Adlai Stevenson's speeches in the final week of the campaign are pointing up the varying approaches of the two parties to the nature of the Presidency. Currently this theoretical question seems clouded with partisanship and emotion, as President Eisenhower seeks to justify his claims that he is fit for another term by his premise that the Chief Executive can and should shun the role of an aggressive leader.
The President's unwillingness to participate in public controversies has in fact been one of the main reasons for his continuing popularity. When he took office in 1953, he had a clear mandate to provide respite from the discords of twenty years of turbulent social change. As a self-styled political amateur, Eisenhower has tried to appear above the lively give-and-take that characterized relations with Congress during the Administrations of his two predecessors. By this abstinence, he has managed to retain much of his popularity with the "independent," who typically claims revulsion at the grubby business of competing for power.
Contrasted to the Eisenhower concept that a President should remove himself from the political arena is the kind of rough-and-tumble aggressiveness that was most effective in Franklin Roosevelt and most provoking in Harry Truman. In depression and in war, Roosevelt constantly risked unpopularity by stepping into controversies in order to give force to his proposals. Before Congress, he identified himself and the prestige of his office with T.V.A., selective service, and reform of the Supreme Court. He tried to purge his party by refusing to endorse Southern Congressmen for reelection, and he sought to awaken the nation to aggression by the Japanese in his 1937 "Quarantine" speech. Under Roosevelt and Truman such leadership broke down only when they did battle with arrogant or short-sighted zeal.
Woodrow Wilson, whose own political and moral leadership could mobilize highly effective support for his programs, expressed this activist philosophy of the Presidency in 1908 in his lecture series on "Constitutional Government." "The nation as a whole," he wrote of the President, "has chosen him.... It has no other political spokesman.... He is irresistible.... A President whom (the country) trusts can not only lead it, but form it to his own views."
Such a trust, Adlai Stevenson is today charging, was placed on General Eisenhower in 1952, when the nation sent him to the White House with the largest popular vote in the country's history. But instead of using his popularity to sweep away McCarthyism, or to build needed schools, or to speed up the process of integration, Eisenhower has often tried to maintain personal popularity. The President's silence has left the nation devoid of inspired direction where a constructive, carefully formulated public opinion is most vital.
This reluctance to lead seems to be the most powerful and easily documented issue that the Democrats can use against Dwight Eisenhower. For when a President steps aside and gives others, whose title to authority is less clear than his, excessive control over the government, he violates what Wilson called the essential constituents of responsive democracy--"power and strict accountability for its use." And the question that the electorate should consider first of all, before deciding on the other elements of the party platforms, is whether a maturing nation and a world in revolution can afford to rely on such a concept of leadership.