There are many in Washington D.C. invested in the Cult of the Presidency. Many of them are pundits, reporters and news organizations whose own importance would diminish if the institution of the Presidency was knocked down a few pegs. That’s why these groups tend to be hard on President when they believe he’s not rising to occasion as leadership demands or fulfilling their own expectations (Peggy Noonan’s latest column is a good example of the kind of pack-think about the Presidency.) Even President Obama himself has bought into this:
“”I want to be absolutely clear that part of leadership always involves being able to capture people’s imaginations, their sense of hope, their sense of possibility, being able to move people to do things they didn’t think they could do.”
Alas, by setting this standard for himself Obama may very well fail in office (even if he wins a second term) simply because his own style of leadership doesn’t lend itself to the heroic, or at least it is the perception of him amongst the Greek chorus that judges the modern presidency. It also sets up a strange cognitive dissonance where big government is supposedly hated by the populace, except for the Dear Leader who is supposed to, like Superman, reverse the rotation of the Earth in order to prevent the oil spill from ever happening. Thus - even though experts agree there isn’t much the federal government can do to cap the well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and efforts from BP, from governors of Gulf states and from local citizens to protect and clean up beaches, marshes and wildlife are taking place without orders from on high - Obama gets blamed for appearing not to be in “command” of the situation because the reality is, the Federal Government which Obama leads is not in command and doesn’t need to be.
Nobody wants to believe this of course, certainly not those who believe in the Cult. The idea that any branch of the government cannot do something is unfathomable and President gets the blame for it. This is what happened to President Bush II during the course of his second term. In his first term, immediately after 9-11, Bush II may not have done anything more meaningful than give a speech at Ground Zero but the speech gave the impression he was charge, he was leading. That perception helped him enormously in his first term. By contrast, even though Federal relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina were often hampered by the incompetence of local officials like former New Orleans’ Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, the inability of Bush II to similarly seem to be in “command” of the situation after the storm began the downfall of his Presidency.
Perhaps it’s best to ask in this situation WWCD, What Would Coolidge Do? For President Calvin Coolidge faced a similar natural disaster during his term in office, the 1927 Mississippi Valley Flood, which washed over 27,000 square miles of land in seven states and affected nearly a million people. Instead of touring the area many times for photo ops or making grand pronouncements, he simply sent his able Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover to the scene to organize relief efforts. And how Hoover did so was really quite ingenious:
“I suppose I could have called in the Army to help,” he said, “but why should I, when I only had to call upon Main Street.”
Indeed, all Hoover had to do was make sure the aid and charity from private citizens and organizations got to the people who needed it. And President Coolidge, not really keen on capturing people’s hopes, possibilities and imaginations, did his job by sending his best man to help run the relief efforts. Maybe it is not in same vein as promising to put a man on the moon or as stirring as a speech after some national calamity from the Oval Office, but is it not effective leadership all the same? Or has the Cult of the Presidency has made the job more than just leadership of government? Has it also made the person who holds the Oval Office a secular deity as well? If so, what happens then when the gods fail?