Barack Obama recently said, "I believe in our ability to perfect this nation." Clearly there is something the candidate of "change" will not change—the pattern of extravagant presidential rhetoric. Obama is trying to replace a president who vowed to "rid the world of evil"—and of tyranny, too.
But then, rhetorical—and related—excesses are inherent in the modern presidency. This is so for reasons brilliantly explored in the year's most pertinent and sobering public affairs book, "The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power," by Gene Healy of Washington's libertarian Cato Institute.
Healy's dissection of the delusions of "redemption through presidential politics" comes at a moment when liberals, for reasons of liberalism, and conservatives, because they have forgotten their raison d'être, "agree on the boundless nature of presidential responsibility." Liberals think boundless government is beneficent. Conservatives practice situational constitutionalism, favoring what Healy calls "Caesaropapism" as long as the Caesar-cum-Pope wields his anti constitutional powers in the service of things these faux conservatives favor.
War is, as Randolph Bourne said, "the health of the state." And as James Madison said, war is the "true nurse of executive aggrandizement." Today's president has claimed the power to be the "decider," deciding on his own to start preventive wars, order torture prohibited by treaty and statute, and arrest American terrorist suspects on American soil and hold them indefinitely without legal process. But Healy's critique of the heroic presidency ranges far beyond national-security matters.
"Tell me your troubles," said FDR, Consoler in Chief, in a fireside chat with a radio audience. In 1960, the year the nation elected a charismatic (a term drawn from religion) president who regarded the office as "the center of moral leadership," an eminent political scientist called the presidency "the incarnation of the American people in a sacrament resembling that in which the wafer and the wine are seen to be the body and blood of Christ." In 1992, Gov. Bill Clinton promised a "New Covenant" between government and the governed. That, Healy dryly notes, was "a metaphor that had the state stepping in for Yahweh."
Clinton's wife, stepping in for Sigmund Freud, diagnosed America as suffering from "a sleeping sickness of the soul" because we do not know "who we are as human beings in this postmodern age." Presidents are now supposed to answer such existential questions. And the question asked of Clinton, President George Bush and Ross Perot during a 1992 debate: "How can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect ... you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it?"
If you can name it, presidents are responsible for it. The name for this is infantilization. "The average American," said President Richard Nixon, "is just like the child in the family—you give him some responsibility and he is going to amount to something." Vice President Al Gore said the government should act like "grandparents in the sense that grandparents perform a nurturing role."
Such demented talk encourages presidential candidates to make delusional promises—energy independence in eight years (Mike Huckabee), "an excellent teacher in every classroom" and "every school an outstanding school" (John Edwards, who presumably knows how every school can stand out when all are outstanding), a "perfect" nation (see above) and so on.
The last presidential candidate to talk sense about the office was fictional. In an episode of NBC's "The West Wing," the Republican candidate, who was not the hero, was asked, "How many jobs will you create?" "None," he replied, adding: "Entrepreneurs create jobs. Business creates jobs. The president's job is to get out of the way."
An occupational hazard of the inflated presidency is a hazard to the nation. It is what Healy (borrowing a term from psychiatry) calls Acquired Situational Narcissism. As repositories of absurd expectations, and surrounded by sycophants, presidents become deranged. Inevitably, the inflation of expectations causes what Healy calls an "arc of disillusionment" that diminishes one president after another.
Michelle Obama says, "Barack will never let you go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed." Leaving aside the insult—her opinion that we are uninvolved and uninformed—do we really elect politicians to yank us out of our usual lives? Americans are said to be cynical about politics. Actually, they are presidential romantics. Which is why they suffer serial disappointments.
Immediately after Nov. 4, the media will foster feverish speculation about how the president-elect will satisfy the now normal expectations for a hyperkinetic "100 days." That phrase entered America's political lexicon with Franklin Roosevelt's flurry of activism following his 1933 Inaugural Address. In it, FDR, adopting the war paradigm so favored by presidents even in peacetime, urged Americans to "move as a trained and loyal army," submitting their "lives and property" to "a common discipline" with "a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife."
The original phrase "100 days" was about real war—the days after Napoleon's escape from Elba. They ended at Waterloo, which the president-elect should remember, but won't.