4. Media trivializes.
Greatness in the presidency requires a certain amount of distance, detachment, even mystique. The media has been tough on presidents since George Washington -- but not nearly as intrusive as it is now. FDR could hide his affairs and the extent of his disability because a willing press allowed him to; Kennedy had the same free pass. Not today. America's 24/7, in-your-face media is relentless -- and presidents contribute to it by believing they need to keep ahead of the curve and project their presence constantly. Lincoln gave four major speeches during his presidency; FDR gave only four fireside chats during his first year. Barack Obama gave over 500 speeches and major remarks during his first 365 days in office.
Presidents today also succumb to the Oprah-style need to reveal and share things about themselves, a curious feature of our modern age. Eighteenth- and 19th-century politicians didn't share. Washington, Lincoln, and FDR were public men with impenetrable private interiors. Jefferson burned his letters to his late wife. Obama had written two bestselling autobiographies before he set foot in the White House. A presidential Twitter news conference (July 6, 2011) may be smart politics and communications, but somehow the notion of being the president in 140 characters just doesn't compute.
The media offer presidents great opportunities to get the message out. But the media also suck the mystery and aura out of the presidency. It's hard to imagine now, as presidential historian Michael Beschloss reminds us, but when JFK addressed the country during the Cuban missile crisis, the networks went back to normal programming. That meant there was no media mediation, no talking-head commentary interposing itself between the public and the president. Americans were left to come to terms with the president and his words, by themselves.
5. It's a big world out there.
Modern presidents face a world that's largely beyond their control. The new globalized, integrated world impinges significantly, directly, and often immediately on important domestic issues in a way their predecessors could never even imagine. As an expanding continental power, America faced troubles enough. Both Washington and Lincoln had to deal with galactic challenges of nation-building and civil war, and they even had to contend with the great powers of their day in North America and at sea. As monumental as these challenges were, they were still contained. They were continental problems that offered up at least the possibility of continental solutions. With largely nonpredatory neighbors to its north and south, and oceans and fish to its east and west ("our liquid assets," one historian once called them), U.S. presidents had more control and a better margin for success. The foreign-policy challenges -- crisis with Spain, intervention in Mexico, preventing European influence in Latin America, and World War I -- faced by the first three presidents to get America's feet wet in the world (McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson) paled before the complexity of those that the second Roosevelt would encounter, let alone his successors.
Put aside for just a minute the gigantic size of America's economic, political, cultural, and security footprint in the world -- the latter, alone, which has the country deployed militarily to hundreds of bases around the world. Just think about the dependency and interconnectedness of the United States in the world today. Nineteen terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon; within a couple of years, America found itself bogged down in what would become the two longest wars in its history. Or what about Greece, a place the founders looked to as a source of philosophical and intellectual inspiration? It now exports bad debt that can roil U.S. financial markets with even a hint of possible default.
America doesn't control the world. And its presidents aren't action-adventure superheroes who can impose their will with words and deeds. The gap between expectations and delivery has always been a tough one to close, and the demand for great leaders has always exceeded the supply. Americans need to get a grip and dial down what they expect of the presidency and those who occupy it. Maybe then Americans can allow their presidents to be good without expecting them always to be great.