Note: this piece was originally published in The Bulwark, and was written by Checks & Balances member Edward Larson.
Virtually every historian or political scientist who considers such matters ranks Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and George Washington as America’s greatest presidents. They do so for good reason. Each of them faced existential crises, drew on expertise to formulate decisive responses, and ably followed through with dogged resolve.
Lincoln faced the succession of Southern states and, rather than temporizing like his predecessor James Buchanan, he assembled a team of rivals to mobilize the nation’s resources and saved the union.
Roosevelt confronted the worst economic depression in the modern history, and unlike the dispiriting half measures adopted by his predecessor Herbert Hoover, he revived the national spirit with the New Deal. For all of its legal setbacks and the ongoing historical debate over its economic effects, Roosevelt’s decisiveness and manifest leadership may have saved the United States from the political turmoil so many other countries experienced in the 1930s.
Responding to worsening economic and political tumult under the Articles of Confederation following the American Revolution, Washington drew on a wide array of advisors including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to devise a bold new constitution and to decisively implement it. While antifederalists dithered, Washington led and the people rallied around him.
Each of these presidents had private doubts and limited ability, but by listening, deciding, and acting, they prevailed. Penny, dime, or quarter, they all ended up on a coin.
What can one make of President Trump so far in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis? While it’s too soon for a final judgement, his dithering betrays his indecision.