In recent decades, as the Presidential races have become more like advertising campaigns and less like contests about the issues, there’s been a great deal of attention paid to “acting Presidential.” Some of it is reasonable, an attempt to size up a candidate’s character in order to understand what sort of President he/she would make. But much of it has become cosmetic: how firm the jaw, how vibrant the voice, how tall and erect the stance.
Perhaps it started with television and the Nixon-Kennedy debates, when those who listened on radio tended to judge Nixon the victor while those who watched on TV favored the upstart Kennedy. Just as Kennedy was more telegenic than Nixon, there’s no question Obama has it all over the opposition on looks and the projection of whatever is superficially “Presidential.”
But now Obama has taken “acting Presidential” to new heights—or depths, depending on how you look at it. He has started to act as though he were already President.
It began on his triumphal World Tour, in which he was treated as the heir to the Presidency and seemed to court that perception. And it continues, according to Dana Milbank in today’s WaPO, in a piece aptly titled “President Obama Continues His Hectic Victory Tour.”
Lest you think the title hyperbole, read the entire article. Obama is continuing to consider himself, and is increasingly being treated as, President-in-waiting rather than an ordinary candidate. This is partly a result of the strangely hypnotic effect he seems to have on people. But it’s an effect he carefully orchestrates and obviously enjoys, despite his intermittent words of humility.
Milbank writes that when Obama addressed a group of Congressional members earlier this week he said:
“This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for,” adding: “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”
It’s not insignificant that it’s a symbolism only. A symbol is a figurehead, an inspirational figure that is a sort of metaphor, not a person expected to have an actual record of accomplishment in the real world. In addition, much of the world seems to be cooperating in Obama’s elevation to Head Emblem of Whatever It Is We Need Him To Be:
Some say the supremely confident Obama—nearly 100 days from the election, he pronounces that “the odds of us winning are very good”—has become a president-in-waiting. But in truth, he doesn’t need to wait: He has already amassed the trappings of the office, without those pesky decisions.
Come to think of it, maybe the best status for Obama would be that of monarch, of the type reigning in present-day England. After all, it’s the ultimate symbolic position: no accomplishments necessary, no policy commitments involved, once you’re in you’re in for life, you get to go on all those fine world tours, the clothes are classic, and speeches are heavily featured.
[NOTE: As for those Nixon-Kennedy debates (which I watched on TV as a child, and it was Kennedy all the way for me), I just learned the following interesting information (I knew about the lack of makeup, but not the rest):
Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual "5:00 o'clock shadow." Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him looking so fit," Nixon later wrote.
In retrospect, it is interesting to note how deceiving those looks were. Kennedy was already a very sick man, and Nixon went on to live a long and relatively healthy life.]