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Archive for September 6th, 2010

Can Presidents be people, too? Or, why are all recent Presidents so “into themselves?”

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Today, President Obama spoke in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at a Labor Day pep rally down at the Summerfest Grounds (right next to Lake Michigan, located in downtown Milwaukee), and said that the Republicans are talking about him “like a dog.”  (See link at Mediaite, available here: )  President Obama went on for quite some time in this vein, which at first annoyed me because it felt self-absorbed.

I mean, here we are in the US of A sitting at 9.6% overall unemployment for the entire nation, last I checked.  Many people, including myself, are out of work.  Many people, including myself, are looking for work and can’t find any work at all — and yet, while President Obama discussed why he thinks nothing is improving for the nation (the Republicans are blocking many bills in the Senate on procedural grounds, something that is quite possible for them to do under existing rules, even if the R’s in question believe in the bill or bills), it seemed to me that the President saw this whole conflict as being all about him, rather than all about the nation.

Which made me wonder — can Presidents be people, too?  Or will they internalize everything to the point that they can’t quite reach out to the public — rather seeing things like the current US economy as their own, personal failings instead of something that can be fixed with prudent management?

This may seem like an odd question to ask, but think about it: our recent Presidents, from Jimmy Carter onward, have not really known much in the way of privacy.  There has been an exponential degree of media scrutiny, first from regular over-the-air television (1970s), cable TV (started in the ’80s), then the Internet (started in the ’90s), then the profusion of blogs that continues to this day (including this one) that mention the President, whoever the current American President is, and dissect his behavior (still, always, his behavior — maybe next time we will finally get a deserving woman **) from all angles.  And things that are the fault of the President are discussed, as well as things that couldn’t possibly be his fault — this is true of all Presidents in my lifetime, and probably true of all Presidents since the start of the US of A.

Now, it’s obvious that Presidential candidates sign up for the lack of privacy — they know their lives as they knew it are over, or they should.  (Gary Hart didn’t — witness his “monkey business” on the yacht named the same — but he should’ve.)  They know every single thing they say at any rally is taped, or photographed, or videotaped . . . with the expansion of cheap and readily usable technology, Presidential candidates have less privacy than ever before.  And anything the President says — anything a Presidential candidate says — is fair game for the media — for the television (cable and over-the-air), for the radio, for the Internet, for satellite radio/blog talk radio, etc.

Perhaps this is the reason why so many of our Presidents have seemed to be very “into themselves.”  These guys have pollsters dissecting every aspect of their public appeal (or the lack of it) — and remember, nothing is private or off-limits, or at best, very, very little.   So the self-absorption shown by Reagan (who’d been an actor), George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama is not new — but it definitely has grown in my lifetime.

But there’s an obvious reason for that.

Think about it.  If you had pollsters telling you every minute of every day what to wear (gotta have the flag pin; gotta have the power tie, etc.), how to act, how much to smile, how long you can sit with this person, how much time you have to spend with your family before going back out on the road, etc., you might be plenty self-absorbed, too. 

Further, much of the media, even the friendly ones, blame you for everything going on — or so it seems, because that’s what gets the most airplay.  The stories most people are commenting on now have to do with what Paul Krugman and Tom Friedman said on ABC’s Sunday morning program This Week with Christiane Amanpour, quoted at Mediaite under the heading “Paul Krugman and Tom Friedman are Fed Up: ‘Obama has had no Vision,’ available at this link — , to wit economist (and frequent New York Times op-ed writer) Paul Krugman’s comment:

But what is true on all of this is that Obama has had no vision. He has not articulated a philosophy. What is Obama’s philosophy of government? He wobbles between sounding kind of like a liberal. Then he says, well, the conservatives have some points, too. He concedes the message.

Granted, Paul Krugman is not making a personal attack against the President.  Krugman’s point is that the President’s administration has not articulated enough of a vision to the public to help anyone besides themselves understand what they’re trying to do.  (This is the kindest and gentlest way to explain things, not to summon up one of former President George H. W. Bush’s quotes.)

Then, Tom Friedman (aka Thomas L. Friedman), who also writes for the New York Times, said:

Look, I’m for more health care. I’m glad we’ve extended it to more Americans. But the fact is, there is a real, I think, argument for the case that Obama completely over-read his mandate when he came in.

He was elected to get rid of one man’s job, George Bush, and get the rest of us jobs. I think that was the poor thing. And by starting with health care and not making his first year the year of innovation, expanding economy and expanding jobs, you know, I think, looking back, that was a political mistake.

These are fair criticisms, to my mind, but to anyone sitting as a President they must run all together with the folks who are calling the President a “socialist,” or a “Nazi,” or those who believe the President has a different religion than the one he claims — especially with the 24/7 media.  And that might be why President Obama said that felt like he’d been talked about “like a dog” today — even though to those of us outside the Washington, DC fishbowl, it seems like the President is far more focused on himself than getting the economy taken care of, or the big banks loaning money to the littler banks (as was supposed to happen with those TARP bills), and as if the President is still running for the office of President rather than being the President.

Because being President has usually meant the person holding the office ignores a great deal of negative things said about him.  Otherwise, it’d take too long to get past the negativity — besides, negativity is easy.  (Check any history of the American Presidency if you don’t believe me.  Every candidate, even George Washington, the father of the US of A, had his detractors.)

Even so.  While I get plenty annoyed at the way much of the electorate seems to be ignored when we ask for fiscal accountability (please, tell us where our money is going!  This doesn’t seem to be too much to ask.), I recognize that the Presidential office is a difficult one to hold.  And that perhaps it’s easier for us to hate the officewielder than it is to demand accountability — it all runs together, and it shouldn’t.

I don’t know what the answers are, because it seems to me our technology has outstripped our compassion.   Presidents do need to be held accountable for their beliefs, and how well they act on their promises, and their legislative records, if any — but perhaps scrutinizing every little thing down to the last detail might someday be thought of as counterproductive.  Because just because these guys are our public servants, that doesn’t make them any less human.

So, can our Presidents be people, too?  Or must they always be icons?  Because if they must be the latter, I’m afraid the American public is doomed to eternal disappointment.


**Hillary R. Clinton won the Democratic Primaries (not the caucuses, but the verifiable primary vote).  She is the first woman in history to win one primary, much less a whole bunch of themmuch less get 18 million votes overall.  It is possible that someday soon, a qualified female candidate will win the Presidential nomination of her party, and thus I will finally be able to say his or hers, rather than his.

Written by Barb Caffrey

September 6, 2010 at 10:45 pm