2008 US Presidential Election, Vol. 2: What Makes A Good President and the Vulnerability Of Hope

I just read an article in the New Yorker about the role of charisma in making a good leader called The Choice: The Clinton-Obama battle reveals two very different ideas of the Presidency. The article contrasts Clinton as capable of navigating the government’s beauracracy toward incremental (but lasting?) change and Obama as a transformational idealist capable of bringing disparate groups together around common interests (I’m paraphrasing, possibly ham-fistedly). I am willing to buy into these characterizations somewhat, but was left wondering which type of person would make the better president.

So I started trawling the internet for articles by presidential historians (PHs) about what sort of president is the best sort of presdient. It seems that most PHs consider the best presidents in US history to be George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To quote a Rolling Stone article by a PH (about why Bush may go down in history as one of the worst presidents ever):

“These were the men who guided the nation through what historians consider its greatest crises: the founding era after the ratification of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and Second World War. Presented with arduous, at times seemingly impossible circumstances, they rallied the nation, governed brilliantly and left the republic more secure than when they entered office.”

(As a sidenote, by contrast: “Calamitous presidents, faced with enormous difficulties — Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hoover and now Bush — have divided the nation, governed erratically and left the nation worse off. In each case, different factors contributed to the failure: disastrous domestic policies, foreign-policy blunders and military setbacks, executive misconduct, crises of credibility and public trust.”)

Randy Allgaier, in a very thoughtful post on his “unabashedly liberal” blog The Alligator, calls this ideal person The Transformational President, and comes to the conclusion that Barack Obama has the potential to be just such a president.

I voted for Obama yesterday in the Democractic Primary process for similar reasons to what Allgaier outlines in the above blogpost. (I’m not a registered Democrat, but my state has open primaries, so I went for it.) Since then, however, I’ve been having a bit of a crisis of conscience. It’s taken me a day or so to figure out what was brewing, but I think a big part of it is this: In the furor over Obama, I have somehow let down my very cynical guard toward politicians, and now that I have, the prospect of disappointment is making me feel very vulnerable. What follows feels very much like a confession, given how totally naive I think it is to let oneself become enamored of politicians or to let oneself look for transformation in the political process.

First, I will be bitterly disappointed if Obama does not achieve the nomination. Second, if he does, I will be bitterly disappointed if he does not win the national election. Third, I will be bitterly disappointed if he wins and governs badly, becomes embroiled in the typical political scandals, panders to this and that special interest, ignores issues I find to be of near-crisis-level importance currently (climate change, our disastrous pre-emptive foreign policy, education).

Yes, to dare to dream of a transformational leader feels very good, but the cynic in me feels incredibly vulnerable now, considering what recent history tells us about politics in this country.

2008 US Presidential Election, Vol. 2: What Makes A Good President and the Vulnerability Of Hope

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