Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

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

with 8 comments

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

8 Responses

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  1. It’s really simple, Barb. It’s all about the “Cult of Personality”.

    Presidents in the Media Age must be Charismatic and “Interesting” to look at. They must have a strong chin, but not too strong so as to put off the men, and they must have a weak chin, but not too weak so as to put off the women.

    There are many other things I could comment about here, but it’s 5 minutes before i need to leave for work, so I can’t get too into this.

    William Katzell

    September 7, 2010 at 8:25 am

    • I agree with you, William — the whole “Cult of Personality” thing has been a factor with JFK (before I was born), with Bill Clinton to an extent, with George W. Bush on the right, and certainly with Obama the past few years on the left. But how do you balance being a real person, someone who has regular responsibilities, with being powerful?

      I think some people do this very well, but most of our American Presidents have not. JFK had multiple affairs and damaged his marriage beyond repair (Jackie Kennedy Onassis having to hide a great deal of how she felt to just get by was a major failure on JFK’s part); Bill Clinton was a good President but a lousy husband and father IMO. (How Hillary Clinton, a woman I admire greatly, could forgive her husband his multiple infidelities is something I don’t understand but respect. She has the right to do what she needs to do — and goodness knows she’s as strong a human being as seemingly exists on this Earth.)

      The three Presidents in my lifetime who did _not_ play into the “cult of personality” at all were George H. W. Bush, Gerald Ford, and most especially Jimmy Carter. (I believe Richard M. Nixon did have somewhat of a “cult of personality” about him on the right. Not anywhere near as much as George W. Bush. But some. And Nixon was at least competent and a political realist.) Those three guys seemed to hang on to some semblance of their privacy, and all three were (or have been) good ex-Presidents who’ve done a great deal of positive charitable works after their office term ended. (So have George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, though. The whole “cult of personality” thing never did end entirely with Bill Clinton, and I’m sure George W. Bush still has some as well even though I can’t truly see it — I can only extrapolate and believe it exists. And it doesn’t seem to affect them as much once they’re _former_ Presidents. It’s as if the media gets jaded and somehow some of their personal life returns to be under their own control.)

      I’ll be interested in whatever else you have to say, William, when you have time to say it.

      Barb Caffrey

      September 7, 2010 at 8:39 pm

  2. It’s about Liberalism being Conservativism in a differently coloured shirt. The actual-practice differences between Obama and Bush (and Clinton, for that matter) are miniscule. What each of them means to do, as opposed to what they wish to be perceived as meaning to do, is let the big money run the country, and help it rule the world.

    B. Ross Ashley

    September 7, 2010 at 11:37 am

    • I don’t think Bill Clinton was anywhere near as much about big government as George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Ross. But yes, there’s an inherent failure in our two-party system, something we’ve discussed before.

      I think you have to be very cognizant of what you’re _able_ to do as President. That’s why being a Governor of a state helps; there are limits to your power and you’re more aware of what you absolutely cannot do. Yet George W. Bush expanded the powers of the Presidency, and Barack Obama seems to be using those expanded powers rather than limiting them as he campaigned upon — in this one regard, Bush being a former Gov. did *not* help him.

      But yes, the two-party system is not helpful. Most of the time we get people elected who espouse one philosophy to the voters yet behave quite differently when amongst their colleagues. That’s wrong and even shameful, but aside from some who are more ethical than the others who say flat out what they’re going to do and do their utmost to do that very thing, I’m unsure how we get better legislators except by trial and error. Which means the US of A continues to be fiscally mismanaged, and the voters get short shrift.

      All that being said, it’s not really about what’s going on with the Presidency. Those guys (still, all men) give up way too much of themselves and I wonder if in doing so that’s what causes much of the psychological “disconnect.”

      Barb Caffrey

      September 7, 2010 at 8:43 pm

  3. B. Ross Ashley

    September 7, 2010 at 11:47 am

  4. I think anyone that’s a public figure, be it a musician, a writer or a politician has gone from making their private life public for all to see, thus becoming icons that others blog & tweet about. They need to now watch what they say and do or else it becomes public knowledge and up for all to talk about (be it good or bad). As far as presidency goes, I gotta think that the person fighting so hard to gain the votes for the position of president of the United States has to know what’s in store for them. All their little mistakes, slip-ups, etc. will become new jokes for around the water cooler and late night talk shows, yet that doesn’t stop people from wanting to become president. So sadly I say, no presidents can’t be people, but icons, via their own choice. They are, after all, running a rather large country, not a small feat I’ll admit, but still, it puts them in a position where everyone in that country, and even in other countries, will be looking at them to see what they do or say next, good or bad, and unlike a parent they just can’t pull the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ card.

    Just my two cents.

    Tiny Boi

    September 7, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    • Very good thoughts, Tiny. And I agree with you — they *should* know what they’re getting into, especially Presidential candidates. And some of them do — Hillary Clinton surely did. John Kerry did. George W. Bush did. (They might not like the byproducts, but those three — all different, philosophically — were savvy politicians who knew exactly what they’d signed up for.)

      I appreciate you answering my last question — must Presidents be icons? Because if they must all be icons, they’d best learn how to deal with the power and responsibility of such positions, and fast — hoping they can somehow in what remains of their private lives be good husbands and fathers and uncles and friends rather than thinking they’re somehow above it all or that the whole world must revolve around them. Because no matter what it appears, the world doesn’t revolve around *anyone*. It just exists.

      Barb Caffrey

      September 7, 2010 at 8:45 pm

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