Published: February 12, 2009
Almost from its inception, the presidency of the United States has been a heavy weight on its occupants. Thomas Jefferson famously called the presidency a “splendid misery.” John Quincy Adams described his four years in the White House as “the four most miserable years of my life.” Herbert Hoover wrote “The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson,” a sympathetic account of Wilson’s troubled presidency, then suffered through his own presidential ordeal. Some presidents, including Hoover and Jimmy Carter, aged noticeably during a single term in the White House.
Going against this grain, however, there have been presidents who thrived on the burdens of the office no matter what the condition of the nation under their command. Franklin D. Roosevelt is the champ. In a little-remembered book, “F.D.R., My Boss,” Mr. Roosevelt’s secretary Grace Tully affectionately described how he cheerfully added to his stamp collection, dabbled in architecture, played cards and “made a ritual of the cocktail hour” where serious talk was avoided during the depths of the Great Depression and World War II. Happiness was part of F.D.R.’s makeup. “From the bottom of his heart he wants [people] to be as happy as he is,” wrote his adviser Raymond Moley.
Ronald Reagan was also a happy president who did not allow the office to change the habits of a lifetime. He told me he enjoyed the job. Kenneth Duberstein, his last White House chief of staff, has recounted how Reagan often ended serious staff meetings with a bright anecdote, lifting the spirits of aides. Like F.D.R., his onetime idol, Mr. Reagan kept to his habits during his eight years as president. He was an avid horseman who continued to ride at every opportunity. Although he liked Camp David well enough, his haven was Rancho del Cielo, his “ranch in the sky” in the mountain country northwest of Santa Barbara, where he spent, in total, nearly a year of his presidency. When his closest aide, Michael Deaver, urged Reagan early in his first term to postpone a ranch vacation to avoid media criticism, he replied with passion: “Look, Mike, you can do a lot of things, but you’re not going to tell me when to go to the ranch. I’m 70 years old and I figure that ranch is going to add some years onto my life, and I’m going to enjoy it.”
It’s too early to know how much time President Obama will be able to spend surfing or swimming in faraway Hawaii, but it already seems evident that he has a high comfort level in the White House. For one thing, he follows his own timetable, as Reagan did. Before he was elected, Reagan grumbled when his staff awakened him too early. Stuart Spencer, an adviser, told him to get used to it because when he was president “that fellow from the National Security Council” would be there to brief him at 7:30 a.m. every day. “Well, he’s going to have a helluva long wait,” Mr. Reagan said.
President Obama, we are told, usually arrives in the Oval Office a little before 9 a.m., some two hours later than his predecessor, George W. Bush. This enables him to read the newspapers before coming to work (as F.D.R. and Reagan also did) and to spend time with daughters Malia and Sasha before they go to school. “I have never seen him happier,” Mr. Obama’s longtime adviser, David Axelrod, told The Times.
Even happy presidents struggle to stay connected with ordinary Americans. F.D.R. did it with “fireside chats,” radio speeches that made use of the new medium of the day. In the first of these chats, on March 12, 1933, he urged 60 million Americans to put their money into banks. The radio audience included Ronald Reagan, then 21, who remembered it all his life. Indeed, Mr. Reagan’s 1980 campaign mantra — “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — was a variation of an F.D.R. line in a 1934 fireside chat.
As president, Mr. Reagan reinstated radio to its former primacy, instituting the weekly Saturday radio speech that every president has used since. Mr. Obama has put a modern spin on the radio speech by also delivering it on YouTube. Mr. Reagan also took the campaign for his economic program on the road, speaking to Americans directly, as Mr. Obama did this week in Indiana and Florida.
Communications, for Mr. Reagan, also meant letter writing. Although some of his staff considered it a waste of time, he often spent two or three hours a day answering letters that had been written to him by ordinary citizens, a practice he had followed since Hollywood.
For Mr. Obama, the first president of the Internet Age, staying in touch means holding onto his Blackberry. It’s a healthy sign that he overcame security and bureaucratic reservations to keep this device, for he is quite right in saying that it is too easy for presidents to become isolated in “the bubble” of the presidency.
Being comfortable in one’s own skin does not guarantee a successful presidency. If it did, George W. Bush would be accorded higher marks than he receives from most historians and the American people. But optimism, a sense of normalcy, and a determination to keep in touch with the people you have inspired are useful attributes for any president. They helped F.D.R. become, in his words, first “Dr. New Deal” and then “Dr. Win the War.” They helped Reagan overcome the pessimism of malaise and the dismay of recession. And they have kept Americans rooting for Mr. Obama despite some early stumbles. As F.D.R. and Reagan knew, most Americans are optimists who believe in better days ahead for themselves and their country. “Yes we can” has resonance.