America's endless search for a political messiah

History explains why. With nearly one fifth of the population either out of work or looking for more, it’s no surprise that voters long to be saved. But not every recession-era president has roused as much disappointment as Obama, and not every crop of challengers has seemed as unsatisfactory as Romney & Co. In fact, the most consequential political leaders of the 20th century, FDR and Ronald Reagan, won the White House during economic crises and achieved lasting influence because (not in spite) of the traumatic times they presided over. Figure out what they had in common and you’ll get a pretty good sense of what kind of leadership works in a downturn. You’ll also start to see why everyone’s unhappy with Obama, no matter how many terrorists he kills.

Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale, has already done the difficult spadework of identifying leadership patterns among presidents. According to his influential classification system, both Roosevelt and Reagan were “reconstructive” leaders, which means they rose to power by opposing a vulnerable administration, then “cut the knot, raise[d] a new standard, and [promised to] restore to American government the ancient truths that had first inspired it.” Every reconstructive president razes the old order and forges a new one in his own way: while FDR experimented with a panoply of reforms, Reagan always stuck to a stubborn script about the causes and cures for Carter-era malaise. The important thing is that both of them blamed the crises they presided over on the failed, un-American ideology of the previous regime and relentlessly positioned their sweeping proposals as part of a grand project to undo the damage and revive real American values.