Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Do You Really Want This Job?

That's what I want to ask anyone who runs for president.

I mean, I know full–time jobs are hard to come by these days — and that one does pay well, along with coming with a well–furnished, rent–free home in which to live for four years and an airplane that will take you anywhere you want to go.

But, other than that, I really would like to know why anyone would want to be president.

It wasn't that way when I was a kid.

I was always interested in the presidents when I was small. Looked up to them, I did. When I was little, I committed to memory all the presidents in chronological order — don't know why I did that, couldn't even hazard a guess. Nevertheless, I did that when I was in first grade. True story. I had been given a set of cards with each president's portrait on one side and brief biographical data on the other. Sort of like baseball cards — but with commanders in chief.

Somewhere I got the idea that serving as president was the greatest, noblest thing to which a person could aspire. My parents and my friends would tease me about coming to visit me in the White House. There was even a time when I believed I would be president one day.

But I gave up on that idea a long time ago.

To seek the presidency, I believe, requires an unholy alliance of selflessness and egotism. It is a combination one rarely finds in garden variety occupations (outside of politics). The successful application of those two personality traits is rarer still.

A president must be incredibly selfless, willing to accept the nearly constant scrutiny, the almost total lack of a private life that comes with the territory — and, simultaneously, he must possess an enormous ego to think that he can wear all the hats one must wear as president.

The expectations really are incredible. No human being could possibly live up to all of them — but that hasn't kept some from trying.

Some, of course, haven't even tried.

But most who have tried to be all things to all people — and most who have not tried to be anything — have not succeeded in the Oval Office.

The successful presidents, the ones who are remembered by history, typically are remembered for their strengths in spite of their weaknesses. They carved out their niches. You know what I mean — Lincoln, for example, is remembered as "Honest Abe" and "The Great Emancipator" (even though abolishing slavery was not his initial goal when the Civil War began).

The unsuccessful ones tend to obtain less flattering nicknames.

In the first 2½ years of his presidency, Barack Obama has shown time and time again that among his top priorities is a desire for bipartisanship — preferably while maintaining a certain amount of distance which gives the appearance of elitism to some.

(Sometimes he reminds me of Frasier Crane, who was once the subject of an unflattering limerick that was scrawled on the men's room wall at work, and he sought to prove he was just one of the guys by inviting all of his colleagues, most of whom he did not know, to a party at his place.

(But his quest for acceptance backfired on him. His colleagues embraced him a little too warmly, and Frasier lamented the end of the days when he was "unapproachable" to most of the people in the office. "Couldn't they have sent just one representative?" he asked.

(After weeks of dealing with the likes of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and their minions, I have to think Obama would sympathize.)

Maybe it was something else. I suppose, when Obama's presidency has been over for several years and historians have had the opportunity to assess every angle of every action and the long–term consequences, there will be an answer of some kind.

But what seems clear to me, at this point, is that Obama squandered much of his political capital on inconsequential fights early in his term when his party handily controlled both chambers of Congress, leaving him with little in reserve when he really needed it — on this squabble over the debt ceiling (which still isn't resolved as I write this, by the way).

On the surface, one can say that Obama probably did about as well as he could have hoped for. Neither side was going to get everything it wanted, but the catastrophe that he and others feared probably has been avoided.

If the crisis really has been resolved, it can't be seen as a triumph for either side. Both sides will spin it to their best advantage, but the truth is that it never should have come to this in the first place.

The real "winners" — if it can be said that there were winners — were the millions of Americans whose existences may have been made much more difficult if nothing had been done.

Some people will say that was leadership — although, publicly at least, Obama remained at arm's length of the debate and let others do the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, the rhetoric from both sides remained quite partisan, suggesting that even more intense debates lie ahead in the 2012 election cycle.

Given the partisan tone of this debate, Obama couldn't be surprised at the criticism that has come his way from the right and the center. But he might be somewhat taken aback by the wrath that has come from the left.

Many Democrats in Congress aren't happy, and neither are columnists who are usually supportive of this president.

There was a double whammy for Obama in the almost always supportive New York Times.

Paul Krugman wrote that the president surrendered under pressure and there is more to come. A precedent has been set, he says, that will endure beyond the Obama presidency.

"[H]ow can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation's economic security, gets to dictate policy?" he asked.

Another of Obama's followers, Maureen Dowd, may have been even more damning. She wrote that Obama — in the eyes of an unnamed Democratic senator who, presumably, will be among those to vote on the deal today — is "turn[ing] into Jimmy Carter right before our eyes."

Such is the fickle nature of American politics. When Obama was elected and about to take the oath of office, he was compared to Lincoln and FDR. As his first year in office dragged on, the comparisons dropped to less historically impressive (flawed but successful) predecessors.

When the discussion deteriorates to comparisons with one–term presidents, I would suggest that you investigate the source. It's usually someone with an axe to grind. But Dowd was on board the Obama bandwagon before there was a bandwagon. She was an Obamaphile before Obama was cool.

And, over at the Washington Post, which has been nearly as supportive of Obama as the Times, Greg Sargent reminds those in power that, once the latest distraction is behind us, it's time for that long–promised "pivot to jobs."

That makes me think there may be some dissension within the ranks. At best, with his approval rating languishing in the 40s, Obama must realize that the 2012 election will be much closer than the one in 2008. States that narrowly voted for Obama — and rarely vote for Democrats — like Indiana, North Carolina and Colorado — are highly unlikely to vote for him again, and it will be touch and go in a lot of other places, too.

When liberals start saying a liberal president surrendered and is taking on the look of the Democrats' last one–term president, it could well lead to a challenge from within Obama's party (it isn't too late for a challenger to emerge, however unlikely he/she would be to succeed) and a possible victory for the other party in the general election — even if the opposition nominates someone generally seen as an extremist.

That was what happened to Carter — who entered the presidency on a wave of popularity that was similar to Obama's but is remembered by some as "President Malaise."

It isn't a fair characterization. As I have written here before, Carter never used the word malaise in his now–infamous speech from July 1979. But these things take on lives of their own.

It really makes me wonder why Obama would want to spend another four years in the White House — or why any of the Republicans who are challenging him would want to take his place.

No comments: