The Presidential American Idol

To make it to the top of either Arthur Schlesinger Sr. or Clinton Rossiter’s scale of presidential greatness (1), a president must serve in “great times” (1). For Schlesinger and Rossiter, “great times” translates typically into crisis or trial. The saying goes that only in times of great trial are men’s true character revealed. Accordingly, the same can be said for Presidents; only times of great crisis reveal whether the men elected to the Oval Office truly are men of greatness. Since not all Presidents serve during crisis or trials, not all Presidents can potentially reach the classification of a “great” president. So just as Simon serves as the benchmark of perfection for American Idol, so does crisis to the American presidency.

It appears that Americans find themselves in “great times.” Americans watch as the stock market whips more violently within a single week than it has in recent history. They also watch as the Federal government essentially nationalizes AIG, the largest insurance company in the country. And despite many people’s attempt to forget, America still has boots on the ground engaged in active warfare in two countries. The next President will have plenty of opportunities to show whether or not he has what it takes to become a great President.

Looking over the presidential candidates, both Barack Obama and John McCain seem to share traits with two modern Presidents who served in times of crisis and trial; Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman (2).

Obama potentially shares Roosevelt’s outward sense of confidence (2). Roosevelt was a very confident man. This allowed him to convey confidence to the nation he led. If it did nothing else, this enable Americans to hold their heads high as they treaded their way through the swamps of the Great Depression (2). Obama seems to have the ability to also convey confidence to people.

For this strength he may share with Roosevelt, Obama seems to also share one of Roosevelt’s biggest weaknesses; inconsistency (2). As Charles Dunn points out, Roosevelt was free to act and try whatever he though would help the nation (2). He also was willing to go back on what he previously promised to try something else (2). During his campaign, Roosevelt promised to cut the size of government. Yet when he entered office, he did exactly the opposite (2). Over the past year Americans have seen Obama do just that. Earlier in the campaign when it was politically expedient, he pledged to take only public funding. When it became clear that this pledge would hurt him, Obama reneged on his pledge. So while he may have an ability to convey confidence, people may not have confidence in what he actually says.

McCain seems to share Truman’s conformability in his own skin. Dunn states that Truman was, “neither supremely confident nor arrogant” (2). This also translated into an ability to follow through on what he thought was right regardless of the political ramifications (2). McCain during the surge showed the same kind of conviction and resolve. Once he had decided that supporting the surge was the right thing to do, he did so regardless of what popular polls were against it. And like Truman, time appears to have rewarded McCain’s resolve.

Similar to one of Truman’s weaknesses, McCain likes to speak his mind regardless of politically expediency. In a less than politically correct move today, Truman called a corruption charge against one of his subordinate “asinine” (2). Though the people often claim to want straightforward leaders willing to speak their mind, typically voters are taken back when leaders speak as openly as Truman and McCain.

With the Simon of the American presidency ready to judge the next President, either Obama or McCain has the opportunity to walk right into the history books. So who will become America’s next “great” President?


1 – Dunn, C. (2008). Lecture. Delivered September 17, 2008 at Regent University.

2 – Dunn, C. (2001). The scarlet thread of scandal: Morality and the American presidency. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC.

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