Thursday, April 26, 2007

If Elected I Will...

During a phone conversation last night with VADissentator, he asked what I really thought Senator Obama (who has my early support for 2008) could do in four years as president. My response I think came off as a bit of a downer when contrasted to the usual campaign rhetoric -- for all the attention surrounding the office of president it is one of limited power (though Bush is certainly grasping for more). The presidential term in office is relatively short, when compared to a career in public service, begging VADissentator's question whether a man like Senator Obama would be able to better serve the public interest in another leadership role (be it in the public or private sector). In this context, VAD had a good point. Would a person of high intelligence, who earns the respect, admiration and loyalty of those around them, be able to carry out their goals with greater facility if they did not seek the office of the president? Certainly, and Al Gore is a good example.

The issue, however, is not whether a president can get more done. As much as President Bush wants to be "the decider", the mechanisms of our government disallow for such unilatteral actions. The president is not a monarch but a steward. To quote Richard Goodwin, "A president does not run America. He leads it, and cannot compel it in directions it is unwilling to take -- not withou forfeiting his ability to lead at all." Presidential duties and legacy cannot be defined solely by legistlation passed or actions taken, but only after a summation of what they offered to the public discourse and national mood.

As an example, let's compare the legacies of President Kennedy and Johnson. As far as legislation was concerned, Johnson would arguably be our greatest president, but his legacy is mired in the Vietnam War, serving in office during an era of vast public unrest and violence. In contrast, President Kennedy couldn't get a damn thing done in his 1000 days in office and yet his legacy remains one of hope, idealism, and energy. The irony of their legacies is only ironic because we naturally believe that our presidents are the ones that get things done, when in reality the are a symbol, a face and voice for the office they hold.

I want to make clear that what I have written above is not borne of cynicism but of a realistic assessment of presidential power. If Senator Obama or whomever is elected, I honestly think that most of their time will be spent repairing the ills of their predecessor's administration rather than moving our country ahead in whatever directoin ahead is. This sentiment may be why most American don't vote at all -- perhaps, they sense a futility in the office which translates into their own apathy for politics and government. Though it may seem like I agree with this widespread sentiment, I do not.
While the president may not be able to pass a slew of legislation on a whim, they are able to dictate the terms of the debate on each issue, and I believe that Senator Obama possesses the qualities that are needed to fill this office and carry out its duties. To paraphrase an email I recently wrote to Rudy Guiliani's campaign, politely requesting that he not resort to bullshit campaign tactics that prey on our fear of terrorism: Our country has had its fill of the pernicious negativism which exists in the political language of divisiveness. We desire our leaders to instill hope and not fear, to create an atmosphere of productivity and not one of paranoia...

So, as I tried in vain to watch the South Carolina Democratic Debate tonight over the live streaming feed, I listened for candidates who evoked such sentiment. While, with the actual election over a year away, I do not want to be rash, but I believe that a few of those on stage tonight would make fine stewards of the office of president. I will allow another dissentator to name names, as I could barely hear anything over the jumping and skipping from my crap South African internet connection. But this is all to say that after the next 18 months of what I imagine will be overwhelming campaign coverage and debate, when we all stand in those booths trying not to wonder whether the voting machine we are using is rigged, that we will understand exactly what we are voting for -- not a folder of legislation, but a symbol of our country and the shaper of our public debate.

1 comment:

BostonDissentator said...

First off, that's awesome that you and "VAD" are talking on the phone. Now I know what you guys do instead of post on a regular basis.

Second, I can just see you guys now being all smug and cynical, especially VA. Come on guys, perk up.

First off, an optimistic note. Where you say "whomever is elected, I honestly think that most of their time will be spent repairing the ills of their predecessor's administration rather than moving our country ahead in whatever direction ahead is," is that even english? Maybe you thought you were a speechwriter for John McCain when you wrote that sentence, but I am pretty sure that repairing the ills of their predecessor's administration IS moving our country ahead. It's not like we're in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and we have to go backwards to go forwards. Fixing what Bush broke (take your pick from the budget to Iraq to civil/human rights to America's international image to Katrina/emergency response to education to hey there are people in this country other than business and religious interests) is the one and only way forward and all 8 of the Democrats I saw tonight seem eager to do that.

So stop being so pessimistic about going forward, I'm pretty sure there's nowhere to go but forward, unless we elect Dick Cheney. I wonder how many votes he would get in the primary if he ran.

Also you talk about all of the ills of the Bush Administration that need to be repaired but then you say the President doesn't have much power to do things. Hmm. Maybe you could get more done in another leadership role in the public or private sector. I don't see how anyone can get more done in the public sector unless you're the President. All the big Congressmen and Governors run for President, so they must thing they can accomplish more there. The judiciary? They are essentailly put there by the President, so again, the Prez seems pretty influential. Private sector? Business leaders and people like Bill Gates are extremely influential, in some aspects moreso than the government and in others not (Bill Gates couldn't have stopped us from going to war with Iraq in 2002 and he couldn't reduce troop levels now). Of course those guys have long careers and it doesn't make sense to compare them to 4 or 8 years in the presidency. Look at all of the influence Clinton is having today, and all he can accomplish now in the name of public servicec because he is a former president (are you saying he's not delicious?)

The President gets to do a lot of big things, like being the Commander in Chief and appointing justices to the supreme court and federal courts, appointing ambassadors, negotiating international treaties. The President also picks who gets to be in control of the Administrative Agencies (Department of Agriculture, Dept of Commerce, Dept of Defense, Dept of Education, Dept of Energy, Dep of Health and Human Services, Dept of Homeland Security, Dept of Housing and Urban Development, Dept of the Interior, Dept of Justice, Dept of Labor, Dept of State, Dept of Transportation, the EPA, the CIA, the SEC, the Federal Reserve, the FTC, and the FDIC (I understand you are a card carrying member) to name a few. These agencies actually get to make and enforce law for their areas of expertise.

I do agree with you that one of the President's most important duties is as a symbol of our counry and the shaper of our public debate. It is through the President through which the nation speaks its voice, and it will be the President that shapes -- both through their influence and power within the Federal Government, and through their ability to inspire individual actors and companies and organizations in the US -- what this country is and the vision of what we want with this country and what kind of place we want it to be in the future.

So yes I think Obama or someone similar can accomplish a lot. Everything is relative, and there are time constraints and perhaps even more political and economic constraints, but as long as we are moving in the right direction that is reason to be optimistic.