Last Friday, I, along with more than 30,000 of my peers, attended President Obama’s rally at the University of Southern California. The president was participating in a Democratic Party rally in support of Barbara Boxer, Jerry Brown, and other local Democratic candidates. Behind the podium hung a large banner bearing the party’s current slogan, “Moving America Forward.” It was the first time I’d seen the president speak in person, and I can’t pretend that I wasn’t impressed by his eloquence and charisma. However, I was much more surprised by one of the epithets applied to our president: “Leader of the Free World.”
I’d heard this title thrown around before, but it wasn’t until I heard it used so casually—in front of a group of 30,000 voters—that I wondered to myself how Barack Obama could possibly claim such a title. The Free World did not elect him; he has no jurisdiction over the Free World. What exactly is the “Free World” anyway? Does Obama hold power over other Free World governments? If he is the leader of the Free World, but was only elected by American citizens, then the other countries of the Free World aren’t exactly free, right? As these questions ran through my mind, I was reminded of the excessive adoration and attention that America’s chief executive receives.
Midterm elections, polls and campaigns aside, U.S. presidents get exorbitant amounts of publicity wherever they go. I understand that the president has a lot of power in his hands, but the American obsession with the presidency borders on hero worship—especially with Obama—and it’s tainting the American political system. The president gets a level of media coverage that makes Lindsay Lohan seem anonymous. Do we really need to know what breed of puppy the man’s family gets? Or that he swatted a fly on television? No! Regardless of his campaign promises or the precedent he set, Barack Obama is just a man. And our treatment of him as anything else is not only absurd, it’s unfair to Obama himself.
By turning the presidency into just another People magazine cover, we stop seeing Obama as a man doing a job and we place him on a tier above the people of the United States. Suddenly his boring, quotidian activities are more important than the million other pressing issues of national and international interest. Once we place the president on that pedestal, we have to bear two major consequences: one, we expect much more out of the president than is reasonable, making it impossible for him to fully live up to our hopes; and two, we greatly expand the power of the presidential office.
As for the first consequence, it is no secret that Obama’s approval rating has dropped dramatically since his inauguration. This is not a new trend in American politics: every four years, we invest our hopes in a new politician, placing him on a stage and expectantly waiting for him to make all our dreams come true. Around the time of his inauguration, Barack Obama was hailed as the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Depending on your view of Roosevelt’s politics, calling Obama the next FDR could mean a number of things; however, no one can deny that a rosy historical image will always look better than a contemporary politician. As I’ve said before, the president is just a man, and a man cannot possibly live up to that type of expectation. Placing such high hopes upon Obama dooms him to failure and ourselves to disappointment. Disappointed voters, in turn, are prone to making irrational decisions such as blindly voting out the political party in power.
On the second point, by investing our hopes in the president, we imply that he alone has the capacity to deal with all the nation’s problems. However, the Executive Office of the President was originally meant to deal with a mere fraction of the issues that we now beg our presidents to solve. Our government was designed with policymaking power distributed across a large legislative body because the founding fathers felt that Congress was the best means for ensuring that the will of the people be served. The president was only meant to enforce congressional decisions.
Nowadays, the American public looks to its president first and congressional representatives second to solve important issues.
The American public is responsible for allowing the “Imperial Presidency”—the result of dramatic growth of presidential power over the last few decades—to flourish. We need to remind ourselves that the president is just one politician. The president was intended to be an enforcer of Congress’s will. Today, he is considered responsible for passing legislation to solve important issues like health care and unemployment. Most disconcertingly, the president now has the power to invade countries without a Congressional declaration of war, a right the Constitution specifically denied the chief executive. Congress has acquiesced to the executive branch’s acquisition of power, making only a feeble effort to check America’s presidents. Our delicate system of checks and balances can be trampled by the transgressions of our Commander in Chief.
So how can we restore the balance in our system? For one, stop calling the president “Leader of the Free World.” That’s just ridiculous. He is the chief executive of our government, and we need to stop treating him as anything more than that. We must look to Congress, the one place the president can’t intervene, to solve our problems. This is the only way to make sure local interests are represented in our government, and it returns to the ideals set forth in the Constitution.