Well, we guess that depends on who you ask. If one believes greatness correlates to the Dow Jones Industrial Averages we absolutely couldn’t be greater. As the prominent late economist, Irving Fisher, famously said during another Dow Jones high, “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Oh wait, that was in October 1929.
Actually, we think the market is in great shape. Big business is flush with cash and small business owners are, generally, very happy with nearly 80 percent reporting profits…and unemployment is very low. Under President Trump, the economic recovery that began during the Obama administration has continued unabated. When President Obama assumed office, he inherited, from President Bush, a 7.8% unemployment rate which quickly topped out at a frighteningly high 9.6%. Then the unemployment rate began dropping under President Obama, reaching full employment, with unemployment at a low of 4.8% by the time Trump took the oath of office. The unemployment rate has dropped another one percent during President Trump’s two years in office, reaching 3.8% earlier this month. Thank you, Presidents Obama and Trump.
So, are we great…again?
We’re as great as we’ve ever been, no more, no less. What makes “us” great is what Alexis de Tocqueville observed. It’s the constitution that created a country with no sovereign, and a government in which the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches all had equal power. No monarch, no sovereign, no ruling boss. How radical. Therein lies the secret of America’s greatness.
Our governing paradigm enables talented and selfless citizens to do great things for their fellow citizens. America enables some citizens to become great contributors to their country. Politicians don’t make the country great. The country enables some politicians to assume the mantle of greatness. That is how “greatness” is properly accorded in America. “Greatness” is a measure of stewardship. As de Tocqueville observed, Americans were simply citizens who were, pretty much, left alone to pursue their dreams. That, and that alone, is what made America great. That is what de Tocqueville saw as American exceptionalism. It was the most radical government paradigm ever conceived. How our elected leaders respond (within the limits of their constitutional power) to crises becomes a measure of greatness that historians may or may not accord to a president.
The very notion of any politician making America great (again) is nonsense. A group of remarkably talented men sculpted a great system of government out of new and radical ideas. They created a marvelous republic if, as Franklin observed, we could keep it. What did Franklin mean when he stood on the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and intoned, “you have a Republic if you can keep it?” He meant that this new democracy was fragile. It was as strong as the willingness of the people to be governed by laws they collectively penned rather than by the dictates or whims of men. Yes, historians accord degrees of greatness to our leaders, but their verdict is really a measure of how our presidents have guided a brilliantly crafted ship of state within the parameters and constraints built into our governing structure.
America was great at its birth. It enabled its leaders to soar or to stumble. It could make them “great” but they couldn’t make America great. At any given time, Americans collectively internalize whether they feel America is on the right track or the wrong track. Politicians can strut and preen and proclaim their greatness, but none of that can determine how Americans feel about the course the nation is taking. Only Americans can determine that. It’s the feeling in their gut—the tension and stress or the lack of it they feel as they go about their daily routine.
The best indication of how Americans feel about the course of the ship-of-state—that is, whether the country is going in the right direction or the wrong direction is the rolling average of seven well-respected national polls tracked by Real Clear Politics. They tell us President Trump is faring about the same as President Obama fared at roughly this point in his Presidency. That’s not too bad given the pounding Trump has endured for the better part of two years over the, now abandoned, charge that he or his campaign conspired with the Russians. But no one is, or should be, feeling great right now.
Well over half of the people (56.4%) according to the Real Clear Politics averages feel the country is on the wrong track. Trump is limping along in the ratings, and there is little to indicate that the people feel he is making the country great again. Small wonder. The news is depressing. Nativism is on the march here and abroad. We have no immigration policy that makes any sense. The budget deficit is growing, the national debt is growing, the incidence of hate crime is growing. Violence is ever-present as another shooting in a synagogue yesterday reminds us.
Greatness is always within reach. It takes men and women of good will and superb judgment acting in concert with one another. Red MAGA caps and crowds chanting “Make America Great Again” won’t do it.