In every year divisible by four, the dominant superstition of American politics — faith in the magic of presidential words and deeds — reaches an apogee that feeds national narcissism: Everything that happens anywhere is about us, is a response to something America did or did not do, and can be controlled by a president doing — even just saying — something.
This self-absorption was evident as Mitt Romney and the Obama administration sparred about violence directed at U.S. facilities in the Middle East and elsewhere. Romney called this the fruit of administration weakness; the administration blamed it on a video. It would require precise intellectual calipers to gauge which idea is silliest.
In Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, the crumbling of old regimes and hierarchies has ignited complex sectarian and tribal power struggles in which some participants find anti-Americanism useful. None of the people involved — some cunning, some deranged — take their cues from utterances by America’s president. So it was passing strange for Rich Williamson, former assistant secretary of state and current Romney adviser, to say, regarding the Egypt and Libya attacks, “There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation.”
Childlike credulity about presidents’ abilities to subdue turbulent portions of the world by projecting “strength,” or to “manage” the domestic economy, encourages political infantilism. This manifests itself in people seeking in public figures attributes pertinent only to private life.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll asked respondents to say which presidential candidate “would you prefer to have take care of you if you were sick” and which “would you rather invite to dinner at your home.” What is depressing about these questions is not that they miss the point of presidential elections nowadays but that they seem to touch the electorate’s erogenous zones.
“Tell me your troubles,” urged President Franklin Roosevelt in a broadcast fireside chat. But the idea of the president as consoler in chief and master of the bedside manner was unique to FDR until the 1990s. Then a nation with few pains had a president who promised to feel them.
Imagine, if you can, wanting Dwight Eisenhower at your bedside. Or imagine him, who had seen serious pain, pretending to feel others’. Did anyone in 1952 ask voters whether they would prefer to have Eisenhower or Adlai Stevenson come to dinner? The nation liked Ike but hired him not for the pleasure of his company but to have him see that the laws were faithfully executed and to preserve the peace, which he did.
An attractive aspect of Romney as a candidate is how endearingly unsuited he is to politics in an era when “friend” has become a verb. Would that he could just say this:
“I am not running to be your friend, because I hope you pick your friends from among people you actually know and for reasons unrelated to politics. And I will not insult your intelligence by claiming to feel your pain, which really is yours. Neither will I tell you that as president I would pacify distant mobs. I am running just to make government somewhat less destructive, to partially ameliorate the country’s largest afflictions and to make the world a bit less dangerous.
“My candidacy comes down to an eight-word question, and it is not ‘Will you call me about your tummy ache?’ Rather, it is: ‘Is this really the best we can do?’ It is difficult to prevent Americans from briskly creating wealth, but bad choices by both parties have done so. My opponent is making many promises, although a simple apology would suffice. My promise is that although I will not really create millions of jobs, I will, if Congress cooperates, remove some of the obstacles to your doing so.
“If you want a president who is the center of a government-centered society, pick the other fellow. If you endorse a dependency agenda — more and more people dependent in more and more ways on a government fewer and fewer are paying for — vote for the other party. If you do not share my opponent’s horror about being mostly on your own in the pursuit of happiness that you define on your own, give me a try. If it doesn’t work out, you can fire me in four years.”
Someday, someone is going to seek the presidency by demystifying it. Many voters will be astonished by, and even be grateful for, the novelty of being addressed as adults.