Is this the President's Role?
1:15 PM, Jan 13, 2011 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
President Obama’s speech in Tucson was fine, as far as it went. The protocol in such circumstances seems to require presidents to call for healing, unity, civility, fellowship, and a determination to move forward, as well as a shout-out to heroes and victims. The president appears to have done all this, and with generally satisfactory results; I leave it to others to debate whether he failed or succeeded.
What bothers me is not the substance of Barack Obama’s remarks but the very fact that the president was obliged to travel to Tucson to preside over this curious hybrid pep rally/memorial service. This is not unique to the Obama presidency, but a recent trend: The president as healer-in-chief, all-purpose master of ceremonies for televised events of national interest. I realize that a president is head of state as well as government, and that we have no royal family to dispatch for these purposes: To express the received wisdom on various subjects, to pass out honors, or to comfort the bereaved. But is this really something we should require presidents to do? It is now mandatory for commanders-in-chief to drop the reins of the executive branch and inspect natural disasters or man-made catastrophes, such as the shootings in Tucson, and behave to the satisfaction of public judgment.
I do not mean to gainsay the instincts of any president to commiserate with citizens in distress; and of course, there is political gain in successful political theater. But if people are concerned about an imperial presidency, or the overestimation of the ability of government to do things, they should be worried about the notion that presidents are expected to perform symbolic functions that have little to do with their constitutional duties.
One of the stranger criticisms of George W. Bush was that, as president, he failed to attend the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while it is worth pointing out that none of his predecessors ever did such a thing—nor was expected to do so—it is telling that this should have been become an issue in our time. Theodore Roosevelt did not rush to San Francisco after the earthquake, and Franklin Roosevelt never presided over any commemorative event at Pearl Harbor. When the nuclear submarine Thresher disappeared in 1963, with the loss of 129 lives, John F. Kennedy issued an executive order lamenting the event. It is likely that if any of these presidents had chosen to inject themselves into public ceremonies, especially in a leading role, they would have been accused (and with reason) of seeking political gain at the nation’s loss.
Our expectations of presidents have clearly evolved: Not only do they preside over the executive branch of government, and serve as their party’s titular leader, but they fulfill a public role that is monarchical, not republican, in nature: Greeting the winners of the Super Bowl (or World Series or NBA championship or national football title or Olympic events), issuing federal honors (Medal of Freedom, Kennedy Center Honors) or official recognition, serving as mourner-in-chief at occasions of national bereavement.
This is both an imposition on any politician who is charged with the political leadership of the country, and an unaccustomed instinct for citizens of a republic. If we take satisfaction in a blessing from the President, whether to congratulate ourselves or to heal our wounds, we will expect White House absolution—benediction, affirmation, succor, and cures—as a matter of course.