Extraordinary times demand extraordinary presidents (10/26/2008)

Americans elected their best presidents — Abraham Lincoln at the outbreak of the Civil War and Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and then World War II — at times of crisis, writes David Adler.

Crises, in the form of wars — foreign and domestic — and economic calamities, have distinguished presidential elections.

Two stand out: the elections of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and 1864, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944.

Those two presidents, whom scholars universally agree are among the best of the best, shouldered burdens and faced challenges that virtually none of their brethren could quite appreciate.

Lincoln’s presidency was defined by the Civil War. Everything he did was, in some way or another, directed toward the critical goal of winning the war and saving the Union. Americans of every stripe and color are deeply indebted to him for the leadership and inspiration that he provided to a country that had ceased to be a nation. We’ll always wonder what he might have done with his presidency if it had not been consumed by the war.

If Lincoln’s presidency was unique so, too, was Roosevelt’s, as odd as that sounds. Certainly no American president has ever faced war and economic disaster at the same time. That is, until our time.

The next President, such as FDR, will face a perfect storm of crises — an intractable war in Iraq and a menacing, expanding war in Afghanistan, as well as a global recession that may outrun the best efforts of bright and committed leaders.

The selection of a president who will govern in a white-hot crucible is, to say the least, very difficult, and it stresses the abilities of voters to distinguish the pledges, proposals and policies of the candidates. Less than half of the electorate found promise in Lincoln, while 60 percent of voters expressed confidence and belief in the ability of FDR to move the nation beyond the depths of the Great Depression.

In the end, of course, the judgment of history has affirmed the wisdom and judgment of those voters. In the troubling, divisive and regrettable words of Sarah Palin, maybe those voters were “pro American,” but who knew?

Barring an imponderable event over the next 10 days, it is very likely that Americans will elect Barrack Obama as their next president. Most polls indicate that Obama enjoys a double-digit lead across the nation, including double-digit leads in most of the battleground states.

If Americans entrust the White House to Obama, it will be a reflection of their confidence in his ability to marshal the inspiration and provide the leadership necessary to meet the gravest challenges that the nation has confronted since the presidencies of Lincoln and Roosevelt.

More often than not, Americans have been right in choosing their presidents. They were right in choosing Lincoln and Roosevelt, and the view here is that they will be right in choosing Obama.

He is, in fact, an extraordinary man built for an extraordinary time.

Adler is a political science professor at Idaho State University who has written and lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and presidential power.