Another Presidents Day has passed, but the presidency is still on our minds. That’s because of the actions of the current occupant of the Oval Office, and the fact that the 2020 campaign has almost arrived.
The great presidents, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, are cherished for their sure hands and bold visions, which in times of real turmoil have guided or steadied this country. Past presidents have told us that there is a weight associated with being commander in chief, tasked with directing troops into and out of harm’s way and negotiating with the world’s nations. There are difficult decisions faced by every U.S. president, whose challenges are wide-ranging and whose choices have dramatic consequences.
President Donald Trump often has been on more uncertain ground. He has lurched from crisis to crisis of his own making, be it immigrant families separated at the border or an avoidable government shutdown. Now he is provoking a new crisis with a declaration of a national emergency to build the border wall Congress was reluctant to fund.
That funding is setting up a new constitutional clash. And with the looming report by special counsel Robert Mueller on whether there was collusion between the president’s campaign associates and Russia, it’s hard to see an end to the chaos.
Certainly the 2020 campaign will be chaotic, too. Dozens of Democrats are jumping in, and Trump has started his re-election effort. By June, the spectacle of primary debates will begin.
The campaign, however, will be significant for more reasons than usual. During this period, the country will vote not just on a president, but on the presidency itself. What kind of president do we want? Will gravitas and solemnity return? Or have we entered an uncharted moment of change for the role? Can the old norms, the glue between rules and laws that governed behavior in Washington, be resurrected?
These are important questions that might affect exactly what we celebrate on Presidents Day in coming years.