Be these mortals? Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Be these mortals? Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Justin Vaughn and Jennifer Mercieca had a great Washington's Birthday post over at the Monkey Cage about presidents as heroes. It’s a very good explanation of how expectations about the presidency affect what presidents actually do, and how people then react.

I haven’t read their book (yet!), but the idea of the president as hero is exactly how I began when I used to teach about the presidency. I started with two clips: the Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V (Kenneth Branagh’s version), and then the beginning of Richard III (with Ian McKellan), demonstrating the idea of the king as hero, and the king as usurper. And then we would talk about how those iconic imagines could help explain how presidents behave in office.

Key to all of this is Framers' incredibly vague idea of what the presidency would be. They knew that they didn’t want a king, but because they did such an incomplete job of defining the job, or perhaps just because of a collective failure of imagination, we wound up viewing presidents as kings anyway. At the very least, we invested the presidency with a lot of expectations drawn from our ideas about kings. (Even if many of those ideas were only loosely based on what real kings, in England or elsewhere, actually did.)

All of which provides both opportunities and dangers for presidents. Take, for example, the idea of presidents as heroes. On the one hand, it gives presidents an audience. After the Sept. 11 attacks, everyone -- Democrats as well as Republicans -- wanted to hear what President George W. Bush had to say. Virtually no one cared what Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert or Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had to say, despite the fact that by constitutional imperative and practice, Congress shares with president responsibility for war and peace and national security. Americans looked to the president, which gave him considerable power to set the agenda.

As Vaughn and Mercieca discuss, this also sets the president up for failure. Presidents, after all, not only don’t have the divine qualities we associate with kingship, they don’t even have constitutional authority to do much of what Americans commonly think that they can do. At some level, we want presidents to give an inspirational speech, Henry-like, that turns everything around. But Washington policy-making isn't a movie or a play. In democracies, a lack of inspired leadership isn't usually the cause of inaction; it's more often a product of honest disagreements and competing interests, and the way to surmount those obstacles is by hard bargaining and compromise, not rallying the troops.

We have other images of kings (and queens, for that matter) rolling around our culture. Richard III isn’t heroic; he’s the usurper as supervillain, with McKellan explaining to us, Goldfinger-like, exactly what treachery he has planned. So instead of simply thinking of a president as a political opponent, some of us are tempted to think of him as illegitimate and, perhaps, actively out to destroy his own nation. We follow him, waiting for the mask to fall revealing his true intentions. In my favorite example, Republicans jumped on a moment at Ron Brown’s funeral to “prove” that President Bill Clinton was insincere about everything and not simply a skilled politician who happened to belong to the other party. This negative image, too, imposes constraints on presidents.

Ideas of the presidency aren’t all that matter to the office and how its occupants act, of course, but they are important. Images of kingship are supplemented by images based on specific presidents, with George Washington and FDR playing major roles. There’s just so little specificity in the constitutional idea of the president that we can’t help but grab at any examples, positive and negative, that seem to fit. These turn out to be extremely important factors in how presidents conduct themselves, and how they do and don't accomplish their goals.