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Lincoln, FDR and Sizing Up Donald Trump

What are the keys to wartime presidential leadership?

April 5, 2020

What are the keys to wartime presidential leadership?

In view of the COVID 19 pandemic, Donald Trump has now styled himself as a wartime President. He has even broken with his past pattern of holding basically no press conferences to almost holding one a day.

This new context conjures up the memory of the United States’ two most effective wartime presidents — Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Hence the question: What are the lessons these two great men offer up that President Trump should take to heart? I see three sets of lessons.

War lesson 1: Pair candor with confidence

Americans need to believe their President is being straight with them about threats posed and challenges faced. A certain amount of secrecy and other truly required forms of selective information management are one thing. Manipulation for a President’s own political interests is quite another.

Establishing an unshakable reputation for true candor has the advantage that, when the need arises for a given President to assert that challenges, even grave ones, will be met, that President is deemed truly credible.

Simply put, a President seen as honest, steadfast and determined — and not prone to either complacency or being bombastic — has true standing and credibility with the American public.

Case 1: Lincoln and the truth

While Lincoln did “stretch the truth now and then,” as Columbia historian Eric Foner notes, his “Honest Abe” reputation traced back throughout his career, even before he went into politics.

Lincoln’s candor about the stakes the country faced were the essence of his 1860 presidential candidacy. That gave him standing to exude confidence even when battles were going the Confederacy’s way.

Moreover, Lincoln’s physical stature, while seen by some as “homely,” was seen by many as of great dignity. Owing to his great inner strength, he also held to core convictions even when they proved less readily achievable than hoped for.

Case 2: FDR and the truth

While FDR did have a bit of the “fox” in him, this was more about being a shrewd rather than duplicitous politician.

The masterful way in which he cast the challenge of the Great Depression — “nothing to fear but fear itself” — added up to more than just a wartime-like mobilization. It was an eloquent — and ultimately very inclusive — appeal to the power of positive thinking.

On that basis, Roosevelt addressed the needs of a public expecting their President to “address them with a candor . . . which the present situation of our people impels.”

And when the Pearl Harbor attack came, he had the standing to be frank — yet not downbeat — about the “severe damage to American naval and military forces,” leaving “our people, our territory, our interests in grave danger.”

How FDR led the American people

The confidence that FDR projected was more in his jauntiness than solemnity. Beaming smile, cigarette holder as a gesticulating prop, vigorousness despite his physical handicap.

He led by personal charm and the power of his own example. After all, if this man who had overcome so much in his own life was so confident, how could others not be?

Trump misses the beat

Donald Trump, in contrast, has several strikes against him on the candor/confidence equation. One must hope for the sake of the nation that they are not unrecoverable.

But Trump carries a definite load of missing the true presidential war beat. First, he dismissed initial coronavirus reports as a post-failed impeachment “hoax” being played by the Democrats.

Then, when he could no longer deny the virus’ spread, Trump resorted to falsely claiming that “anybody that needs a test gets a test. . . . And the tests are beautiful.”

Even now, despite some progress, he bounces between the complacency of it’s “going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle – it will disappear” and the bluster of “we have it totally under control.”

War lesson 2: Pair compassion and shared sacrifice

The worried, grieving mother/father/child needs to have a sense that their President cares about them personally, and in his own way shares in the sacrifices the rest of the country is making.

Abe as the master of compassion

Abraham Lincoln, who did not have the easy access and outreach means of the social media channels at his disposals, was a true master at that.

“Dear Fanny,” Lincoln wrote in a December 1862 letter to a young girl: “It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases.” Signed “Your sincere friend, A. Lincoln.”

On one of Lincoln’s many visits to military hospitals, he is said to have told a surgeon, “Come to me at once without hesitation, and you shall have anything you want if I can get it for you.”

And the fact that Lincoln sent his son Robert into the Union Army, despite having lost his other three sons to childhood illnesses, very publicly manifested his willingness to share in the sacrifices.

So too his dogged commitment to the work at hand, despite the burdens such that “could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive.”

FDR: The great conversationalist and media maven

FDR’s fireside chats that started during the Great Depression, fell off a bit later in the 1930s and picked up again during World War II were as much comforting as informing.

“Your voice radiates so much human sympathy and tenderness,” one listener wrote. By one estimate, Roosevelt reached as many as 70% of listeners nationwide.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt did her own radio shows and newspaper columns, very much displaying her own compassion, humanism and folksiness.

All four of their sons — – James, Elliott, Franklin Jr., John — served in WWII. And FDR suffered the ultimate toll. Photos show how much he aged in those excruciatingly intense years, culminating in the brain hemorrhage that killed him on April 12, 1945.

When a reporter mentioned that Senator Mitt Romney had quarantined because of COVID 19 exposure, Trump facilely remarked “Gee, that’s too bad.” The inability to overcome a personal sense of vengeance, stemming from Romney’s yes vote on impeachment, is the very opposite of being an effective war-time president.

And, at the opposite end from the personal sacrifice shown by the Lincoln and Roosevelt families, Trump even ensured that the $2 trillion package passed by Congress included some tax breaks for his family’s real estate holdings.

War lesson 3: Be the nation’s leader and all people’s inclusive chief

The key political challenge for a president in wartime, whether in the “classic” or the pandemic-fighting way, consists of his or her ability to widen their appeal beyond one’s partisan base to the whole nation.

The American political vocabulary actually greatly facilitates that conversion, rife as it is with built-in references to convincingly demonstrating “chief” capabilities (e.g., chief executive, commander-in-chief).

Lincoln’s team of rivals…

Lincoln assembled that “team of rivals” knowing he could manage them. For all the problems with his generals, he made clear who was commander-in-chief, including firing the popular General George McClellan.

The rhetorical heart of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech’s — “malice toward none, charity for all” — was the extended hand to the vanquished Confederacy. Even after years of war, Lincoln showed a relentless ability to focus on the main goal: He remained committed to a single nation, the United States of America.

FDR’s inclusiveness machinery

Despite FDR’s landslide victories, there were plenty of anti-New Deal Roosevelt haters out there. Bringing them all together — a requirement to fight the war most effectively — wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

And yet, Roosevelt managed. That he did so is evident in studies showing how economic class divisions, so evident in the 1930s, actually lessened during the war.

The mobilization effort which FDR led was the most extraordinary in U.S. history. That war, after all, was being fought on two global fronts. It also gripped a nation that preferred to see the rest of the world as far away and of no direct concern to most Americans.

In the process of activating the powers slumbering in the American nation, Roosevelt was able to increase the size of the armed forces from a mere 175,000 to 8.5 million people.

FDR proved very imaginative in terms of creating suitable and pithily named institutions as well. The War Production Board, Reconstruction Finance Corporation and War Food Administration proved critical in steering the national economy through such challenges as the consumer rationing of everyday goods, doubling corporate taxes and other such far-reaching measures.

Little wonder that his death “stunned the Government and citizens,” he who was “regarded by millions as indispensable to winning the war.”

… and, sadly, Trump’s continuing one-man show

Can one presently envisage Donald Trump as the leader of the whole country? Hardly. This isn’t only a matter of such callous acts as making federal government aid available only to governors who were nice to him.

“Nice” isn’t even a category that should come into play in decisive times like the present one. Pursuing personal peeves should never be part of the national agenda at times like this.

And yet, Donald Trump never fails to stoop to such lows. Even when he shows some signs of rising a bit more to the wartime leadership occasion, these prove all too brief and intermittent.

As things stand, Trump will have to pull some real — not surreal — rabbits out of his hat to make people forget that, in the run-up to the crisis, he had actually budgetarily decimated the very agencies that are crucial to the COVID 19 crisis, including America’s crown jewel Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Candor with confidence, compassion and shared sacrifice, nation’s leader and all people’s inclusive chief: In normal times these are crucial qualities.

In a crisis, they are essential. Without them, the current COVID 19 pandemic, as handled by the current U.S. President, bodes to become even more disruptive and even more deadly than it had to be. That is not good news for the United States and potentially the world.


Lincoln and Roosevelt were the US’s most effective wartime presidents. What lessons offered up by these two men should President Trump take to heart?

Presidents need to level with the American people about threats. A certain amount of secrecy is fine, constant manipulation for a President’s own political interests is not.

Trump’s inability to overcome pet peeves and his sense of personal vengeance is the opposite of how an effective war-time president should conduct himself.

Even when Trump shows signs of rising a bit more to the wartime leadership occasion, these moments prove all too brief and intermittent.

Candor with confidence, compassion and shared sacrifice, nation’s leader and all people’s inclusive chief: In normal times these are crucial qualities. In a crisis, they are essential.

Trump’s presidential management style makes the current COVID 19 pandemic more disruptive and deadlier than it had to be. That is not good news for the US or the world.