Our Lame Cult of the Presidency

James Poulos
Our Lame Cult of the Presidency

President Obama’s approval ratings are so bad he’s all but banned from the 2014 campaign trail. In a cutting-edge effort to mobilize young voters with faded HOPE stickers, Rolling Stone fought back with “In Defense of Obama,” a bold missive authored by noted countercultural idol Paul Krugman.

Rather than a damning barometer of another failed presidency, Krugman explains, America’s current disgust and disappointment is actually a red herring. Obama isn’t just a decent chief executive; he’s “a historic success.” According to Krugman, “polls—or even elections—are not the measure of a president. High office shouldn't be about putting points on the electoral scoreboard, it should be about changing the country for the better.”

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No matter what your partisan preference, that’s a load of garbage. Krugman’s twisted logic is hardly exclusive to liberals—or inclusive of all liberals—and it has plagued our country for long enough. Forget history. The present needs to vindicate the president, whoever he or she may be.

Before Barack Obama’s allegedly “transformational” presidency, George W. Bush also labored to make history fodder of us all. Surveying the wreckage of his foreign policy, Bush told Jay Leno he was “very comfortable with the fact that it’s going take a while for history to judge whether the decisions I made are consequential or not. And therefore, I’m not too worried about it.”

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"History will ultimately judge the decisions that were made for Iraq,” Bush informed CNN, “and I'm just not going to be around to see the final verdict.” A generous soul might detect in W.’s words more than a hint of modesty, a recognition of the human stakes that ought to humble our sense that the politics of progress is the last bastion of human greatness. 

Then again, this is the same president who used his second inaugural to deny that “history runs on the wheels of inevitability,” only to assert, on our behalf, a “complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom,” charted by history’s literally “visible direction.”

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These were not the isolated jabberings of a dry drunk high on Jesus, as Bush’s merciless detractors maintained. They were, and are, the credo of our age. You can revisit on your own time Barack Obama’s ludicrous paean to his own presidential nomination as the beginning of a Golden Age visible only from the pinnacle of the future.

In that speech, which he delivered in St. Paul the night he finally secured the nomination in June 2008, he of course took pains to lavish the garland of History on Hillary Clinton’s brow—as so many are once again prepared to do today, no matter how old hat she has become thanks to Obama’s own revolutionary gifts.

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But President Obama, of course, hasn’t really transformed anything, except millions of Americans’ opinion of him. He simply rode out the same blandly pernicious progressivism that elites in both parties embrace.

As Krugman all but admits, the Bush administration sought to change the game with Total Information Awareness, and White House Democrats fondly embraced the approach, keeping it secret as long as possible.

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Despite a customary frenzy of rhetoric and lobbying, Republicans and Democrats banded together under Obama’s watch to concentrate the power of our biggest banks even more than it had been before the financial crisis. “When the going got tough,” as Elizabeth Warren put it, “his economic team picked Wall Street.”

And as Obama himself never tired of saying, it was a Republican idea, too, to enforce nationwide health reform with an individual mandate.

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For a master of the universe like Krugman, these two feats of statecraft are epochal sensations no matter how many former Occupy activists sob into their pillows at night about the lack of single payer.

Yet Krugman, like all our champions of the historic presidency, fall into a self-serving confusion about what is and isn’t “progress.” The ethos of governing by “big fucking deal,” to Bidenize things, conveniently lets historic presidents off the hook when it comes to results. No matter how constitutionally suspect, how costly, how slapdash, or how disappointing a grand policy might be, well, they tried.

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It’s the system that failed us, not the President, and certainly not History itself. In fact, let’s be honest: it’s the American people who failed, those godawful punks (for Republicans) or rubes (for Democrats). If only they had been able to live up to the glory of presidential progress!

No matter how badly a president’s popularity rating scrapes bottom, the historic presidency soars among the clouds. The Republican taste for national greatness and the Democrat taste for perpetual progress both favor the use of government to drag majorities where they don't want to go.

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And all too often—one might even say routinely—the two blur together, into a single blob of “economic patriotism” or “winning the future” or whatever reality-proof catchphrase can power the cult of presidential significance.

In a poignant sign of just how far we’ve regressed, Congress habitually enables our executive overreach into the realm of fantasy and self-delusion. The Founders, of course, crafted Congress to slow down the speed of popular opinion, to curb the excess passion of democracy through the discipline of deliberation.

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How quaint! Today, it's our governing elites, regardless of party, who are most apt rush us into the future. Today, only personal power exercised from the top down, on a massive scale, seems to grant access to the experience of political greatness. 

Meanwhile, here comes another presidential election, and we know the drill. "The last guy's vast, hubristic projects were such a failure,” says Candidate X, “only my even more grandiose schemes can save us."

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How much longer before thinking like that is history?

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