Civic Scholar

Presidents’ Day fell on Feb. 19 this year. The holiday can trace its origins back to 1879 when it was initially established to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. When we look at the history of the U.S. presidency, it begs the question: What makes a good president?

As the leader of the American people, the president primarily executes the laws put forth by Congress and translates them into regulations. According to government professor Kahlib Fischer, many Americans expect the president to act like a king, but in reality, the president is in charge of select duties. These duties include negotiating treaties, appointing judicial nominees and appointing the heads of various executive agencies.

The president, his cabinet members and the federal agencies make up the executive branch, which enforces laws. Congress makes up the legislative branch, which creates the laws, and the Supreme Court and Federal Judicial Center make up the judiciary branch, which judges the laws. Together, the three branches interact through a system of checks and balances, put in place to make sure no branch wields more power than the other ones.

For example, Fischer described how the president cannot control legislation, but he can influence Congress. And while the president cannot create a bill, he can veto one to stop it from becoming a law.

“There are and should be a lot of limitations on what the president can do,” Fischer said. “The more we want the president to bring in sweeping changes, the less we value our federal democratic republic and all the checks and balances that were built in to make it
difficult to have kings and to make rapid, sweeping changes.

Given the responsibilities and the role the president plays, Fischer claimed that humility is one of the most important characteristics a good president can have.

“We don’t want someone who wants to be king,” Fischer said. “We want humility. We want someone who appreciates the value of checks and balances and respects the sovereignty of the states. … In other words, we want a president (who) doesn’t see the state governments as just branch offices of the federal government.”

History professor Michael Davis turned to political scientist Richard Neustadt’s “Presidential Power” from 1960 to see what makes a good president. Neustadt’s book insists that successful presidents have the ability to persuade. Davis also referenced political scientist Richard Rose’s work from the 1980s, which agrees that a successful president is able to persuade people to his side.

Additionally, Davis recognized the importance of a president having strong moral character. “The president is the most visible,” Davis said.

A quality both Fischer and Davis agree a good president must have is being competent in government. Fischer noted that a lot of good presidents were first good governors, and Davis cited former President George W. Bush as an example of someone who had “administrative competence” and ample experience in government before taking office.

Stories of past presidents, like the one of Ford and Carter, give the American people insight into the significance behind Presidents’ Day. For Fischer, more Americans could be observing the holiday and praying for their president, regardless of their party.

“You look at these pictures of presidents when they came into the White House and then when they left, and they’ve aged significantly,” Fischer said. “It just has such a toll on them, and the weight of the world is on their shoulders. (We need) to pray for mercy and for wisdom for them. … That should be what we do on Presidents’ Day.”

Bear is the editor-in-chief for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on X

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