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Presidents are supposed to be ambitious

Editor’s note: Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Capitol Report or Bloomberg LP.

In a hacked email, former Secretary of State Colin Powell rapped Hillary Clinton for her “unbridled ambition,” counting it among the reasons he wasn’t eager to support her (even as he holds views of Donald Trump that are far more hostile).

I’m not sure what makes someone’s ambition “unbridled,” unless it just means she has a lot of it. If that’s what Powell meant, why is this a bad thing?

Every politician who has reached Clinton’s status — major party nominee for president — has been extraordinarily ambitious. It’s impossible to make it to that level without wanting it the way Popeye wanted spinach. This is also true of Trump, who has been publicly picturing himself as president as far back as 1988.

Maybe what candidates are expected to do is to lie about having ambition. Or accuse their opponents of being far worse in displaying the uninhibited form of it.

In any case, it’s a trait that is absolutely necessary in the White House.

The presidency thrives on ambition, and not just as a way to assure re-election of a chief executive or a party. Without it, presidents wouldn’t strive so hard to be good representatives, making promises during the campaign and then working hard to keep them once elected. It’s ambition that keeps politicians grounded in satisfying their constituents, because they’re desperate to stay in office, and therefore need happy voters.

Ambition also provides what Alexander Hamilton called “energy in the executive” — which propels the government into action. The presidency is largely undefined by the Constitution, and it’s surprisingly easy for presidents to fail to take advantage of all they can do, whether it’s pushing legislation on Capitol Hill or ensuring that executive-branch departments and agencies are well-run.

The positive role of ambition was intentional. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” was how James Madison described his constitutional system. Unambitious presidents can create problems for themselves and the country. (Example: George W. Bush appeared to be unusually unambitious.)

Political scientists tend to treat ambition as a series of discrete options. So we say that a politician has progressive ambition if he or she wants to move from the House to the Senate, or the Senate to the White House. That is fine as far as it goes.  But as we know from Shakespeare or Orson Welles or the creators of “Yes Minister,” political ambition is more complicated than just wanting higher office.

Is a politician’s ambition tied to a desire to boss people around? To carry on a family tradition? To better the world? To find a respectable career? To advance the prospects of a particular group? It’s the content of the ambition that matters and this affects how candidates run and elected officials govern.

Unfortunately, political scientists don’t have well-developed models, or even rudimentary guesses, on how it works. We don’t even know how to sort ambition into useful categories.

One thing we do know, however. The more ambition a president has, the better.

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One comment

  1. Sir Humphrey Appleby, GCB, KBE, MVO, MA

    Fortunately, the traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the presidential incumbent from the administrative minutiae by devolving the managerial functions to those whose experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their political overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted position.

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