Archives for the 'Cult of the Presidency' Category
I’m late to the pile-on because I’m a bad American, and I don’t watch enough football, but not quite two weeks ago, President Obama managed to politicize what for many is a hallowed Monday night ritual.
In the New York Post, the paper of record for those of us who grew up in one of the only red counties on the Jersey Shore, Kyle Smith notes that Obama’s ostensible purpose for inserting himself into Monday Night Football was to proclaim Hispanic Heritage Month, but the president [insisted]:
Our nation faces extraordinary challenges right now, and our ability to tackle them will depend on our willingness to recognize that we’re all in this together, that we each have an obligation to give back to our communities, and we all have a stake in the future of this country.
Generic enough, perhaps, unless you’re oblivious to the political backdrop of the president and his party pushing desperately to pass national health care.
Smith is rightfully exasperated by the perpetual campaign mode and Obama’s omnipresence in every broadcast medium. But–not that it’s a competition–I’d had more than my fill of this sort of thing eight months ago, a month into Obama’s presidency:
When there’s no escape from our national talk-show host-when he appears constantly above every gym treadmill-is it any wonder that we typically want his show cancelled just a few seasons in? Is it any wonder we get sick of him?
You can make too much of the notion of presidential “dignity.” It’s good when the federal chief executive officer fights against the royal aura that inevitably surrounds the office by, for example, walking his inaugural parade route (Jefferson) or buttering his own english muffins (Jerry Ford).
But it seems to me that doing a commercial for George Lopez’s lousy sit-com takes it a bit too far:
(When I saw this on TV recently, I was sure it was some kind of Forrest Gump cinemagic. Not so.)
More to the point, can the president give us an occasional break from his relentless omnipresence? Apparently not.
Six months into his presidency, the Politico reported, Obama had already “uttered more than half a million words in public.” In one whirlwind week last month, the president made his third appearance on “60 Minutes,” gave a major speech on the financial crisis the next day, and made a record five talk-show appearances the following Sunday. And on the eighth day, He did Letterman.
My suspicion is that as his popularity continues to drop, Obama is going to discover not only that there are diminishing returns to presidential media appearances, but that he might do better by letting the country forget about him for a while.
“Why do people hate you?”, a fourth-grade boy asked Obama …. “They’re supposed to love you. And God is love.”
Obama’s answer is actually pretty reasonable. But this is what happens when you make a mere elected politician assume the status of Priest-King. It is, in its own way, a corrupting influence. I don’t blame the kid asking the question since, heck, there are plenty of professional journalists in DC who basically think along the same lines. This isn’t Obama’s fault, but it’s a problem nonetheless.
True enough, Americans had an irrational conception of presidential responsibility long before 44 took office. Still, Obama’s far from blameless. At the same town hall, Obama commented :
“You know, I listen to, sometimes, these reporters on the news: Well, why haven’t you solved world hunger yet?” he joked.
Ha: silly reporters! They should ask the president about something he’s actually promised to do, like provide “a cure for cancer in our time,” or stop the oceans’ rise, or “create a Kingdom right here on Earth.”
Obama’s right that it’s “part of the job” that the president gets an outsized share of credit or blame for the direction of the country. It’s been that way for a long time. As Thomas Cronin put it in his classic 1970 essay “Superman: Our Textbook President”:
on both sides of the presidential popularity equation [the president’s] importance is inflated beyond reasonable bounds. On one side, there is a nearly blind faith that the president embodies national virtue and that any detractor must be an effete snob or a nervous Nellie. On the other side, the president becomes the cause of all personal maladies, the originator of poverty and racism, inventor of the establishment, and the party responsible for a choleric national disposition.
Barack Obama didn’t create this view of presidential responsibility; he inherited it. But, other than the occasional “change is hard” caveat, it’s not as though Obama’s sought to dispel the irrational expectations people invest in the office. To the contrary, he’s done more than any president in living memory to encourage the view that the president is a benevolent father protector endowed with magical powers–a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. It’s the sort of view that people ought to–but often don’t–grow out of by, say, fifth grade. And a good deal of the burgeoning public dissatisfaction with Obama stems from his aggressive attempts to secure powers to match the boundless responsibilities he embraces.
[c/p @ Cato@Liberty]
“I don’t want our schools turned over to some socialist movement,” says Brett Curtis, a parent from Pearland, Texas who told the New York Times he’d keep his kids home today during Barack Obama’s speech to schoolchildren nationwide.
Me either! Like I said in the piece linked below, I found the whole ritual pretty cultish and grotesque. But I’m weird. I think the same thing about the Pledge of Allegiance. From a piece I wrote a few years back:
From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as “Jesus the Socialist.” Bellamy was devoted to the ideas of his more-famous cousin Edward Bellamy, author of the 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward. Looking Backward describes the future United States as a regimented worker’s paradise where everyone has equal incomes, and men are drafted into the country’s “industrial army” at the age of 21, serving in the jobs assigned them by the state. Bellamy’s novel was extremely popular, selling more copies than other any 19th century American novel except Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Bellamy’s book inspired a movement of “Nationalist Clubs,” whose members campaigned for a government takeover of the economy. A few years before he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy became a founding member of Boston’s first Nationalist Club.
After leaving the pulpit, Francis Bellamy decided to advance his authoritarian ideas through the public schools. Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine. With the aid of the National Education Association, Bellamy and the editors of Youth’s Companion got the Pledge adopted as part of the National Public School Celebration on Columbus Day 1892.
Bellamy’s recommended ritual for honoring the flag had students all but goosestepping their way through the Pledge: “At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the Flag the military salute–right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it… At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.” After the rise of Nazism, this form of salute was thought to be in poor taste, to say the least, and replaced with today’s hand-on-heart gesture.
How many anti-socialist, tea-partying patriots go the whole nine and oppose the Pledge, I wonder?
Here’s this week’s DC Examiner column, on Barack Obama’s speech to the kids. Excerpt:
Is the president’s speech part of a sinister plan to create a socialist Obama Youth movement? Hardly. The transcript, released yesterday, reveals a pretty standard homily to educational excellence, and there’s no evidence it was ever supposed to be anything else. Even so, there’s something grotesquely collectivist about the idea of the president addressing a captive audience of 50 million schoolchildren, hectoring them to turn off the X-Box and hit the books….
The lesson plans Obama Department of Education officials came up with after several meetings with the White House make it clear that federal education bureaucrats should be kept as far away from children as possible.
One of the plans envisioned teachers making kindergartners write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president. After parents rightly recoiled from that recommendation, the DOE tried to throw it down the memory hole, deleting it from their Web site.
Given some of the cultish questions that survived DOE’s hasty revision, however, concerned parents can be pardoned a few overheated references to Kim Il-Sung:
How will [President Obama] inspire us?”
What is President Obama inspiring you to do?
Why is it important that we listen to the president and other elected officials?
These are question-begging questions, especially if you’re one of those sensible Americans of all ages who aren’t particularly inspired by President Obama, and who aren’t convinced that listening raptly to elected officials is the best possible use of your time.
…here are the rest:
5. “The Right Can Do Better than Romney”: arguing that the current front-runner for the GOP nomination, the horrible and boring former Massachusetts governor, shouldn’t be the conservative standard-bearer:
With his square jaw and flawless salt-and-pepper hair, Romney certainly looks presidential: Like a character actor playing the president in a superhero movie — or, less charitably, like a creature genetically engineered and grown in a vat for the sole purpose of securing the nation’s highest office.
There’s more to the presidency than looking the part, however. Conservatives ought to take a good look at the Romney record and ask themselves whether a man of such flexible convictions is the best they can do.
6. “The Era of Big-Government Initiatives Is Over”: putting Obama’s health-care difficulties in the context of 40 years of declining trust in government–a wonderful thing, despite what responsible opinionmakers tell you–and explaining why I think another New Deal or Great Society is improbable in this day and age:
Who could have predicted that the summer of 2009 would be such a tough time to be a liberal? Seven months ago, President Barack Obama took office with a 79 percent approval rating — the highest in three decades.
The Kennedy-esque cult of personality that surrounded the new president led many conservatives and libertarians to fear he’d be able to work his will in Congress, dramatically increasing the size of government.
Yet, cap and trade has dropped off this year’s legislative agenda and today Obama’s signature initiative — national health care — remains stalled, growing more unpopular by the minute.
[T]he resurgence of public skepticism toward federal power is good news for those of us who support limited, constitutional government….
Obama bears much of the blame for his current political woes, having pushed an overly ambitious agenda that the public seems reluctant to accept. But he’s also the victim of trends that long predated his presidency.
7. “Abolish the DHS!” a case for getting rid of the obnoxious and useless Homeland Security department. Embarassingly, I got the location of DHS’s new HQ wrong. Also, more people than I would have thought were mystified by the reference to “Spinal Tap” and the phrase “dog’s breakfast”:
The Homeland Security Advisory System is a case in point. Even before Ridge’s revelation, two separate studies showed that Bush received a boost to his approval ratings with each escalation of the terror threat level. The warning has been raised above yellow (“elevated”) 16 times, but it’s never been lowered to blue or green, the bottom rungs on DHS’s Ladder of Fear. Yet, with Spinal Tap logic (“this goes to 11!”) the department insists on keeping all five levels.
[T]he department has done little to provide genuine security and much to encourage a pernicious politics of fear.
The department itself is a dog’s breakfast of 22 federal agencies brought together in the hope of providing better coordination on a common mission. But turf battles left key antiterror agencies like the FBI out of the reorganization, and DHS finished last or next to last on every measure of employee morale in a 2006 Office of Personnel Management study.
The truth, as analyst Jeffrey Rosen points out, is that DHS is ‘an institutional money pit that has more to do with symbols than substance.”
there’s another aspect of the LBJ parallel that deserves more attention. That’s liberals’ temperamental affinity for nation-building, which may help explain why Obama is doubling down on a bad bet.
Historian and Vietnam veteran Walter McDougall calls Vietnam the “Great Society War,” one shaped by liberals’ conviction that no social problem is too difficult for a determined and well-meaning government to fix.
As McDougall tells it, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara “put more than a hundred sociologists, ethnologists, and psychologists to work ‘modeling’ South Vietnamese society and seeking data sufficient ‘to describe it quantitatively and simulate its behavior on a computer.” “Dammit,” LBJ exclaimed to an aide in 1966, “We’ve got to see that the South Vietnamese government wins the battle… of crops and hearts and caring.”
True, Obama admits that we can’t “rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy.” But the administration’s vision for Afghanistan is quixotic enough nonetheless…
And since I last updated the blog, I’ve written eight columns for the DC Examiner. Here are the first four; I’ll put the others up tomorrow:
1. “Sarah’s Swan Song”: prompted by Palin’s resignation, it argued that “Conservatives undermine their movement when they fetishize inarticulateness as ‘plain speaking'” and take disinterest in national affairs or foreign policy–the stuff of the presidency–to be qualifications for the office:
William F. Buckley had a point when he said he’d “rather be ruled by the first 500 people in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard.” But you can take that point too far–and conservatives have.
Their logic seems to go something like this: Jimmy Carter was smart, and a bad president; Reagan went to Eureka College and the intelligentsia sneered at him, yet he was a good president. Liberal elitists sneer at Bush and Palin, too, therefore they’d make marvelous presidents.
But unlike either Bush or Palin, Reagan was fiercely interested in ideas. Anyone who’s looked at “Reagan in His Own Hand,” the volume that reproduces his handwritten 1970s radio speeches, knows how sharp and skilled our 40th president was as a writer and thinker. And it must be said that none of Reagan’s speeches featured as many screaming ALLCAPS and exclamation marks as Palin’s Friday speech, which included lines like, “LIFE is about choices!”
2. “The Statist Generation”: reading about the “Millenials” made me oddly proud to be a cynical Gen X’er. Musically, we have very little to apologize for (Grunge was pretty awesome), and politically, what’s coming is far worse:
Kids today are a credulous bunch. The 2007 Pew Political Values survey revealed “a generation gap in cynicism.” Where 62 percent of Americans overall view the federal government as wasteful and inefficient, just 42 percent of young people agree.
No wonder, then, that GenNext responds to President Obama’s call for “public service,” roughly translated as “a federal paycheck.”
Here, they differ dramatically from their skeptical “Generation X” predecessors. A 1999 survey asked Gen X college seniors to name their ideal employers; they “filled the entire list with for-profit businesses like Microsoft and Cisco.” What a difference a generation makes. In the same poll today, Gen Y prefers the State Department, Teach for America, and the Peace Corps. That’s a problem for a country built on the entrepreneurial spirit.
Get off my goddamn lawn.
3. “Staying Sane as President”: at least, I think that’s what I called it originally.
Silent Cal couldn’t have imagined the atmosphere of celebrity adoration that envelops today’s chief: “OMG! Obama swatted a fly! So cool! He went to Ray’s Hell Burger! Just like any normal person with a massive Secret Service detail!” How long could any of us remain “grounded” in an environment where we’re constantly treated like a god?
Cornell University psychologist Robert Millman argues that many celebrities suffer from “acquired situational narcissism.” As Millman explains, otherwise emotionally healthy people often develop delusions of grandeur after they strike it big in Hollywood. When “a celebrity walks into a room,” Millman writes, “everyone looks at him: he’s a prince.” After a while, what happens is our star “gets so used to everyone looking at him, that he stops looking back at them.”
Celebrity pathology is harmless fun when we scan Us Weekly in the checkout line. But if the president loses his grip, there’s rather more at stake.
Past presidents, drunk on adulation and tormented by responsibilities no movie star faces, have indeed lost their grip. In an Oval Office meeting in 1967, asked by a reporter why America was in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson unzipped his fly, wagged the presidential member at his questioner and exclaimed, “This is why!”
4. “If Troops Are Deployed at Home, We Need to Have Solid Oversight.” Actually, I don’t think troops should be deployed at home for domestic security purposes even if there is solid oversight:
if you’re inclined to thank God for small favors, there’s this at least: Obama has yet to propose turning the U.S. military against American citizens. Last week, The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration seriously considered doing just that.
According to former administration officials, at a top-level meeting in 2002, then-vice president Dick Cheney and his allies lobbied hard for sending U.S. troops onto the streets of a Buffalo, N.Y., suburb to kick down doors and kill or capture a group of terrorist suspects, the so-called Lackawanna Six.
I haven’t updated this blog in almost two months, so I guess it’s time. Here are some Cult-related items since last I blogged:
In the July 23 issue of the Economist, “Lexington” devoted his column to Cult of the Presidency. Here’s the first paragraph:
IN JANUARY 2007 Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, said he was running for president to revive “our national soul”. He was not alone in taking an expansive view of presidential responsibilities. With the exception of Ron Paul, all the serious candidates waxed grandiloquent about their aims. John McCain said he modelled himself on Teddy Roosevelt, a man who “nourished the soul of a great nation”. Hillary Clinton lamented that America had no goals, and offered to supply some. And let us not forget the man they all sought to replace, George Bush, who promised, among other things, to “rid the world of evil”. Appalled by such hubris, a libertarian scholar called Gene Healy wrote “The Cult of the Presidency”, a book decrying the unrealistic expectations Americans have of their presidents. The book was written while Barack Obama’s career was still on the launch pad, yet it describes with uncanny prescience the atmosphere that allowed him to soar.
That was neat. That it happened when I was on vacation half a world away in Bali made it all the sweeter. For a while, I thought about getting a T-shirt made with “Ask Me About My Uncanny Prescience” across the chest, but I decided that would be pompous.
Also, my ability to predict how things would go politically has always been pathetic. Back in 1995, I told anyone who would listen that Phil Gramm would be our next president. Oddly, it turned out that America really didn’t want to elect a surly bald guy who once tried to finance soft-core porn movies.
But maybe I’m getting better at this prediction thing. Back in the early days of the Obama administration, when most limited-government types were doing an imitation of Bill Paxton’s character from Aliens, I argued that Obama’s then-stratospheric popularity was ephemeral, and that he was likely to end up as unpopular as Jimmy Carter. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but, uh, beep beep.
I was on TV again.
..in which the Motorhome Diaries crew visits a weird, Easter-Island looking roadside Rushmore, and with Megadeth blaring, express their disapproval.
I’ve written before than Jimmy Carter’s pious, sanctimonious, and off-putting public persona may have caused conservatives to miss the fact that he wasn’t that godawful a president. Holman Jenkins has a column in today’s WSJ, “If Obama Had Carter’s Courage,” that provides a point of evidence in Carter’s favor.
In Mr. Carter’s day, bankruptcies were scything through the railroad sector, hurtling toward a rendezvous with nationalization. Conrail, an amalgam of failed Northeastern lines, had already been taken over and analysts foresaw a $300 billion bill (in today’s dollars) in the likely prospect that Washington would soon have to operate the rest of the nation’s freight railroads….
comprehensive federal regulation had only distorted the industry’s pricing, driven away investment, and made competitive adaptation impossible. But the argument had a new ring now that Washington would have to bear the political risk of operating and subsidizing the nation’s rail services.
It still took some doing on Mr. Carter’s part. When the bill stalled, a hundred phone calls went from the White House to congressmen, including 10 by Mr. Carter in a single evening. The bill essentially no longer required railroads to provide services at a loss to please certain constituencies. It meant going up against farmers, labor, utilities, mining interests, and even some railroads — whereas Mr. Obama’s auto bailout tries to appease key lobbies like labor and greens, which is why it can’t work.
I should note also, that in his updated, libertarian ranking of the presidents, Ivan Eland ranks Jimmy as one of the least bad modern presidents.
I recently noticed this anecdote from NRO’s Jay Nordlinger:
A reader pointed me to a treasurable fact. It can be found in an obituary of Ralph J. Perk, the mayor of Cleveland from 1972 to 1977. “President Richard M. Nixon invited Mr. Perk and his wife, the former Lucille Gagliardi, to a dinner at the White House. But Mrs. Perk sent word that she could not attend because it was her night to go bowling.”
The spirit of Lucille Perk lives on in the Steelers’ James Harrison:
Linebacker James Harrison told reporters earlier this week he’d be a no-show at the White House. He denied any political motivation for his decision. “This is how I feel — if you want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers, invite us when we don’t win the Super Bowl. As far as I’m concerned, he would’ve invited Arizona if they had won,” said Harrison, who later joked that he was staying away because the White House was located in a “bad neighborhood.”
This isn’t the first time Harrison has declined an invitation to visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — he turned down an invite from former President Bush after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. “Let me ask you a question,” he said Wednesday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Why is it a big issue now that I’m not going if it wasn’t a big issue the last time?
“…Hey, James ain’t changed. I guess my profile did, but I didn’t change. I’m not going because I don’t want to go,” he said. “They’re making a big deal out of this: ‘Oh, my, James Harrison is not going to the White House; he must be a devil worshipper!'”
H/T Chuck Katz
So we just got dueling Obama/Cheney speeches on the War on Terror, each consistent with each man’s respective style. Obama’s cool, professorial, methodical–and crediting the American people with a longer attention span than we’ve got. Cheney’s gruff, clipped, and forceful. He mentioned 9/11 25 times and even got a shot in at the New York Times. As I argue here, Cheney and Obama have developed a weird, codependent relationship:
the claim that Obama has abandoned “essential tools” in the fight against terror is wearing pretty thin. Real civil libertarians aren’t fooled by Obama’s “kinder, gentler” rhetoric, but Obama knows that civil libertarians are a miniscule voting block. His aim is to convince Democratic voters that he’s kept his promises to change Bush’s draconian approach to the war on terror.
In this, Dick Cheney is an enormous asset to the president. As Obama quietly adopts the Bush policies, Cheney gives him cover by loudly insisting that there’s a meaningful difference here.
It’s a very Washington sort of partnership: an argument so grating that you could be fooled into thinking there’s some great difference of principle here. Sort of like the Carville-Matalin marriage.
Sorry to shock you if I’m still in your news aggregator, but since we have a new president, I guess I should start blogging again. It’s only been six months. In the interim I’ve been reasonably busy, blogging (occasionally) at Cato@Liberty, doing a good bit of speaking, and writing a weekly column for the Washington Examiner. Oh yeah, and the paperback edition of Cult of the Presidency just came out, featuring a new “Afterword on the Obama Presidency.”
My greatest regret is that I had to write the Afterword in the first few weeks after Inauguration, before it had become clear how massively BHO would cave on civil liberties, and so the Afterword doesn’t do enough to squelch any lingering sense of Hope. Oh well, I did predict the sellout in the post below and elsewhere.
My next prediction, for reasons explained here and in the Afterword, is that Barack Obama, despite current appearances, will end up being one of the least popular presidents of the modern era. But what do I know? As a larval pundit in 1996, I told anyone who’d listen that Phil Gramm would be our next president, and it turned out that America didn’t want a surly bald guy who’d dabbled in financing soft-core porn. So take my political prognostications with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, I think I’m right about this one.
…which is better than the alternative, at least from my perspective. I’ll be doing one starting 8 PM ET over at Radley Balko’s site. Stop by.
I’m in the Orange County Register today with a piece on why Obama won’t end the Imperial Presidency:
There was always something difficult to swallow in the notion that a man running as the reincarnation of JFK could be relied upon to end the Imperial Presidency. Barack Obama has done more than any candidate in recent memory to raise expectations for the office, expectations that were extraordinarily high to begin with. Over the course of the 20th century, more and more Americans looked to the president to perform miracles, from “managing the economy,” to warding off hurricanes and providing seamless protection from foreign threats. As responsibility flowed to the center, the presidency grew far more powerful than the framers of our Constitution had ever intended it to be. We shouldn’t be surprised then, if, during an Obama administration the Audacity of Hope gives rise to the Arrogance of Power.
Also, I really liked J.D. Tucille’s review of Cult and Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People by Dana D. Nelson. Tucille writes:
What kind of president will the winner of November’s national popularity contest be? If history is any judge, the nation’s next chief executive, whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, will be something of a monster.