02/22/2012 05:26 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2012

Expecting Presidents

Instead of malingering in the mall, I decided to spend President's Day actually thinking about this holiday, especially this election year. In particular, I thought about what the relationship between citizen and chief executive should be this day and age.

As I did when visiting some of the presidential libraries when motorcycling around America nearly two years ago, I found food for thought in John Steinbeck's America and the Americans, in which my second favorite American fictional writer (after Samuel Langhorne Clemens) had much to say about American presidents and what we expect of them.

What I found striking was how true his observations remain, although he wrote America and the Americans in 1966, just after the Kennedy assassination and the Civil Rights Act, but before Vietnam and Watergate began to excoriate our fragile trust in government.

"The relationship of Americans to their president is a matter of amazement to foreigners. Of course, we respect the office and admire the man who can fill it, but at the same time we inherently fear and suspect power. We are proud of the president, and we blame him for things he did not do... We have made a tough but unwritten code of conduct for him, and the slightest deviation brings forth a torrent of accusation and abuse. The president must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce him for things we ourselves do every day... We give the president more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, and more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him... he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him. To all the other rewards of this greatest office in the gift of the people, we add that of assassination... It would be comparatively easy to protect the lives of our presidents against attacks by foreigners; it is next to impossible to shield him from Americans..."

He's right there. Americans are notorious (I would say), for example, for voting with their pocketbooks. So we tend to personify our prosperity in the president as a sort of national mutual fund manager. We think the president has more to do with the economy than anyone or anything else, especially when things are not going well. Look at the whole gas-price brouhaha that's broke out. Indeed, the current president's opponents are looking to blame him as much as possible for the country's current economic woes, forgetting that economics are very complex and there are many other factors beyond presidential or government span of control that weigh in -- and many of those now are from well beyond our shores.

Besides, the last time I checked, 70% of our economy was still in the hands of the private sector. So, wouldn't those who ascribe so much blame (or credit) to the highest of government officials for jobs and the economy be some kind of socialists? Since when is it the president's responsibly to help me find a job, set the price of petrol?

OK, it's an oversimplification, I know. But that's the point. Whether Barack Obama is re-elected or replaced is overwhelmingly hinged on jobs and the economy. There's more than this to being president.

Continuing with Steinbeck:

"It is said that the presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world. What is not said or even generally understood is that the power of the chief executive is hard to achieve, balky to manage, and incredibly difficult to exercise. It is not raw, corrosive power, nor can it be used willfully... The power of the president is great if he can use it; but it is a moral power, a power activated by persuasion and discussion..."

This idea of presidential power as essentially and primarily moral has even greater relevance when it's becoming clear that American power is essentially and primarily moral in the 21st century. At home and abroad, it's more about the power of ideas and how they can be made to work in people's lives than anything else. In a word: values. We choose our mates and friends mainly because their values are more closely our own. Why shouldn't we do that with someone we think has so much effect on our lives?

We shouldn't choose a president because of party or personality, or because we think he or she can make our wallets feel fatter -- or serve some other self-interest. We should choose that person because their communicated values and vision make the most sense for our future community lives. That, of course, means we have to do some thinking of our own, on what we think America is about and what that means to us, everyday.

Our government in general and our presidents in particular are a reflection of what we, the citizens, think these people ought to be. If we want responsible governance, we need to provide responsible citizenship.