Sometimes, it seems, America has just been lucky. So it was with the birth, 285 years ago, of George Washington, who would win the war against the British and become the country’s first president. Presidents’ Day is in fact all about Washington, who with the other Founders helped to construct a system of government built to last, and built to withstand both challenges from abroad to sustain our democracy against challenges from within.
Washington declined a regal title, and passed on the opportunity to serve more than two terms. His democracy was to be shaped in the two centuries following his presidency by three branches of government, including the elected representatives of average citizens, and by successors who were in some cases people of vision and strength and nation- and world-changing policies that saved a country under threat from within and without. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, and perhaps one or two others, can stand shoulder to shoulder with Washington. (Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt stand with him on Rushmore.)
Today is, or should be, a chance for Americans to consider their choices and that of their ancestors in American leaders. But it’s a chance also to celebrate the fact that the American president is inaugurated and not installed by coronation. And to celebrate as well a country that has withstood many different presidents, some with great skill, others with few skills, and a variety of political philosophies.
History tells us as well that presidents’ legacies change. Harry Truman succeeded FDR and was criticized during his presidency, but now ranks as one of the best of the 20th Century. George H.W. Bush lost his presidency after one term but today is revered as a person of character and strength.
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It’s impossible, however, to consider the history of chief executives without looking at the present, and the young presidency of Donald Trump. Trump’s yet to bring the nation together, as all new presidents must following a divisive election.
Let us hope that perhaps Trump will spend part of this Presidents’ Day looking at the records of those who have preceded him in the office he now holds.
Presidents must not bend with a wisp of partisan breezes, but they must compromise. They will lead better if they can do so with the support of a broad consensus.
Every president has to learn on the job, and Americans must hope that President Trump, whose first days have been rocky, will do so, and will in the coming months broaden his outreach and his perspective. His success is in the balance, but the country’s success, as always, is tied to the occupant of the White House.