Private flights, constant TV appearances, throngs of adoring fans — there’s no better time, perhaps, than the present to be the president. But all the hullabaloo surrounding the upcoming election has me wondering: do we care too much about the presidency? That’s not to say, of course, that the job of being president isn’t vital or necessary to the functioning of the country. It’s possible, though, that in our desire for a single, identifiable leader – to praise or to blame — we’ve shaped, in our minds, the presidential office into something quite different than it was intended to be or ought to be. The Founders were never the homogeneous group we now imagine they were, and in addition they were never totally consistent in their individual views and actions. But there was a general consensus among them that their fledgling country should avoid having a single, all-powerful leader as their monarchical forebears did.
The impulse to have a strong personality at the helm, however, has been a constant temptation even since the days of Washington, whose own “cherry tree” legend proves the sway the presidential mythos has over people’s imaginations. It seems there’s been an especially great expansion of presidential prestige, though, within the last 150 or so years, beginning with Lincoln, following through such personalities as Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, Reagan, Clinton, and reaching a climax with the 2008 election of Obama. There are a few possible reasons for this – the rise of media like radio and TV, the broader expansion of federal power after the Civil War, etc. – but I think it still boils down to some desire in human nature to have a singular person in charge of things, whether as a scapegoat or an example.
It seems to me, then, that the president, limited though he is in what he can actually do to change things, represents to most Americans a kind of symbol, a placeholder for a given ideology. This can be seen in how many people speak about a president singlehandedly helping or hurting the country. If gas is cheap or unemployment is high under Obama, the public is wont to assign the man praise or blame, quite apart from any ability of the chief executive to change gas prices or create jobs all by himself, without Congress or the courts.This superhuman understanding of the president, and the ensuing media obsession, is, to me, detrimental to America’s public discourse, since it enthrones the president as a kind of celebrity-ruler while ignoring the prime importance of the legislative and judicial branches in determining the country’s trajectory.There are many things to change in order to restore American democracy to its golden ideal. The first, maybe, is to start treating the president as a human being.