The president as healer and unifier

by Mark Aspinwall

Americans soon go to the polls in one of the most bitter and polarized elections in living memory. They will have a new president. What will the job entail? Both main candidates have promised policy changes. Among other things, Candidate Clinton wants tax reform, action on climate change, immigration reform, while Candidate Trump has promised law and order, improved inner cities, destroying ISIS, and cutting taxes.

Offering policy choices to Congress is an important part of the president’s job. It is divisive, whatever side of the aisle the president is from.

There is an equally important aspect to it, often unappreciated and usually impossible to plan for. But presidents forget it at their peril, for it can mark their legacy. It is to act as the ceremonial leader of the nation, the unifier and healer.

When the country is struck by natural disaster, terrorist attacks, or some other calamity, a good president goes to the scene, roll up his or her sleeves, and stands knee deep in the grief and destruction. She draws together those affected and lets them know that the entire country stands with them.

Note that in these tragedies the president does not represent one political party over others. She does not ignore those who probably did not vote for her and certainly does not favor the places where he has personal investments over other parts of the country. The material and moral support is for everyone, no strings attached.

Take some examples.

As he took office for the first time, President Franklin Roosevelt faced a nation in the throes of the Great Depression. At his inaugural he said:

We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and our property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at the larger good.

Like Roosevelt, President Reagan’s policy choices were divisive, but his speech following the 1986 Challenger disaster helped define him as a leader. He said:

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

Reagan made the loss of seven astronauts a loss to the entire nation.

A president’s policy choices can frustrate her job as a unifier, because policy choices generate antipathy. Lincoln is celebrated for his 1863 Gettysburg Address and forgiven for the deeply divisive policy decisions he made which led to the Civil War because his was a unifying mission. It takes a skillful politician to be able to push forward policy reform and also unify. As I said in an earlier post, the president plays for the home team, but she also sings the National Anthem.

Unfortunately, tragedies and disasters will occur in the next four years. Now think about the two presidential candidates. Are they equally able to unite and heal? What would they have said to the homeless in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? To the families of the Challenger astronauts? Those who divide through gratuitous insults and bullying create ‘walls within’ – metaphorical but powerful divisions in society which leave us all weaker, angrier and more selfish.


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