[Obama would] transform the sequester fight by changing the categories that undergird it. He’d possess the primary ingredient of political greatness: imagination. The great presidents, like Teddy Roosevelt, see situations differently. They ask different questions. History pivots around their terms.
I confess a romanticized fondness for Brooks' "great man" theory of the presidency, notwithstanding that virtually every critical examination of it renders friendly observers such as yours truly a bit shaken. Because "great presidents," like T.R. and Lincoln and the second Roosevelt, were in reality "lucky" enough to be swept up in the current of transcendent and often cataclysmic historical forces already in play. (It should go without noting that these same men who possessed the extraordinary leadership abilities to attain this nation's highest office would have also possessed the same leadership abilities to confront their unique challenges wisely. Nonetheless presidential luck--however grimly or bloodily manifested, from great depressions to world and civil wars--remained luck in the sense of the inescapably and impersonally driven.)
Yet T.R., Lincoln & Co.--however grimly severe the partisanship of their ages--presided not in the seeming ossification of 21st-century American politics. And this passage, from a NY Times presidential profile of October, 2010, has haunted me ever since:
In their darkest moments, White House aides wonder aloud whether it is even possible for a modern president to succeed, no matter how many bills he signs. Everything seems to conspire against the idea: an implacable opposition with little if any real interest in collaboration, a news media saturated with triviality and conflict, a culture that demands solutions yesterday, a societal cynicism that holds leadership in low regard. Some White House aides who were ready to carve a new spot on Mount Rushmore for their boss two years ago privately concede now that he cannot be another Abraham Lincoln after all. In this environment, they have increasingly concluded, it may be that every modern president is going to be, at best, average.
Put another way, true presidential greatness is perhaps now inadmissible, since it could hurt the opposition's feelings. Politics is becoming that petty.