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

2008 US Presidential Election, Vol. 1: Civic Duty

I was just walking home from work and saw that the little sandwich board sign the town puts up to alert people that an election looms had been covered with snow. I had dutifully walked out onto the median and started kicking the snow off of it when two twenty-something, urban-clad white guys appeared.

One asked if it was relating to the primary, sort of implying that I had maybe erected the sign to begin with and I said, “Yeah, the primary is on February 5th. I didn’t put this sign up, I’m just…” “Doing your civic duty or some shit?” “Yeah, I guess.” We all chuckled.

I assumed they’d walk on and was just glad I’d escaped being made fun of or hit on, but no, they wanted to chat politics. “We gotta get that asshole and his crony friends out of power for good,” said Guy One. I asked who they were going to vote for (hoping that my assumption that they WOULD vote would maybe motivate them to actually do it). Guy Two immediately shouted, “Hillary!” Guy One was incredulous. “Why, man? It’s just the same bullshit.” “Because then Bill would be back! Bill was the best.” “Nah, nah. She wears the pants, man. Bill’s just hanging out in the background, puffing on a cigar… or a spliff…” More chuckles and then a sly glance my way to see how I’d respond to that.

I said gamely, “It’s hard to tell who’s wearing the pants in that relationship, isn’t it?” More chuckles. Then, from Guy One, “You smoke at all?” “Occasionally, yeah,” I said, not exactly lying, but speaking a truth from five years ago. “It’s hard to find a dealer around here, huh? Maybe not for you — girls get offered puffs everywhere, all the time right?” Luckily, my street had arrived. “Not in my experience, man, but it was nice talking to y’all! Vote!”

2008 US Presidential Election, Vol. 1: Civic Duty