Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

The Founders understood the need for a strong single leader, a chief executive who could rally causes, lead during times of war and otherwise be a face and voice to the nation.

They also understood tyranny and the unrelenting abuses that come from the rule of man. So they set up a republican form of government, separated its powers into three branches and made everyone subordinate to the rule of law.

But the president, the chief executive, has fascinated Americans from the beginning. To a large extent, these men have both reflected the unique qualities of Americans and shaped them. The ones who, by some opinions, have been the very best have had their faces chiseled into the side of a mountain. They and others are honored by impressive monuments in Washington, D.C., and remembered reverently for tough decisions made at times when freedom hung in the balance.

The ones who fell short or who disgraced themselves are given less attention, other than to be made into cautionary tales or the butt of jokes.

Those lists are tough to define. History has a way of changing labels. As an example, Harry S. Truman left office in 1953 so unpopular he had decided on his own not to seek re-election. Today, his stock has risen considerably by the passage of time and some sympathetic biographies.

But in election years, such as this, the past is but a fascinating prelude. On this Presidents Day, Americans may pause to remember George Washington whose birthday gave rise to the holiday; or Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership preserved the union and gave it its modern definition. But they also ought to be looking forward, deciding what type of person they want to help define the nation in the future.

Despite the limited powers, the pressures and the constant spotlight, the office of the president still attracts politicians who seem willing to do just about anything to get there. A quick trip to www.factcheck.org will give you an idea of the half-truths and deliberate lies being told by candidates of both parties in an effort to win.

But those tactics are not new. Americans would hardly respect a person who ran for the office half-heartedly, without ambition and drive. They do, however, demand a certain level of integrity and character, and those traits can be difficult to discern from a distance.

It is a credit to the wisdom of the Founders that Americans understand their chief executive is human, with failings and weaknesses. Unlike kings and queens, America's president derives power from the people, who also are imperfect. But despite those problems, the system has served the nation quite well over time.

This year's race has added new aspects to the face of possible presidents. Women and people of color have yet to hold the office but now are represented by serious candidates. All American children can now face the possibility of growing up to be president.

The Founders drafted a Constitution that set the framework for a land of liberty and peace. But the presidents, perhaps more than any other Americans, gave life to that framework. Washington set the tone. He had no examples to follow. He faced the temptation to abuse power. Yet he didn't, a fact characterized by his decision to voluntarily relinquish the office after two terms. A quick look around the world today shows how unique that was.

What sort of tone would this year's candidates set for the future? That's a decision Americans never should take lightly.