The two factors that play the most significant role in determining whether the fate of a President’s administration will be judged a success or failure are interrelated to a certain a degree, but separate and distinctive enough that achieving one without the other may be enough to warrant success or doom the administration to failure. Those two factors are the wisdom of a Chief Executive to pursue a legacy based on issues that are popular enough to rally significant public support and the discipline to maintain a focus on “the big picture” related to those issues rather than getting bogged down in the details.
Some Presidents dream of coming into office and changing as much about what they believe is wrong with America as possible. The problem is that on just about any given issue, the voters are usually divided pretty equally on the way they want to go about changing what is wrong…even when an overwhelming majority may agree that something is definitely wrong. While the desire to make America greater than it is may be noble, most of the issues related to why people think the country is off track are too divisive to rally strong support for the change almost everyone may agree is needed. That is why a much more effective path to a “successful Presidency” is to focus on less problems with solutions that are no so polarizing. For instance, while the President who was capable of significantly reducing the amount of gun violence in America would likely go down in history next to Lincoln, the odds of actually achieving success with that issue are almost nil because any proposed solution would instantly split the country in two. On the other hand, fixing the nation’s crumbling bridges, congested roads and other elements of the transportation infrastructure in dire need of repair would be an agenda much easier to rally broad support around. While there would still be fervent opposition willing to spend billions to defeat the program, improving America’s traffic problems is not nearly as polarizing because it is an issue that affects most people in essentially the same way.
Merely choosing popular issues with solutions that do not automatically create ideological divides practically impossible to scale among the population is no guaranteed way of achieving a successful Presidency. The problem with being President is that any blueprint for creating a legacy is constantly put at risk of interference by the Congress, the judiciary, Big Business, the media, foreign affairs and, of course, the randomness of fate. Each of those interest and many others all have the potential to distract a public that has been rallied to support the big picture by refocusing the issue on the small details opposed by a minority special interest. To once again use the example of choosing to overhaul the nation’s transportation infrastructure, the likelihood of widespread support for such an initiative grows smaller as the focus shrinks down to specifics like Route 66, the San Francisco Bridge or the Lincoln Tunnel. The difference between a President whose infrastructure agenda is deemed a success or failure may turn not on how much public support was rallied to the cause, but on how well the administration managed to contain all the various opponents from turning the issue into a debate about the immediate details of the plan rather than the long-term “vision” of the plan.
Of course, ultimately, even if a President is successful in the actual execution of choosing a popular issue, rallying widespread support for it and then managing the opposition’s desire to get the public distracted by the details, the administration may be viewed as a failure. That is because there is one factor that figures into the legacy of a President more than any other and it is a factor no human being can control, but—at the very best—exploited: the unpredictable event so catastrophic that its power to distract the public is impossible to manage.