Americans: Our President is Not Our Father
On most days, if you take a typical op-ed from one of the major newspapers in the United States, chances are it’s filled with a plethora of Washington-consensus drivel (“Our leaders need to LEAD!”). But every once and awhile, a columnist will really come through and make your day, like George Will does in his latest column for The Washington Post called, “The 2016 Presidential Candidate we Need”,where he described the ideal Presidential candidate for the next election:
“President Franklin Roosevelt urged Americans to tell him their troubles. Please do not tell me yours. Tell them to your spouse, friends, clergy — not to a politician who is far away, who doesn’t know you and whose job description does not include Empathizer in Chief. ‘I feel your pain,’ Bill Clinton vowed. I won’t insult your intelligence by similarly pretending to feel yours.
A congenial society is one in which most people most of the time, and all politicians almost all of the time, say, when asked about almost everything: ‘This is none of my business.’ If as president I am asked what I think about the death of a rock star, or the imbecilic opinions of rich blowhards who own professional sports teams, I will say: ‘Americans should have no interest in my thoughts about such things”
Yea! Now that’s the stuff!
You may not agree with George Will on everything, I can think of at least a couple areas where he and I differ, but any citizen who insists on being treated like an adult should agree with the sentiment he expresses here.
As I’ve said before, one of the primary issues we face in American politics is the “celebrification” (can we make that a new word?) of the president, where we think of the office as just another Hollywood casting room. What’s worse, we’ve allowed the president to take on the role of a father or a personal mentor. I’ve always been aghast at pundits in the mainstream press who urge President Obama to bring us together as a family and join us in our living rooms to embody our hopes, dreams and fears. That list may sound like hyperbole, but just watch any coverage of The State of the Union address and I guarantee you’ll hear (over the sound of the bile churning in your stomach) this kind of nonsense preached from Presidential cheerleaders.
This cultural phenomenon is a symptom of two different pathogens plaguing the American consciousness.
First, there is an element of self-imposed helplessness behind the reliance on the President and our projection of emotions onto him personally. To speak more broadly, it’s the surrender of self-reliance and community-based initiatives in favor of coercive action taken by a central government. This is not exclusive to the Democrats, it just looks that way because they control the White House. Anyone who remembers the G.W Bush years will remember how similar the news coverage was, along with the rhetoric that came from the major networks. And in a way, Republicans bear a lot of responsibility for this. By constantly repeating their mantra of “What would Reagan do?” for every single issue ever, they put on the shoulders of the Presidency a status which it does not deserve. It also assumes a foreknowledge of Reagan’s actions and intentions that (were he President today) no human being could possibly possess. It also supposes that from 1981-1989, he was the only person in government, like a king at the head of an absolute monarchy. Also, in their criticism of Presidential power in the Obama-era, many mainstream conservatives conveniently forget that it was Dick Cheney who set the foundation for an evermore powerful executive branch.
Second, it shows an insecurity about whether or not Americans want to be treated like adults. You see this in absurdities like the rise of “Trigger Warnings” on college campuses and other such nonsense, but it also reflects on people’s relationship to power. Grown adults no longer need parents to hand orders to them as a matter of course, but as trusted advisers when help and guidance is needed. But in adulthood, reaching out must be done voluntarily, not shoved into your face like some awful self-help tutoring session you never signed up for (but still have to pay for anyway)! The same goes for therapy; friendship is another good example.
The President cannot and should not be our father-figure, therapist or friend. No national leader of any country at any time who holds any real power should ever be thought of this way.
First of all, this would be incredibly condescending to ourselves, and actually very unfair to our President. If I actually knew President Obama personally, maybe I could be friends with him. But for now, his only relevance to me is as commander-in-chief of the US military, chief diplomat and the head administrator of the branch of government responsible for enforcing domestic laws.
To put it in a historical context, Stephen F. Knott writes in his article Did Woodrow Wilson Destroy the American Presidency? (in fact, George Will claims he ruined the 20th Century!) that
the more you personalize the presidency and the more you inflate the presidential portfolio, the more you diminish it. It is important to note that the Founders presidency provided both a floor and a ceiling that protected but also energized the office; without this, the office is trapped in a cycle of raised expectations followed by public disappointment and cynicism.
Ideally, our President should have no more glory or celebrity buzz attached to him than the executives of most Northern European countries. Do the Dutch obsess nearly as much about their national leaders as we do? No, they simply think of them as unromantic administrators fulfilling a public service. To be fair, in the case of the Dutch and the British, there is a relatively powerless monarch in place to fill what one could call the symbolic role. thus filling what I would call “the drama gap.” Though I am very partial to constitutional republicanism, having some sort of useful idiot to project all our emotional nonsense on might help those in elected office get some real work done.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very optimistic about our future. I certainly don’t mean to generalize that every member of the two major parties or every reporter at the big media outlets is some Presidential lackey. But when cultural submissiveness appears anywhere in the zeitgeist, it deserves to be roundly crushed at every instance.