Sunday, August 14, 2011

PDQ Bachmann

The last presidential election demonstrated rather vividly that growing portions of both political parties are embracing the idea of electing a woman to the executive branch of the federal government, as either president or vice president.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was narrowly beaten for the presidential nomination by Barack Obama in a race that came to be seen by many as a battle between historical guilt trips, misogyny and racism. And, on the Republican side, of course, Sarah Palin became the first woman nominated by the GOP for vice president.

But each party wants different things from its female candidates — and will tolerate nothing less from the other side. And both continue to hold female politicians to expectations they would never impose on men. In that regard, I suppose, women continue to be subjected to a political double standard if not a societal one.

As far as they have come in my lifetime — and that includes occupying seats on the Supreme Court, traveling in space, acting as diplomats on behalf of the United States and serving as speaker of the House — women are still expected to do things that no man is expected to do — like remain young and attractive long after it is natural for anyone to be young and attractive.

In our highly visual age, appearances have taken on more influence than ever before, but men are not subjected to anything like the scrutiny that women are. Gray hair on a man is seen as distinguished; it is a sign of advanced age in a woman. A few extra pounds have seldom stood between a man and electoral victory; on a woman, they can be politically fatal.

I suppose that accounts for the reaction to Newsweek's unflattering photo of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann on its cover.

Such negative stereotypes are offset, to a degree, by positive ones — such as the image of nurturer and healer — that make the idea of electing a woman president an appealing one for so many in these troubling times. They see a dysfunctional political system that needs a "woman's touch" after being taken to the brink of catastrophe too many times in recent years.

In Republican circles, Palin had that market cornered for a long time because she was really the only female whose name was being bandied about. But things have changed. While Palin has been motoring around the country, Bachmann jumped into the 2012 race and won yesterday's straw poll in her home state of Iowa — and some are wondering if Palin's moment in the spotlight has ended. She is supposed to reveal her 2012 plans next month.

(Personally, I would think that Palin — if she really does intend to run for president, and I am inclined to think she will not — would not mind relinquishing the spotlight for awhile.)

It's made me think about expectations, cliches and modern "firsts" in the American presidency in ways I never did before.

There is a desperation in people's expectations these days, I believe, born in part from a certain amount of disappointment in the policies of the current administration. Many of the president's supporters seem content to give him the benefit of the doubt — and additional time for these saplings to bear fruit. But not everyone, particularly the unemployed, is so generous — and patient.

This president was symbolic, of course, because of his race. He was the first black president. Whatever history may ultimately say about his tenure in the Oval Office, he will always be the first black to be nominated for — and elected to — the presidency.

When a female becomes president, she will be the first of her gender — and therefore will be symbolic as well.

Such distinctions may have made Barack Obama — and may someday make the first female president — sensitive (and vulnerable) to allegations of favoritism or preferential treatment. The religious issue presented similar challenges for John F. Kennedy half a century ago.

My experience is that, after a certain point, most historic "firsts" in the American presidency became isolated, no matter how successful the groundbreaking president may have been, and that the second of whatever it is hasn't come along rapidly.

Kennedy, of course, was the first Catholic to be elected president. He wasn't the first Catholic to be nominated, but he was the first in more than three decades. As president, his job approval ratings never fell below 56%.

Well, it's been more than 50 years since Kennedy was elected and nearly 50 since he was assassinated, but America still has not elected its second Catholic president. Catholics have sought the nomination, including JFK's younger brothers, but only one has been nominated for the presidency.

That's three Catholic presidential nominees in 83 years.

This applies to the vice presidency, too. Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman on a Democratic ticket. There have been half a dozen Democratic tickets since then, and none of the nominees was a woman.

I strongly doubt that Bachmann will be nominated in 2012, but if Republicans really are strongly considering nominating a woman for president, it may be largely because they and the voters who support her believe the kind of healing and nurturing the nation and its economy need can only be provided by a woman.

To meet the unrealistic expectations of the voters, that woman would need to revive this economy P.D.Q. — in an era long before texting, that was a well–known abbreviation for "pretty damned quick." Given the dire forecasts from economists, that doesn't seem likely.

With unemployment stuck in the 9% range and the stock market bouncing back and forth like a tennis ball, the experiment with a black president (whether it is acknowledged as such or not) may come to be widely regarded as a failure, and it may be as long before America elects its second black president as it has been between Catholic presidents.

Even if Barack Obama turns things around and manages to win re–election, my gut feeling is that it will be decades until another black candidate is nominated for the presidency. If he is replaced with a woman — Bachmann, Palin or someone else — this economy may prove too stubborn for her, and the next female presidency will be a long time coming as well.

I don't know what to expect in 2012. There are times when I think Obama is on the verge of righting the ship and really living up to the standards he set for himself and the nation — but then he does something that tells me that my original conclusion, that he is in over his head, was the correct one.

Sometimes, though, presidents rise to the occasion.

And if there is anything of which I am certain, it is that the next president, whoever he or she turns out to be, must rise to the occasion.

Or he/she seems likely to be the last American president.

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