U.S. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. offered a famous assessment of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“A second-rate intellect. But a first-rate temperament,” Holmes said of the man who led America through the Great Depression and served as our nation’s commander-in-chief during the difficult days of World War II.
The late justice made an important point.
When it comes to serving as this country’s chief executive, intelligence matters. Presidents who struggle to add two and two do not achieve success.
But character matters more. We Americans are seeing that now.
This pandemic is a hinge point in history. It will serve as a defining era in the world’s story, a line that will divide time into before and after.
It also has served as a test for two very different presidents. As such, it may serve as a reminder of the role of temperament in presidential leadership.
COVID-19 did what the assorted scandals, investigations and impeachments could not do. The pandemic broke Donald Trump’s presidency.
The election results in 2020 made clear that Trump likely would have carved another narrow victory if the coronavirus hadn’t killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, cratered the economy and forced Trump into a posture he hates — being on the defensive.
The same pandemic now threatens to overwhelm Joe Biden’s presidency.
For all the handwringing regarding Democrats’ squabbling over the Build Back Better plan, inflation and supply-line hiccups, the reality is that it is the world’s inability to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror that drives down Biden’s poll numbers. His lowest public approval ratings now are about the same as Trump averaged over the four years.
That it is COVID-19 doing the damage is evident from the fact that the pandemic overwhelms any discussion of the successes of either president.
Both Trump and Biden had triumphs to tout.
Until COVID hit, Trump presided over a stock market that racked up one high-water mark after another. Consumer confidence was high.
Biden has presided over the fastest, strongest economic recovery in recent American history. The stock market still booms. We have recorded the lowest unemployment numbers in more than 50 years and, for the first time in what seems eons, incomes for lower- and middle-class Americans are climbing.
None of that seems to matter, though, because a plague hovers over us.
The two presidents faced that plague in different ways.
Trump needs to be a winner. In his eyes, for him to win, someone else — and often many others — must lose.
When COVID came to threaten this country and his presidency, he tried to confront it with his usual tactics. He attempted to pretend it didn’t exist. He worked to wish it away. And Trump lied — famed journalist Bob Woodward’s recordings of his interviews with Trump prove this — about the danger the disease posed.
In doing so, Trump denied his own followers the information they needed to protect themselves. Much attention has been paid to the fact that more than 90% of the current COVID casualties are unvaccinated Americans. Less attention has been devoted to the fact that roughly the same percentage of those dying from COVID are Trump supporters.
Biden does not see or approach the world the same way Trump does. Although Biden is a competitive person — all successful politicians are — he views himself less as a winner and more as a survivor.
His experiences — the deaths of his first wife and two children — have taught him that endurance is a preeminent virtue. He sees life’s greatest challenges not as quick and savage conflicts but as long and punishing struggles.
That is why his response to setbacks is rarely rage or recrimination but instead is a renewed resolve to soldier on.
The question with him is whether he can summon the discipline to focus his energy on the main task — whether he realizes that little of what he and Democrats hope to achieve will be possible if he and they do not meet the challenge the pandemic presents.
Such discipline is itself a sign of character. A question of temperament.