The presidency: A job shapes a jobholder

In the sixth year of his presidency, Barack Obama's 'hope and change' slogan is a fading memory. His best option now may be to keep calm and carry on.

By , Editor

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    President Obama entered the stadium before speaking at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa last month.
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Eight years is a long time to be the “first citizen” of a supercomplex, supercontentious superpower.  Eight years inevitably brings both anni horribiles and mirabiles. There are inaugural balls, glittering state dinners, white-gloved ovations. As time passes, policies are botched, scandals stir, and the political chessboard becomes more difficult.

An American president is not a superhero but is expected to act like one. Criticism? Nothing is over the line – comedy, parody, insult, threat. This was true of George W. Bush and William J. Clinton and is also true of Barack H. Obama. Thomas Jefferson was only the third president but his trenchant observation still holds: “No man will ever carry out of that office the reputation which carried him into it.”

You can see that in Mr. Obama. His 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” was introspective and candid, the personal journey of a young man whose way in life was still an open book. He was about to put his foot in political waters, but the future was uncertain. He could have washed out, landed a teaching job, gone into business. Almost 20 years later, he is in the sixth year of the presidency. Like those Shepard Fairey “Hope” posters, his “hope and change” campaign and early presidency have faded with time. Successors are already jockeying for position. A year from now, presidential hopefuls will be eyeing the Iowa caucuses.

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None of which means Obama is a lame duck. As Linda Feldmann shows in a Monitor cover story, this president, like others before him, wields the enormous power of the executive branch and can use proven, if controversial, tools to push policies that he can’t get through a gridlocked Congress.

Doing so, however, comes at a cost. This is a president who campaigned on the need for change, who was deeply skeptical of the national security state, who vowed to close the Guantánamo detention center, and who criticized his predecessor for circumventing Congress. He has changed his mind on all those issues. He is on a track that will at least match George W. Bush’s use of executive action. 

But then, the presidency isn’t a job that can be made into what the jobholder wants it to be. Maneuvering room is limited. Domestic and international conditions can’t be ignored. The job shapes the jobholder.

Perhaps that is why statesmen like Lucius Cincinnatus of ancient Rome and George Washington of early America are revered. To join a cause or fight a fight and then lay down your authority gracefully seems profoundly democratic. At one time or another, most presidents have undoubtedly thought “I don’t need this.” But there are few circumstances that allow a responsible person to leave the party early. Keeping calm and carrying on is at least as noble and twice as hard.

Whether you favor the current president or not, his has been a unique journey across color lines and time zones, a search for identity and a remarkable road to the White House. A Shepard Fairey tale would have ended there, amid cheers and declarations of hope. The continuing story, however, involves tactics and maneuvers and compromise, the down-and-dirty and pragmatic necessity of politics, the job of the presidency more than the ideal of it. That is a change that the young Barack Obama almost certainly never dreamed about. 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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