When I attended college, a long time ago, I studied the American Presidency. At George Washington University in 1976, the student government, the GWU Student Association, had reconvened after being disbanded by the school at the request of the CIA during the height of anti-Vietnam protests on campuses across the country. Or some such folklore. Everyone was politicized. Volunteering for Carter. Bussing out to D.C. suburbs to canvass for votes. We all wanted internships at law firms, government agencies, or on The Hill. (Why not all three?)
The most popular course in the poli-sci department was Stephen J .Wayne's "The American Presidency." Dr. Wayne, now of Georgetown University, lectured on James David Barber's The Presidential Character, Charles Beard's The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution and George Reedy's The Twilight of the Presidency. Wayne's classes were packed to the rafters and Wayne was a gifted speaker and educator who held his students spellbound, knowing that some percentage of them were dreaming of living a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, to begin with.
George Reedy's book reportedly shook up his old boss, LBJ, with its assessments of the Presidency. One essayist I found explains why:
Reedy's general concern is quite simple. He believed darkness was falling on the office of the president because the modern presidency had become an institution that, by its nature, kept a president out of touch with the country he must lead and the real problems he must solve. The modern president, Reedy explained, is cut off from those who will tell him the truth, and surrounded instead by "yes men" who tell him only what he wants to hear.
As a one-time insider, Reedy found that the presidency had become a uniquely American monarchy, an institution never contemplated by our founders. There are few checks on the man (or perhaps in the future, woman) elected to this office, other than his (or her) own character. The office is, in effect, a stage -- a focal place that magnifies a president's strengths, and often ignores his weaknesses.
With good reason, Reedy is not at all certain that the checks and balances of the Constitution, along with the powers of the media, are sufficient to assure that the executive branch is really properly serving the American people. To a remarkable extent, he explains, the president can do what he wishes, independent of what the people want, and what is in their interest.
The writer is John Dean, former counsel to President Nixon.
Learning the cynical realities of America's evolving monarchical chief executives, their active-positive passions and passive-negative ennui made us all begin to wonder if we were plotting careers in politics at the wrong time. Carter won, but seemed incapable of throwing the necessary levers and switches of political power to advance his agenda. After Johnson, then Nixon, the American press was accustomed to a president with every golf club in his bag and the skill to use them. Carter, rightly or wrongly, was portrayed as a president with only a sand wedge and little passion for the game overall.
Reagan came along and told everyone to forget about Vietnam and Watergate. Shake off all of the horrific results of having gone halfway around the world, ignoring the advice of our colonialist uncles (who were the French to give us military advice, anyway?), and watch 55,000 Americans die, along with a good-sized chunk of our soul, for nothing. For absolutely nothing.
Reagan told us to let that go. America is great whether we do great things or not. And when we do terrible things, it's... well... different. We're different. So let's move on. And we did. We forgot about Vietnam. Bungled and lied our way through Iran-Contra. We made plans to undo the Russians in Afghanistan, to fight the Iraqis in Kuwait, to use the hunt for Saddam as a means to get the oil we needed. We found Saddam in a hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere. But we couldn't keep a cadre of known extremists with a bunch of box cutters from ruining the world as we know it.
Not even Ronald Reagan and all of his magical blarney could have erased the memory of 9/11 and how it has changed the United States and the perception of us around the world. And I hope that memory is never erased. Ever.
As the election approaches, many Americans, I am certain, are still struggling with the question of who they will vote for. Is Obama like Carter, a micro-managing school teacher who doesn't even carry a one wood, let alone hit the long drive? Is Romney like George Bush Sr., a white-glove, Wall Street handmaiden who wouldn't know a subway token from the buttons on a doorman's uniform?
What do we need? What do we need now? Do we need more of a political philosophy that goes into a place like Iraq and incinerates U.S. military karma, again, but leaves wounded soldiers to come home and struggle within the underfunded VA system? Do we spend trillions to kill and loot for oil, sending brave men and women to die, but put forth no energy policy that will free us from that hell, or at least the one we create for others? Do we look at education in this country and just shrug and say, "Well, that's it. Another thing that's for the rich. Like a house. Or a real retirement account."
Can America be great again? Can it make the sacrifices necessary to right the ship after the Kafka-esque nightmare of Bush-Cheney? Four years isn't long enough to undo that amount of damage. I don't know if Obama can do it in eight. But I will tell you one thing: America will never be great again under a Romney administration. It will be great for rich people, while everyone else will be asked to dial down their expectations of what it means to be an American, again. Most will just shrug and comply.
I think Obama's aloofness or insouciance or whatever you want to call it is a man trying to stay cool in the pocket during a game when your offensive line isn't always giving it their all. I do not think that Obama is any more of a socialist than his predecessors. He used government to clean up a bigger mess, one made by government; a mess that was made by allowing rich people to use tax dollars to enrich themselves by bringing their "products" to market at a subsidized price. Subsidized by you and me.
In 2003, Robert Kennedy Jr. wrote this:
Corporate capitalists do not want free markets, they want dependable profits, and their surest route is to crush competition by controlling government. The rise of fascism across Europe in the 1930s offers many informative lessons on how corporate power can undermine a democracy. In Spain, Germany and Italy, industrialists allied themselves with right-wing leaders who used the provocation of terrorist attacks, continual wars, and invocations of patriotism and homeland security to tame the press, muzzle criticism by opponents and turn government over to corporate control. Those governments tapped industrial executives to run ministries and poured government money into corporate coffers with lucrative contracts to prosecute wars and build infrastructure. They encouraged friendly corporations to swallow media outlets, and they enriched the wealthiest classes, privatized the commons and pared down constitutional rights, creating short-term prosperity through pollution-based profits and constant wars.
Re-elect Barack Obama.