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David D. Burstein Headshot

The Normalizing of the Presidency

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For years we've searched for a president who is "like us." We've wrestled with whether or not we'd like to have a beer with George W. Bush, we've talked about elitists and regular folks. But all of this has more or less been a façade. As much as we might like to think our president could be "just like us," it's pretty difficult, for one main reason: you've got to be pretty abnormal to run for president. Think about it: running for president means you have to have the psychological capability and ego to tell yourself, your family, and the world that you can legitimately be the leader of the free world. And you have to be willing to put yourself through the grueling schedule and constants frustrations of a political campaign. That takes a huge ego and certain distance from being a "normal person."

However, Barack Obama might be one of the most normal presidents we have had in years. To find a president who lived in their own house before becoming president, you have to go back to Richard Nixon who lived in a New York City Apartment when he was elected in 1968. Even Nixon at that point was a former Vice President. To find a president who didn't come from the Vice Presidency or an incredibly privileged background or high stature (i.e. Kennedy or Eisenhower), or from a Governor's mansion with a full staff and round-the-clock service, you would have to go back to Warren Harding. (Herbert Hoover had a jet-setting lifestyle before becoming Commerce Secretary and then President). Personally owning and maintaining a house and driving your own car alone are experiences that were fresher in Barack Obama's experience when he was elected than perhaps any other president in recent history.

George H.W. Bush famously didn't know the price of milk when asked and thought supermarket scanners were an amazing invention about two decades after they had become commonplace. John McCain couldn't recall the number of houses he owned during the 2008 campaign. This would not be unexpected of people who have lived in the proverbial "bubble" in the many years preceding these events. It's not so much a knock against them, as an illustration of how far from the "real world" most of our presidents live.

Obama's connectedness to the real world was one of the things that made him appealing as a candidate. One of the reasons so many young people could relate to then-candidate Obama was that he had just recently finished paying off his student debts, something that wouldn't have been possible without his wildly successful books. When he talks to people about real issues on health care or military service, you get a sense that he is closer to understanding those issues than many other presidents have been.

Michelle Obama was famously attacked by Maureen Dowd for talking about how she asks Barack to bring home mousetraps. But guess what? He was bringing home mousetraps as recently as two and a half years ago. I don't think any other president could pass the mousetrap "keep it real" test. He attended parent teacher conferences as a regular non-celebrity parent not as a photo opportunity or a chance to discussion national education policy. When going on vacation this summer to Martha's Vineyard he rented his own house, instead of relying on people to offer their homes for free as past presidents have done, because that's what people do when they go on vacation. And of course, he got his daughters a dog. But all kidding aside, there is really something to be gained from this kind of very recent normal life. It brings a certain kind of freshness to the presidency and a way of doing things that's much more centered on pragmatism and practicality than status or historical precedent.

The president's recent media blitz came under attack for not conserving the power of the presidency. The theory is that the president should only do that much media when you have a major announcement to make. To people who have been in Washington for decades this is part of conventional wisdom and Presidency 101. But the reality is that when the president goes on television people tend to watch, and that is exactly what President Obama wanted, in a very practical way. He has taken the approach to his role as president as a man with a job to get done. That's how he has spent his entire life, trying to get things done, regardless of status or position. This has of course invited criticism. Early in the administration, the President came under fire for overturning of the Bush Administration "jackets-must-be-worn-in-the-oval-office" policy. He was accused of disrespecting the office. But it was not disrespectful. To Obama, relaxing the dress code just seemed like something that might help get the job done, and might help real people feel comfortable in a real-life work environment in the White House. This is not a castle; this is the headquarters of the executive branch.

Should we want a president who is "just like us" or "just one of the folks"? I think that would be frightening. I want my president to be far above my abilities. But having a president whose world is grounded in little more reality is a good thing for helping him put his outstanding abilities to use.