Tulis, author of the seminal study of the history of presidential rhetoric (The Rhetorical Presidency), only four presidents before Theodore Roosevelt attempted to defend or attack specific proposed legislation in speeches. At one appearance on tour in New York, President Benjamin Harrison begged off commenting on current issues before Congress, saying: “You ask for a speech. It is not very easy to know what one can talk about on such an occasion as this. Those topics which are most familiar to me, because I am brought in daily contact with them, namely public affairs, are in some measure forbidden to me” (emphasis added).

Washington’s example of republican restraint started to erode with Andrew Jackson, a person of large ability but mixed character. But even Jackson anchored his politics chiefly within a defense of the Constitution as he understood it. Everything changed in the Progressive Era, when, impatient with the constitutional restraints that are intended to produce thoughtful deliberation in government, Woodrow Wilson and other political thinkers openly criticized the Constitution and argued for a “visionary” president who would speed up the course of History. 

Ever since, presidents of both parties have carried on in this mode, with only the partial exceptions of Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. It has been a straight line—arguably straight downhill—from Wilson to Barack Obama and his promise to “fundamentally transform” the nation. As the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy puts it in his fine book The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, “We still expect the ‘commander in chief’ to heal the sick, save us from hurricanes, and provide balm for our itchy souls.” Healy calls this, on the part of presidents, “acquired situational narcissism”; the American people have become “presidential romantics.”

But our inflated expectations of presidents, together with inflated presidential promises to solve the nation’s problems, probably have contributed to the loss of public confidence in the federal government. The single most salient fact of the past fifty years may well be the survey results showing that public confidence in the ability of the federal government to perform well has declined dramatically, from nearly 70 percent in 1960 to less than 20 percent over the past twenty years. The one sustained reversal of this trend came during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and it is probably not a coincidence that Reagan’s core message, stated directly in his first inaugural address, was that the American people themselves, and not Washington, would fix the nation’s serious problems.

The Presidential Paradox

Understanding the true, constitutional character of the presidency helps us understand the character traits we should look for in a president. “republican modesty” is not a slogan you’re likely to see emblazoned on a presidential campaign poster. Nor do campaigns dwell much on the elements of political greatness that Aristotle identified: moral virtue, practical wisdom, and public-spiritedness. But we would be better served seeking a president who embodies these traits than one with an ambitious “vision” for transforming American society. 

The president is the focal point of the chief paradox of the republican form of self-government. To be sure, we want presidents who are what used to be called “great men,” in the profound, classical sense of the term. We want people of high character, ability, and large personality to preside over the operation of our government. In a crisis, we rightly want a statesman. But the paradox of republican government, in which we choose our temporary rulers from among the ranks of our fellow citizens, is that we want to be able to look up to our government officials without having them look down on us. This paradox applies to presidents most of all: we want to put them on a pedestal but still gaze upon them at eye level. 

The most successful and popular presidents have been those who managed this paradox: those who were able to command our respect and respond to the real needs of our moment—preeminently defending the nation from foreign threats, and securing law and order—while still “connecting” with citizens as an equal. 

After Barack Obama—after three generations of progressivism only slightly interrupted by the Reagan years—the conservative president we desperately need requires a paradoxical combination of boldness and restraint. The president will need to be bold in challenging the runaway power and reach of his or her own branch, against the fury of the bureaucracy, its client groups, and the media. This boldness is necessary to restore the proper kind of restraint that a republican executive should have in our constitutional order.

It is not clear where such a person might come from. The supply of people who understand this seems very short indeed.


Steven F. Hayward is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama. He writes frequently for Power Line, among many other publications. A version of this article appears in the Intercollegiate Review Fall 2016 print issue.


Complement with Ben Sasse on the American idea and why it’s in jeopardy, Brion McClanahan on “elected kings,” and the founder of true conservatism in America

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