▶ Watch Video: The buck stops here — or does it?

A presidential election in the age of a pandemic is new, but may hinge on how voters interpret a very old phrase, Harry Truman’s favorite: “The buck stops here.”

The “buck” comes to us from poker. In frontier days, a knife with a buckhorn handle was used to indicate whose turn it was to deal. A player who didn’t want that job could decline, “passing the buck.”

President Truman had a plaque with the expression on it given to him by a friend who had seen it at an Oklahoma prison on the warden’s door.

President Harry S. Truman circa 1950.

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For Truman the phrase defined presidential decision-making: “It’s easy enough for a Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done after the game’s over,” he said in a 1952 speech to the National War College. “But when the decision is up before you – and on my desk I have a motto which says, ‘The buck stops here’ – the decision has to be made.”

The phrase puts the backseat driver in his place, and encourages a more sympathetic assessment of a president, one that acknowledges how hard the job is.

President Kennedy told a group of historians, “No one has a right to grade a President – not even poor James Buchanan – who has not sat in his chair.”

This is how President Trump would like people to evaluate his response to COVID-19.

In the modern presidency, however, “buck-stopping” has been redefined, in a way that is much less sympathetic. It has come to mean that a president is fully accountable for the outcome of events, no matter how difficult they are. 

Advocates for this stricter standard of excellence say it’s necessary, because the specter of harsh judgment focuses the mind – of the president and his staff. Don’t make excuses; just get results.

It’s a tough standard, but it’s the only kind of standard for an office where no decision is ever easy. To make the right call in a fix is “why they get to sit in the big chair,” as one general put it to me.

So, voters have a choice: a sympathetic, or strict standard … whether re-election is a reward for excellence, or merely a trophy for participation.

Story produced by Ed Forgotson. Editor: Chad Cardin.