Every third monday in February, the U.S. celebrates a national holiday honouring George Washington and his successors as president. The presidency was not originally meant to be the most important elected office in the world. The separation of powers between the exceutive and legislative (Congress) branches made sure that American Revolution would not replace a royal monarch with a civil one. Also, at the time of the founding Constitution, the new nation was far from being the superpower it would become less than 200 years later. Yet, no one today would dispute that the American president, despite the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution, is the most consequential political actor in the world.
Whether it is FDR announcing direct U.S. involvement in WWII after Pearl Harbour, Truman dropping the bomb at Hiroshima to end the war, JFK confronting the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis and deciding to launch the program to put a man on the moon, Nixon going to China, Reagan telling the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall, or Bush choosing to go to war after 9/11, a president’s decisions can go a long way to steer the course of history. As a Canadian living in the United States, I choose to honour this February 21st holiday by highlighting those inspirational presidents who made an impact on me and otherwise made a significant contribution to improve the human condition:
-Abraham Lincoln for the abolition of slavery;
-Franklin D. Roosevelt for social security;
-Lyndon B. Johnson for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, as well as Medicare, Medicaid and the War on Poverty;
– and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton for active, inspiring and productive post-presidencies.
I know there have been many other significant presidencies and they deserve to be highlighted. It is also too early to draw conclusions on the current presidency of Barack Obama (although healthcare reform, if it lasts, and the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ will be historic). Fifteen presidents governed a nation that condoned slavery, and women did not have the right to vote until the 28th president. But the rhetoric and vision of Jefferson and Adams, as well as the contributions of Andrew Jackson, have contributed to making Presidents Day a worthwhile celebration.
Tough presidential decisions have been made in the course of history around the world that have improved the lot of many in the world. Overall, the two-party system has produced men (and, hopefully soon, women) of stature, though only few of true greatness out of the 44 who have served.
What is truly inspiring and worth honouring this President’s’ Day is the stability and vibrancy of the world’s most successful democracy, and the importance of role the occupants of the office of the presidency have played in building it. Happy Presidents Day to my American friends.