A little over 10 years ago, this space featured a column under the title, “The royal presidency.”
The guy who wrote it looked a lot like me, except he was somewhat fatter, could bend his back and possessed a couple more teeth than I do. He was also an active member of the workforce and was rarely seen on the streets without a camera.
The premise of that column was that our perception of the president of the United States was not exactly what those guys we call the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created the position with the Constitution. Instead, we treat him more like a king.
We haven’t done that so much in recent years. In fact, some treated our current president like a tyrant, who had taken the office by force rather than by winning something like 53 percent of the vote, and who was planning to take away all our freedoms. More recently, those same people have been treating him like a bumbling pussycat who isn’t doing enough to save us from the horde of Muslim terrorists they expect to strike sometime next month.
But that isn’t far from the problem I wrote about back when George W. Bush still had two years to go. As I wrote back then, treating the president as a king ruling by divine right — or tyrant ruling by force — leads to perceiving him “… as some sort of superhero or villain. If we like him, we have to hide his faults and trumpet his successes. If we don’t, we have to find ways to ignore his accomplishments and exaggerate his failures.”
That leads to what’s happening in this election. Consider Donald Trump, for whom everything that’s happened since 2008 has been a disaster. He presents himself as a superhero who, as he said in his acceptance speech, is “the only one who can keep us safe.”
Clinton, for her part, points proudly to accomplishments of President Obama (well, most of them, anyway) and promises to improve on them if she is elected. This, of course, assumes that Obama has done good things for the nation that need, at most, a little tweaking to make them even better.
Presidents can’t always do anything they want to do, of course. Congress also has a say in what they do, or at least it would have if congressmen decided to actually do their jobs and govern the country instead of finding ways to avoid working with each other. And then there’s the Supreme Court, which often interrupts the plans of both presidents and congressmen. Those facts alone should dispel any fears about having your guns taken away from you, or that Obama ever could have imposed socialism — real socialism, not the programs Obama actually proposed that people called socialism — on the nation.
In addition, most of what happens in the world is out of the president’s control. It was silly when Obama was being blamed for the high price of gasoline, and it’s just as silly for him to take credit for the current low prices, which he did recently. He isn’t responsible for the recent spate of police shootings involving black citizens. George Bush wasn’t to blame for the Hurricane Katrina disaster, either.
That said, a president does have considerable power that can mitigate a problem like Katrina. Bush’s response to the storm was rather shaky, and that made it worse. Jimmy Carter erred when he publicly allowed the deposed Shah of Iran into the country, with the result that a number of American diplomats and other officials ended up spending 444 days as hostages.
What this all means is that Americans should elect their presidents carefully, especially when it comes to the promises they make. It’s quite easy to promise, as both Clinton and Trump have, to create X number of jobs. They should be pressed to tell us what steps they would take to keep that promise, how much it would cost and where the money would come from to do so. They should also be asked whether keeping a promise is even possible — constitutionally, politically and practically.
What we really need to know, though, is whether they have the knowledge, the insight, the judgment and the temperament to effectively do what we expect from them, as well as the flexibility to adapt when something we don’t expect happens. That’s difficult, maybe even impossible for us as citizens watching an election campaign. But we can listen to what they say and watch how they react when asked a difficult question or when the validity of something they say is challenged.
Then we need to remember something. The job of president of the United States in this century is an incredibly complex and difficult one. No one — not Trump, not Clinton, not even a clone of Ronald Reagan — is fully equipped to do all the things required of the president equally well. They will make mistakes and exercise poor judgment. They will try things that fail. We have to expect that.
Flawed men have been in the White House before, and nearly all of them have made errors and had failures. But our nation is stronger than the one person who occupies the White House, and as a people, we have the power to preserve the nation even if the president fails.
To do it, though, requires us to be united in the effort, regardless of who wins in November.