This is the second story in a series that will examine presidential success.
MOUNT VERNON,Va. – Fast forward 238 years since the founding of U.S. democracy,and it continues to survive through the efforts of presidents past. But the office has evolved from what George Washington had in mind.
“In terms of his accomplishments as president,a lot of people don’t realize that the country faced enormous internal and external threats,” Denver Brunsman,assistant professor of history at George Washington University,said. “Keeping the country together was a huge accomplishment.”
Although they did not face the challenge of heading a new government,presidents since Washington have become more involved with political parties and addressing the disputes between them.
In the late 18th century,the office of the president was new. The idea of a monarch,although defeated in Congress,was still on the minds of Americans.
“I think he would think the presidency has become a party situation,” Douglas Bradburn,founding director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the study of George Washington at Mount Vernon,said about the first president. “The president is supposed to stand for all Americans. But of course,the system now is set up so that there’s an assumption of two national political parties.”
About 47 percent of Americans consider themselves Democrats or identify as leaning toward the party. Forty-two percent consider themselves Republicans.
The numbers are a far cry away from Washington’s time when neither party exited in its current form, and Washington himself was not elected with a party endorsement.
“Washington set the model for the presidency in many ways,” Bradburn said. “As a person that stands above party,as a person that speaks in a way to inspire the country to do the best they can do all the time and fulfill that obligation.”
It was considered unseemly for a presidential candidate to campaign for himself until well into the 20th century. Candidates for 2016,announced or not,are already campaigning and raising money. And running is an expensive proposition. For the 2012 presidential election President Barack Obama’s campaign spent $1.1 billion,and Mitt Romney’s campaign spent $1.2 billion.
“The president now is,of course,elected by a party with particular purposes with a platform,” Bradburn said. “That’s completely different from the way Washington came into power.”
Brunsman and Bradburn said Washington would be hard pressed to recognize the executive office today due to its evolution.
“I think that he would be flabbergasted that a black person is the president of the U.S.,” Joseph Ellis,author of “His Excellency: George Washington” and professor of history at Mount Holyoke College,said. “He would think that Obama is making the right choice by doing his own thing because Congress is dysfunctional. He’s in the spirit of George Washington who said,government is not them,it is us. And I embody us.”
When Obama was first elected,the Democratic Party had the majority in Congress,making adopting his agenda an easier task. For example,the Affordable Care Act passed with no Republican votes in either chamber.
Two years later,the Republican Party gained the majority in the House of Representatives,leading the nation to today’s political gridlock.
“Washington’s vision was that there would be no party politics,” Brunsman said. “The problem with parties,in his mind,was that he was devoted completely to the country. He thought political parties were only devoted to themselves.”
The power of the office has grown since Washington’s time.
“He was one of those people who believed that a strong presidency is a good thing,” Ellis said. “A strong presidency can protect you from decisions made by a Congress that is more dangerous.”
But the pillars of the office,such as guiding foreign policy,approving legislation,separating the legislative and executive offices and stepping down after two terms,according to Washington’s precedent,still stand.
“He complained that everything he would do would be subject to duel interpretation because,one,it would always be seen as being done for some kind of particular interest,rather than for the public good,” Bradburn said. “And so he struggled with that sense of himself as being at the beginning of a presidency,a brand new office.”
Bradburn said future presidents have a lot to learn from Washington.
“Washington was an incredible deliberator and very good at bringing together people with strong disagreements,” Bradburn said. “He is a great example of a way compromise can be reached by bringing people together with the strongest of disagreements.”
Reach reporter Caitlin Turner at [email protected] or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.