At the beginning of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, he announced his intention to make the federal government’s finances so clear and easy that any farmer could understand them.
Today this seems impossible, but Jefferson had two things going for him. First, these were the same farmers who read the Federalist Papers and understood them clearly. Second, he fully intended for his government only to spend money on things allowed in the Constitution.
We moderns are accustomed to candidates who give big campaign promises and then drop them once they are in power.
So how did Jefferson do? He balanced the budget, paid off the national debt, and simplified expenses and revenues to the point that the average farmer really did know precisely what the government was doing.
He did push the constitutional limits when he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, but Congress backed him in this decision.
Jefferson faced a major push by the New England states to secede from the Union, ongoing hostility on the high seas from the British Navy, the schemes of Aaron Burr to overthrow the new nation, and he refused to run for a third term even though he was begged by people from around the country.
He dealt with numerous challenging issues, like any president. But in all this he never lost focus on “the one big thing.”
The most successful leaders do this — they accomplish “the one big thing” that is most needed in their era.
Peter Drucker called this a central point of success in business leadership, and Churchill showed how key this is in politics as well.
Whatever other challenges they face, top rate leaders accomplish their “one big thing.”
Washington brought together leaders of thirteen disparate colonies and two radically opposed parties, not to mention a nation of citizens prone to revolution against any central government, into one nation.
Adams built a Navy — with a foresight that would save the fledgling United States many times between 1802 and 1812.
Jefferson created a financial standard of frugality and financial integrity that would set the tone for the new nation, and Madison won the War of 1812 (a loss would have put the U.S. back under British rule).
James Monroe and John Quincy Adams put checks on European expansionism in the Americas. Andrew Jackson again balanced the budget and paid off the national debt, getting America back on its Jeffersonian path.
After these come a long string of presidents who are less remembered, and who didn’t accomplish any one, big thing that made a huge difference.
Those who did “the one big thing” include Lincoln (ended slavery), Teddy Roosevelt (made the U.S. a world power), Wilson (got us involved in world politics), Franklin Roosevelt (stopped the Nazi-Japanese Axis), and Reagan (ended the power of the Soviet Union).
Whether you like or dislike these accomplishments, these presidents were considered great leaders to the extent that they did “the one big thing” of their era. Same with Churchill and Thatcher.
The jury is still out, but President Obama may join this list of greats. The “one big thing” he should have addressed is to get America’s financial house back in order, get spending under control, and put us on a strong financial path. Instead, the Obama Administration has pursued another “one big thing.”
Their focus has been making the United States less “exceptional” and more like the social democracies of Europe. Those who understand the power of “the one big thing” know how doggedly the Administration has pursued this goal.
Many European leaders recognized this goal from the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The Nobel Prize committee rewarded this objective immediately. Each major success of President Obama’s first term promoted this agenda.
As the Administration runs into second term difficulties, this goal keeps them firmly focused.
The problem with the Republican opposition is that they have too often been anti-European social democracy or even anti-Obama, but they haven’t set any clear, alternative “one big thing” strategy.
Until someone does this effectively, becoming a European-style social democracy is our national agenda.
That’s a serious problem.
It’s time for a rebirth of the Jeffersonian “one big thing.” Show us a government with a balanced budget, debt paid off, and finances every citizen can clearly understand. Show us freedom and more freedom. Now that’s a winning strategy.
As for European social democracy versus Jeffersonian limited government, most people don’t understand how different they are.
The first has a long tradition of the people expecting the government to insert itself into every part of our lives. The second thinks the government should protect us from attack and crime and otherwise leave us alone.
A friend recently told me that though he trusts my articles about how much we are losing our freedoms, in truth he feels as free as he ever has. “I do what I want with my days, and I go where I want. I’m as free as ever,” he said.
The reason for his feeling of freedom is that the culture of socialism hasn’t yet caught up with our rapidly-socializing laws. The people in his town and community are still behaving the way the laws of a generation ago encouraged.
“Just move to certain cities in California, New York, or Massachusetts, and you’ll feel what it’s like when the people catch up with the new laws,” I suggested. Or just live in a European city for a year and get to know the way people think.
Under such regimes, there is a sense that everything you do is the business of the authorities, and a culture where the majority of people report on you about many choices — and expect official response where the government keeps close check on your life and family.
If you haven’t lived among such people, it’s hard to imagine neighbors who call the authorities every time your kids go outside without a coat or school officials who think they — not the parents — are in charge.
Imagine a school principal who thinks he or she is the boss of the parents instead of their employee. Once you’ve experienced this in action, you’ll see how the laws impact the culture.
As Tocqueville witnessed over 160 years ago:
“With us [in Europe] the government concerns itself with everything. Here [in the United States] there is, or appears to be, no government.”
Tocqueville also understood why America was going to be a bigger world power than Europe:
“The greatest merit of American government is to be powerless and passive…America needs, in order to prosper, neither skillful leadership nor profound plans…but liberty and still more liberty.”
The result of such freedom, he said, was that “This [American] people is one of the happiest in the world.”
If we don’t want continued decline of our culture, we need to get our freedoms back. That means, first of all, getting our national financial house in order. That’s our “one big thing” right now.
We need to turn the national debate to “the one big thing.” As journalist William Plumer noted in 1806, he was very frustrated with his own political party because its leaders favored a measure solely “because it would embarrass the president.”
He happened to disagree with President Jefferson, but he didn’t think mere political manipulation was a good reason for supporting or opposing a national policy. Today we are distracted by a thousand political manipulations.
Instead, we need to face up to “the one big thing,” and make decisions based on whether we want to turn America into a European social democracy or return it to a Jeffersonian democratic republic.
That’s “the one big thing” of our era.
Oliver DeMille is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling co-author of LeaderShift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead, the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.