Here we are on Presidents Day, recognizing all those men who have served our nation at the highest level. U.S. presidents, as we’ve seen time and time again, can lift us up to the moon or plunge us into despair. No other position wields such power, and our history is replete with lasting changes these men have brought about.
George Washington, our first president, wouldn’t serve more than two terms. His refusal to reign like a king helped shape our destiny as a republic.
Thomas Jefferson, our third president, believed in a small federal government, but he contradicted himself when he purchased the Louisiana territory and set the nation’s westward expansion into full swing. Then it took our fifth president, James Monroe, to articulate a doctrine that carried the nation to the Pacific Ocean.
Andrew Jackson, our seventh commander and chief, was the first “common man” to rise to the nation’s highest position. His election demonstrated that an American-made aristocracy would not have a lock on American power.
And our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, born 200 years ago in a small one-room cabin in the frontier of his time, grew into the keeper of the Union and the emancipator of slaves. Lincoln’s challenges in office were enormous. The greatest national crisis ever confronted him immediately upon taking office. And let’s not forget that it was not just a human rights issue that confronted the nation, it was also an economic issue. The South was so economically dependent on slave labor that it was willing to secede from the union to protect its interests.
When Franklin Roosevelt, our 32nd president, took on the Great Depression some 70 years after the Civil War, at least he didn’t have to fight a civil war, but he did face a desperate nation. One fourth of the workforce was out of work and the threat of starvation was very real to many Americans. FDR’s big-government approach to the economic conditions of his day kept the Union intact.
President Barack Obama, our 44th president, isn’t facing a Civil War or a Great Depression, but the national condition he inherits includes some formidable challenges. We are in the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, and we can’t offer our own health care system. We’re fighting two wars and are facing tremendous energy demands while our planet faces irreversible damage if we don’t reduce carbon emissions. In short, President Obama has his work cut out.
And yet, with Obama’s election, there is a renewed optimism that we can overcome these problems. Obama himself is a self-described “eternal optimist” and maybe that’s rubbing off on the nation at a whole. Or maybe it’s the way he carries himself — confidently, all the while expressing confidence in the American people. (Very Ronald Reagan-like, don’t you think?) Such is the power of the presidency.
With crisis, there is opportunity. Our greatest presidents have been those who rose to the occasion and made our nation stronger. Obama’s presidency will rise or fall accordingly. Here’s hoping he will become one of the great ones.