Should We Celebrate Presidents’ Day in 2022?
Given the low approval ratings of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, should we celebrate Presidents’ Day this year? Trump’s highest approval rating during his four years in office was 49 percent, and he ended his tenure with a 34 percent positive rating. Biden’s approval rating at the end of his first year in office was only 42 percent, the second lowest since pollsters began measuring this in the 1930s. Only Trump had a lower approval rating after one year as president. Meanwhile, statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt are being removed or torn down because of their involvement in slavery, racism, or imperialism.
Are our recent presidents performing more poorly than their predecessors? Are they less popular because of their personal traits? Do their lower approval ratings reflect the challenges the world and our nation are dealing with, most notably a pandemic? Are Americans becoming more cynical, judgmental, and difficult to please? To what extent has our nation’s toxic and divisive political climate contributed to these negative assessments of our chief executives? To what extent have the outrage and public shaming so common on social media and the increased critical analysis of politicians on online, on radio, and on television affected our perceptions?
George Washington died in December 1799, and thereafter his birthday, February 22, became an important occasion for honoring his indispensable role in guiding our nation. During the antebellum years, Washington was widely venerated as the most notable person in American history. The centennial of his birth in 1832 and the beginning of construction of the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital in 1848 were extensively celebrated. Unofficially commemorated throughout the 1800s, Washington’s birthday became an official national holiday in 1879, making it one of only five federal bank holidays along with Christmas, New Year’s Day, July 4th, and Thanksgiving.
During the Great Depression in 1930s, many newspapers and magazines featured portraits of Washington on his birthday to help uplift millions of Americans grappling with economic woes. On the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday in 1932, the federal government reinstated the Purple Heart, a military decoration he created to honor soldiers who had been killed or wounded while serving the nation.
In 1971, Congress created Presidents’ Day to honor all our chief executives and designated it as the third Monday in February so that it would fall between the birthdays of two of the greatest giants in the pantheon of presidents—Washington and Lincoln.
Throughout the history of the United States, our presidents have often led us courageously and effectively as we have dealt with national and global challenges. The pressures they have confronted are immense, and the criticisms they have endured have often been brutal. Presidents have frequently been blamed for matters that are beyond their control. Many times they have felt that they are between a rock and a hard place, that no matter what choice they make, many Americans will be upset.
We have rightly looked to our presidents to serve as role models, to exemplify good character, to provide comfort during tragedies, and to inspire us to tackle obstacles. The founders insisted that the success of the fledging republic depended on the character of both its leaders and citizens. “The destiny of the republican model of government,” Washington proclaimed in his First Inaugural Address, rested upon high levels of both private and public morality.
Americans have wanted presidents to be moral exemplars, to establish lofty standards for ethics and excellence. The president, Franklin Roosevelt declared, “sets the moral tone for our nation. He is a mirror in which we see what kind of people we are.” The president needs to be “the moral leader of our country,” Harry Truman maintained. Many of the presidents who are rated most highly by scholars have been men of exceptional character. Their moral fortitude and integrity have enabled them to deal with crises, criticism, and controversy.
Their trials and tribulations have stimulated many chief executives to develop a deeper faith. Many of them have testified that the enormous responsibilities of their office prompted them to seek God’s guidance and assistance more than they previously did. Numerous presidents have applied Lincoln’s statement to themselves: “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
Perhaps we should be less critical and condemning and more charitable and sympathetic in our appraisal of presidents. We live in an era that claims to value tolerance, but people quickly denounce the apparent, alleged, and actual failures of others whether it is athletes falling on the snow or ice at the Olympics, individuals not realizing their potential, Congress not passing the legislation we desire, businesses not supplying the material goods we crave, or presidents not promoting the political policies we prize.
As President Biden said recently at the National Prayer Breakfast, “It’s hard to really dislike someone when you know what they’re going through is the same thing you’re going through.” And we are going through many of the same things today—a global pandemic, economic struggles, racial strife, and escalating violence at home, and worries about hostile relations between nations—so let’s be kind, considerate, and civil toward each other.
Biden also declared in his speech that “I pray that we follow what Jesus taught us: to serve rather than be served.” Many presidents have said something similar. And they have sought to serve our marvelous country, promote the common good, and make our nation more productive, stronger, and more just. So, we should celebrate Presidents’ Day with great enthusiasm and gratitude. Even though we disagree with some of their decisions, let’s be thankful for the gifted, dedicated, and hard-working chief executives who have led our nation for the past 232 years.