In honor of President’s Day we asked Mark McNeilly, author of George Washington and the Art of Business: Leadership Principles of America’s First Commander-in-Chief as well as Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Strategic Principles for Managers, to reflect on what our original President would think of the current elections. The views he expresses are his alone and are not meant to represent those of any company or institution with which he is affiliated. Who do you think Washington would have voted for?
“The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant…” So began George Washington in his Farewell Address to the nation in September of 1796 as he prepared to finish his second term as President. Knowing he did not want to have a third term in office, Washington used his Farewell Address to provide advice to the citizens of the fledgling nation by offering “…some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.” Looking back at this and other writings of Washington, as well as his actions in history, we might surmise what he may have thought of the upcoming election.
For starters, Washington would have been dismayed that the country is split between two strong political parties. Washington feared the rise of “factions” (as parties were then called) and warned against them; “they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people…” He went on to say that the formation of parties “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, (and) foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” Given how polarized our political environment has become and how entrenched and powerful politicians are today, Washington was right to advise us to be wary.
Washington would be pleased that America had moved beyond slavery (Washington did not like the institution and freed his slaves in his will) and that scope of American democracy had widened to enable the diverse set of candidates running today. He would appreciate Barack Obama’s message of hope and his positive approach to politics. He would also applaud Obama’s desire to reach across the aisle and work across party lines. However, given that Washington was surrounded by men of great credentials and learning (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin) he would likely question if someone with Obama’s relatively limited experience would be suited to hold America’s highest office.
On the Republican side, Washington would admire John McCain’s military experience and service to the country as well as his desire to work across party lines. At the same time he would question McCain’s inability to work successfully at times with his own party. Washington was a master at working with Congress and the governors of the states to get their support for the army during the Revolutionary War.
On the war in Iraq, Washington would see the failure of intelligence on WMD as problematic; he placed high importance on intelligence, running his own spy rings during the Revolution, which were critical in winning the war. Washington would also be unhappy with some of the tactics the U.S. has employed, such as waterboarding, that have hurt its reputation abroad and at home. During the Revolution Washington was careful to treat his British and Hessian opponents in a manner that raised others’ opinion of America.
However, Washington would be much impressed with the professionalism of America’s armed forces and their quick victory over Saddam Hussein. In addition, given that Washington overcame his own early defeats and his perseverance over the trials and tribulations of the Revolution he would likely support the Republican’s policy of staying in Iraq and Afghanistan until success could be ensured. He would think it critical to America’s safety that terrorists not be able to use these countries as a base for their attacks.
Washington was instrumental in the creation of the Constitution, both in leading in the creation of the Constitutional Convention and presiding over it as president. As such, there is a high probability he would support the Republican’s position on appointing strict constructionist judges. Washington said, “If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
The reason for Washington’s Farewell Address was to communicate to the people that he would not run for a third term. He felt it was important that the country regularly change its chief executive and the precedent he set for future presidents of only holding two terms continued until FDR’s presidency. As such he would look askance at the prospect of another Clinton presidency after twenty years of revolving Bush and Clinton administrations. Further, as Washington had the highest regard for virtue and strove to the utmost to be above reproach and avoid scandal I would surmise he would likely not favor a return to the Clinton years.
Whatever his view of this election, Washington would encourage us to learn as much as possible, not only about the candidates themselves, but of our history, our institutions and the Constitution. He knew that, for the Republic to remain strong and our experiment in democracy to continue successfully, “it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”