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.