Hendrik Hertzberg’s review of Amanda Foreman’s “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War” includes a striking quotation on the problem the best of presidents have in meeting the expectations of America’s best friends—whether in 1863 or today.
England’s most ardent liberals never warmed to Lincoln; he simply wasn’t sufficiently wholehearted, especially on slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation, Foreman writes,
“… was widely denounced as a cynical and desperate ploy . . . even pro-Northern supporters could not understand why Lincoln had allowed the border states to keep their slaves, unless the emancipation order was directed against the South rather than slavery itself. ‘Our people are very imperfectly acquainted with the powers of your Federal Government’ explained the antislavery crusader George Thompson to his American counterpart, William Lloyd Garrison. ‘They know little or nothing of your constitution—its compromises, guarantees, limitations, obligations, etc. They are consequently unable to appreciate the difficulties of your president.”
Imperfectly acquainted? Indeed.
For a long time, it was understandable that eminent British and European politicians wouldn’t bother to understand America’s convoluted system of government. Its liberal principles were magnificent on paper, but probably wouldn’t work for long. A great power, Old World Machiavellians believed, needed to have a powerful central executive that was clearly superior to individual states and was enjoying extensive freedom from—and dominant influence in—popular legislative bodies.
Lincoln saved the American union, but neither he nor his successors have been able to make it easier to exercise leadership through the Office of the President. There’s a strange irony here: the head of state of the most powerful nation on earth still looks weaker than the leaders of its democratic partners.
So, why, after being able to make the US constitution work for so long, is compromise by the White House still seen as an option, a reflection of a president’s temperament, and not something embedded in his job description? Why is it not an encumbrance Barack Obama can set aside for the last year of his first term—letting him get things done like a CEO?
America’s constitution is not power-friendly. It is liberal, however, in that it makes it no easier to be a reformer than a reactionary.
When people are passionate, America’s constitution is not entirely people-friendly either.
That is a price most people, and especially progressives, should be happy to pay. Forcing presidents to be persuasive and to reason with others who are equally secure in their constitutional roles helps protect America as a relatively safe place to be an adult, to be unpopular, and to be out of fashion.
Today, European and American romantics can’t be excused for their ignorance—despite its checks and balances, America’s federal government has been able to keep up with the times and serve the noisiest grass-roots democracy in the world. The pace of strategic decision-making doesn’t fit the contemporary news cycle or the attention span of the more fevered partisans. However, if we hold our fire and observe what’s happening over a reasonable span of time, we will see that Presidents can still lead, within the rules.