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Presidents as saviors vs. presidents as being hired to do a job

There’s been a lot of talk about how if Biden is elected president it will be a kind of relief, a return to problem solving and dialing down of tension. This is different from Obama, who so famously inspired all that hope, and it made me think about characterizing other modern presidents in this way:

Saviors: Trump, Obama, Clinton, Reagan, Roosevelt

Hired to do or continue a job: Bush 2, Bush 1, Nixon, Johnson, Truman

I’m not quite sure how I’d characterize the other elected presidents from that era: Carter, Kennedy, Eisenhower. Carter in retrospect doesn’t have a savior vibe, but he was elected as a transformative outlier. Kennedy looms large in retrospect but it’s not clear that he was considered as a savior when he was running for president. Eisenhower I’m not sure about either.

Another complication is that there have been changes in Congress at the same time. There was the radicalism of the post-1974 reform movement, the 1994 Newt Gingrich revolution, and then the locked-in partisanship of congressional Republicans since 2010, all of these which can be considered both as responses to executive overreach by opposition presidents and which have motivated counterreactions.


  1. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Carter without question was an outsider elected to save us from the swamp.

    I agree with you about Kennedy, although neither of us is old enough to remember the race. He was young, and Sorenson’s speeches had a Messianic quality about them, but I don’t think that was a lot of the underlying reasoning.

    Almost by definition, a candidate (Eisenhower) courted by both parties is a problem-solver.

  2. This approaches the argument in the excellent book The Politics Presidents Make. Highly recommended.

  3. Dan says:

    Thanks for this post. I really want to get back to the idea of the president as someone we hire to do a job, the most important person in the government, but not someone who will transform society or rescue us from perdition. I always vote Democratic, but if Eisenhower were around today, I’d be for Ike.

  4. Schencklein says:

    Obsessive focus upon individual Presidential personalities and their political impulses has led to a national Cult of the Presidency — with most people somehow seeking a messianic-like person to solve the nation’s woes and vanquish the forces of evil.
    Practical result is an Imperial Presidency imbued with vast new statutory powers far beyond anything specified in the Constitution.
    Emperors can get things done, so we built a modern version of that ancient model.

    But modern US Presidents are merely politicians and political figureheads, with no actual personal ability to control/direct/manage the huge Federal Executive Branch.
    No human on the planet could possibly perform the job ostensibly assigned to a sitting President.
    Instead, Presidents mostly talk, play political games, and dabble in a few governmental issues that may catch their interest.
    After a few years another person steps in as President and does the same.

    The November 3rd election will change nothing except the facade du jour.

  5. Matt Skaggs says:

    Environmental and energy issues were salient when Carter became president, and he did have a bit of a savior thing going on those topics.

    Most people didn’t know then, and still don’t know now, that that era was characterized by dam building as a patronage system for the wealthy. Carter put an end to it, and the anger in Congress (poorly handled by Carter) from that single decision ended his political career.

    So Reagan came in and set up a new patronage system, and so in that sense, yes he was a savior for the wealthy looking to use their influence to fatten their wallets.

    • jim says:

      “Environmental and energy issues were salient when Carter became president, and he did have a bit of a savior thing going on those topics.”

      Well, he did tell us oil and gas were about to run out. Then the price of a barrel of oil fell by 2/3 over the following two decades and indeed he was so wrong that even in nominal terms oil is 1/3 cheaper today – a whopping 40 years later – than in 1980, the last year of Carter’s term in office.

      • confused says:

        This is one case (there are others, eg nuclear, overpopulation) where I feel like the environmental cause has been damaged by focusing on the wrong thing.

        In both the cases of oil supply and overpopulation/famine, it’s a case of betting against technological advancement. It would have been more useful to point to the detrimental effects of fossil fuels (both environmental and politically-destabilizing) than to assume that new resources would not be found.

        (Nuclear is I think more a case of “things that are flashy are scarier”, eg why people are more afraid of airplanes than cars… I would expect the excess air pollution deaths from coal to translate to (conservatively) dozens of Chernobyls per year in China alone, but there’s no single disaster to point to.)

  6. oncodoc says:

    I was fifteen when Kennedy was elected. He ran as a transformer with Nixon in the role of the steady hand on the tiller. JFK emphasized his youth and vigor and ran to the right of the incumbents on issues like national prestige and the missile gap. The success of Sputnik was a shock to Americans, and the Eisenhower approach seemed pedestrian; the formal “we’re going to the moon” speech came later, but it was implied by his campaign. JFK was cautious talking about integration, but it was assumed that he’d be an activist. His inaugural speech clearly lays out a vision of activism on many fronts. I thought very highly of him at that time, but I’ve changed my mind on large chunks of his plans.
    The problem lies with our system as a whole. Imagine a candidate who offered competency and hard work running against a macho posturing “alpha male” type. We live in a world where “geek” is an insult. The published SAT scores of our Presidents are not impressive, and by this I wish to imply that they are too busy cultivating an image of not being bookish. Bill Clinton came from a low income background to win a Rhodes scholarship but never promoted himself as an intellectual. To be POTUS you have to have good hair, and that serves as a metaphor for our system.

  7. Mendel says:

    I don’t understand this bit:

    then the locked-in partisanship of congressional Republicans since 2010, all of these which can be considered both as responses to executive overreach by opposition presidents

    This means that Obama overreached, and his party was in opposition after the 2010 election, so therefore the republicans locked into partisanship for a decade?

  8. Esteban says:

    Interesting. It appears just one savior followed another savior on your short list…

    Gene Healy (The Cult of the Presidency) wrote a nice, non-partisan book on the inappropriateness for any US president being considered as the savior-in-chief, constantly waging various and sundry “wars”, both foreign and domestic, on ”our” behalf as needy and herdable citizens:

    “…Neither Left nor Right sees the president as the Framers saw him: a constitutionally constrained chief executive with an important, but limited job: to defend the country when attacked, check Congress when it violates the Constitution, enforce the law—and little else. Today, for conservatives as well as liberals, it is the president’s job to protect us from harm, to ‘grow the economy,’ to spread democracy and American ideals abroad, and even to heal spiritual malaise…”

    • jim says:

      Well, the framers’ intentions have to be encapsulated in their concept of the future: they had no idea if the US would even survive, much less prosper. The ideas of economic stimulus and QE weren’t around just then. And almost immediately the president took on all those tasks anyway, if only in the name of settling disputes between the states.

    • confused says:

      The federal government – and especially the executive branch – was far, far smaller before the 20th century.

      On the other hand the President as ‘democratic king’ is as jim says not new: Andrew Jackson was probably the worst President ever in this direction, and that was in a time when a few of the founders (like Madison) were still around.

    • anon e mouse says:

      Although true, this quote smacks a bit of Framers-worship to me. The Framers were not experts in designing a democratic system of government, because no one was 250 years ago, and it is mind-boggling to me that we consider what they thought about how the system should work to be anything other than a curiosity. They got a lot of stuff wrong in ways that was already apparent during their lifetimes, and a lot of other stuff wrong that didn’t become apparent until later. So, yeah, they didn’t imagine the presidency as being as powerful as it is, but they also thought the system would work without parties, that only a subset of the population should vote, that the president and vice president being elected separately was a workable system, that their half-assed compromises on slavery would work, and on and on.

  9. Adede says:

    Do they have to be mutually exclusive? I think many consider Biden to be a savior because he will actually do his job.

    • Anoneuoid says:

      I think many consider Biden to be a savior because he will actually do his job.

      My understanding is that the Biden campaign has been “calling a lid” at like 9:30 AM half the days. Presumably because he gets tired. Is that wrong? I thought people supported him because he wasnt going to do much of anything.

      • Phil says:

        “Presumably because he gets tired.” Yes, I think that’s wrong.

        • Anoneuoid says:

          What is the reason?

          • Steve says:

            When candidates are ahead, they typically lessen their exposure to potential problems. Right now, Biden believes that as long as the conversation is about Trump and COVID, he will win. There is no reason for him to change the topic. Thus, his campaign would rather be boring than make news. This is a typical campaign for a popular incumbent — the Rose Garden strategy. We just haven’t seen it for a challenger in our life times. Also, when Trump trying to run events from the Rose Garden, he got everyone sick.

            • Anoneuoid says:

              This is a typical campaign for a popular incumbent

              Can you link to info on the most similar campaign? His wife is out at campaign events normally he would do, but he isnt doing other events in parallel.

              • Steve says:

                He is preparing for the Thursday debate.

              • Anoneuoid says:

                He is preparing for the Thursday debate.

                What candidate in the past required taking so many days off to prepare for a debate?

                It seems pretty clear to me Biden is elderly, has had a brain surgery, makes an exceptional number of gaffes, and is being hidden from the public as much as they can get away with to limit the damage he can do to his own campaign.

              • Phil says:

                Trump is out there holding big public events that spread coronavirus. Every time he does that, his base loves him more and everybody else loathes him more. By not doing similar events, Biden looks good.

                Traditional campaign rallies don’t make sense because people realize they’re unwise. So Biden isn’t doing them. I think that’s most of the story.

                I agree Biden is elderly and that nobody is as sharp at 77 as at 47, but I don’t think the lack of traditional campaign events indicates anything. And he’s always made gaffes, he’s been famous for it for decades. I’m not saying he couldn’t be declining markedly, just that we haven’t seen evidence for it. Whereas Trump is also elderly and his mental problems are plain to see.

            • confused says:

              Yeah, *if nothing changes*, Biden is in a very strong position, and Trump doesn’t seem to be in a position to change the game.

              It looks a bit scary, as Trump is out rallying etc., but … early voting suggests that there is enough enthusiasm for Biden (well, probably “against Trump”, but it boils down to the same thing in our two-party system*).

              *For the purposes of this election, anyway: the difference could matter quite a bit in 2022 and 2024.

              • Steve says:

                Anoneuoid states: “What candidate in the past required taking so many days off to prepare for a debate?”

                According to Wikipedia, in 2012, Obama had five trips outside of Washington in October of 2012. He had less than that in November.

                Romney was closer to Obama, than Trump is to Biden in the polls. So, whether Biden is at the peak of his mental fitness or brain dead, the strategy would be the same. Keep a lid on Biden and carefully manage his appearances. It would be political malpractice to do otherwise, especially when you risk exposing him to COVID. You can believe whatever speculation you want to believe about Biden’s health, but there is nothing suspicious about the campaign strategy.

              • Anoneuoid says:

                Obama had five trips outside of Washington in October of 2012. He had less than that in November.

                Making 1-2 trips per week isnt the same as avoiding public/media appearances. I don’t think the Biden campaign resembles either Obama campaign at all. I was hoping you would point to something from history I didnt directly experience.

        • jim says:

          I’m not even a whole century old and I get tired!

  10. Steve says:


    I think (hope) that the most appropriate analogy here is between Obama being to Biden as LBJ was to JFK. Obama and JFK were inspirational, but inexperienced. Biden and LBK will be the two most experienced legislators ever elected President, and therefore, perhaps Biden will be able to move legislation through Congress at a pace similar to LBJ. No one likes lawyers or politicians or proctologists, but with it comes to it, you want someone who knows how to root around in the sh*t. This is my hope at least. Whatever one’s political leanings, we just need certain problems dealt with.

  11. JDK says:

    Y’all need to move to a parliamentary system like your northern neighbors (and much of the rest of the world). You’re welcome!

    • Chris Wilson says:

      Proportional representation would be quite nice, yes. Honestly, we could do a lot with expanding the House + re-apportionment + non-partisan districting commissions. Would be clunkier probably, but easily within bounds of our current Constitution. The Presidency needs to be popular vote, full stop. Like, why is this even a question? Retain the Senate for the kernel of truth in the “geographic balance” argument, but probably end filibuster for good, and good Lord, add D.C. plus Puerto Rico. Lastly, something like –
      Yea…we have a lot of shit to do to restore a functioning democratic Republic over here. This list seems like a lot, but is already abbreviated and full of compromises :)

      • confused says:

        >>The Presidency needs to be popular vote, full stop. Like, why is this even a question?

        Because amending the Constitution requires not only Congress but a supermajority of states, and there’s no clear reason why states that would lose relative power would agree.

        It would have to be “packaged” with something that those states wanted, at the very least.

        • Andrew says:


          You may be right in this particular case, but, in general, states can ratify amendments without this sort of packaging. For example, fifty years ago the states ratified the amendment allowing 18-year-olds to vote.

          • confused says:

            Sure, not for amendments in general… but I don’t think that amendment gave a clear benefit to some states at the expense of others.

            The Electoral College gives more relative power to low-population states and less relative power to high-population states, so it’s hard to see what would lead the low-population states to ratify such an amendment without some kind of compromise.

            • Andrew says:


              My colleagues and I have done some research on this. Yes, the electoral college benefits small states and hurts large states, on average, but, except for the smallest states, this is a relatively minor bias compared to the fact that the electoral college benefits swing states and hurts non-swing states. The vast majority of states are non-swing states, and they would gain in voting power from a move to a popular vote system.

              • Anoneuoid says:

                The point of having states is to have a diversity of laws so people can move from ones with policies they dislike to ones they like with a minimum of friction. Then these states are supposed to elect the federal representatives.

                Making the US a monoculture is not going to benefit 99% of the population, but that is the road the US has been down for awhile with the associated rise in income inequality, etc.

              • This is just an argument to reduce the role of the federal government in things like criminal law and various other forms of policy. I’m for that while still thinking that whatever *does* affect all states should be chosen by the *people* not by the land masses.

              • confused says:

                @Andrew: Hmm – I can actually see that; a state like Arkansas may have disproportionate voting power in one sense, but if it goes R 100% of the time, in practice individual voters in Arkansas have little chance to affect the outcome.

                I doubt the legislatures of those states could be convinced of this, short of dramatic cultural shifts reducing the amount of divide between the big coastal cities and the rest of the nation, though.

              • confused says:

                @Daniel Lakeland: The one way I could see an ending-the-EC amendment maybe passing, is if it was “bundled with” some *other* constitutional amendment that weakened Federal power over the states in a way that would appeal to low-population central-US states.

        • Chris Wilson says:

          Confused, others
          It may not require an amendment. Here’s Lessig’s argument:

          • jim says:


            There is “require” in the technical sense: what’s actually in the law.

            Then there is “require” in the reality sense: the people getting screwed by Progressive’s efforts to tip the balance can simply give the finger to progressives and go their own way.

            • Chris Wilson says:

              Jim, I don’t know what you’re referring to but everything I proposed is basic democratic republicanism, and all of it I’m confident has or would have clear majority support if explained honestly. The fact you identify any of this with ‘Progressivism’, is an instance of how and why our political discourse and systems are broken. Too bad.

              • jim says:

                ” everything I proposed is basic democratic republicanism ”

                You’re proposing something that probably won’t be acceptable to many states. You can call it “basic democratic republicanism” or whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t really matter, it still won’t be acceptable. It’s not about me. It’s about what people in those states want, and they don’t want what you want.

              • Chris Wilson says:

                jim, no worries man! I’ll mark you in the “no” column :)

              • jim says:


                If you want to add PR and DC as states for the purposes of greater “democracy” great! Would you then oppose eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and eastern California splitting each into separate states with their own Senators? You better believe they’d jump at the chance.

                We could go further. Why not get rid of states and just have counties? Perfect! I can see about 50% of wildlife reservations disappearing in a matter of hours. No doubt, like the Alaskan Natives of the Arctic coast, some coastal counties of Oregon and Washington would be thrilled to have high paying offshore drilling jobs – not to mention a crack at what remains of old growth forest with a chain saw.

                Lately I’ve noticed that a lot of people are interested in more “Democracy” – so long as the new way the votes are aggregated is beneficial to their cause.

              • Chris Wilson says:

                Conversations with certain kinds of conservatives always remind me of this classic sketch:

          • confused says:

            That seems to be against the winner-take-all aspect, not the Electoral College itself. Absolutely winner-take-all isn’t required, Maine and Nebraska don’t do it today (though I rather doubt the idea that it is *unconstitutional* will succeed….)

            So yeah the states could go to splitting electoral votes without an amendment, that’s an individual state law issue. But actually removing the Electoral College would need one.

            • Chris Wilson says:

              confused, yep I don’t care if we get rid of EC altogether or make the electors split proportionally. Same difference to me. It is probably a state-by-state process, but Lessig’s thesis is that it is actually challenge-able under ‘one person, one vote’, which could in theory be a SCOTUS ruling…

              • confused says:

                I suppose, but I think “in theory” is doing a lot there. IMO that would be kind of a stretch in terms of Constitutional interpretation.

      • jim says:

        “Like, why is this even a question?”

        Because the entire country doesn’t want to be ruled by California and New York, and probably would refuse such rule. That’s been the case from the start. The electoral college was a compromise that made the union possible, and it still serves the same purpose.

        Most places between the Appalachian and Sierra crests would be mighty happy to get CA and NY off their backs.

        • confused says:

          Well people always say ‘California and New York’ but in fact TX and FL both have more population than NY.

          You are however right about the emotional aspect of the central US not really identifying with these states… but I think that has more to do with their outsized media influence (news media largely in NY, Hollywood in CA) than any political power.

          • And imagining CA,TX,FL,NY as each one monolithic thing that votes a certain way is not right either.

            There’s huge diversity within CA or FL or whatever. It’s a lot of people and pretending that their individual thoughts shouldn’t count because they all live in the boundaries of one state is kinda crazy I think.

            • confused says:

              Oh yeah definitely not monolithic. I was more talking about the “central US vs coastal” thing being as much about cultural divide as population, given TX.

              I think it’s partially a relic of how the states used to do nearly all day-to-day governance (there’s a saying about how before the Civil War the United States was plural, whereas now it’s singular) and people identified at least as much with their state as with the US as a whole.

              Similar to how Senators used to be chosen by state legislatures rather than directly elected.

            • jim says:

              “It’s a lot of people and pretending that their individual thoughts shouldn’t count because they all live in the boundaries of one state is kinda crazy I think.”

              Nobody’s individual thoughts count!! Hilarious. Votes are aggregated by jurisdiction.

              • Well, here in CA we have a bunch of propositions on the ballot, and you know what? We don’t take counties and look at whether the county voted for or against that, and then see if more counties voted for or against. we just add up the votes and if it gets more yes than no it wins.

                it *should* be the same thing for president (well, technically it *should* be a score voting system ;-))

                The winner takes all electorates in each state and/or electoral college system in general is broken, and it needs to end. And that has nothing to do with rural states vs urban states or whatever, as Andrew says there are always like 3 or 4 “swing states” and the 47 other states are all losing whether they’re rural or urban left coast or midwest, whatever.

              • jim says:

                “it *should* be the same thing for president”

                So you say!! :)

                If it *should* be, why isn’t it? It isn’t, because a lot of people don’t want it that way and, at least up to now, the country has been better off having those people than not.

                CA absolutely aggregates votes by jurisdiction. Maybe not in the initiative process, but most laws are made in the state legislature.

              • Chris Wilson says:

                Jim, are u saying that if we don’t let certain people remain hilariously over-represented in our electoral process, the only alternative is getting rid of them?

  12. Richard Nerland says:

    Saviors: Obama (elected in a recession), Clinton (elected just after a recession), Reagan (elected just after a recession with high inflation), Roosevelt (elected in a depression), Trump (Convinced people it was a recession?)

    Hired to do or continue a job: Bush 2 (elected at peak expansion), Bush 1 (elected in expansion), Nixon (elected in expansion), Johnson (elected in expansion), Truman (Crazy election entering a recession that started in November!)

    Let’s classify the remainder:

    Carter (elected 1.5 years after recession ended -> hired to do job), Kennedy (elected in recession -> savior), Eisenhower (elected in expansion -> hired to do job)

    The funny part is that I agree with the labels …

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