George W. Bush ’68 is still the head of our government for another 70 days. But Barack Obama has assumed the role of head of state, settling easily into the position only a week after his election. How has he done?
For an answer, we must look to the criteria by which we should judge him. He is unable to sign legislation into law. He is not the commander of the armed forces. He cannot issue executive orders. He cannot pass laws affecting issues of health care or education or energy policy. He cannot cut taxes, nor can he raise them. But it is wrong to think that these are the most important jobs of a president.
Richard Reeves, author of books on John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, argues that the most important role of the president is head of state. Reeves argues that the president’s real job is to bring out our best, to inspire us as individuals within a society.
This may seem like a conservative sentiment, but it should not read thus. Reeves, a self-described liberal, wrote “The Power of Imagination,” in which he argued that the Reagan presidency succeeded in spite of its policy mistakes. He writes favorably of Kennedy’s handling of crisis but is more taken by the myth of Camelot and by Kennedy’s First Inaugural. In a syndicated column written at the end of August in which he endorsed Obama, Reeves wrote: “Presidents are alone, facing the unknown. The job is not about running the country; it is about leading the nation in unexpected crisis or danger. No one remembers whether Lincoln balanced the budget.”
Perhaps we define the success of a presidency in an odd way. We expect him to select from among the many often competing ideals of our nation and choose the ones most necessary at a given time. And we judge him on whether he meets the challenges he sets forth for us.
Obama has made the success of his presidency dependent on our ability to unite into one people. His rise to national prominence began with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He didn’t speak primarily of “change” or “hope” or “audacity.” He didn’t focus primarily on why John Kerry ’66 was a better choice than Bush. His main message was one of unity. Building on the work of Abraham Lincoln, who himself built on the unfinished work of our Founders, Obama has based his campaign on our nation’s ability to unite: “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America,” he told us, a self-evident truth as honest as those of our Declaration.
Has Yale responded to Obama’s challenge to unite? On Election Night, Yale students took to the streets and shouted Obama’s name. Hundreds congregated on Old Campus. Scores more watched on TVs in large groups and cheered. Students celebrated the choice for its promise and its history. Americans across the country expressed excitement for the new president and pride for an event many thought they would never see: a black man elected president. And most of us felt a certain pride in the choice — if not in the candidate himself, then at least in what the choice tells us about our nation. That night, American was synonymous with opportunity.
But there were students who were not out celebrating, who were bunkered down in Bass, their rooms or Yale’s residential college libraries. Some were McCain supporters. Some were Barr supporters. Others were non-political. Others still were Obama supporters but were not rabid in their enthusiasm, not the kind who take to the streets. And yes, a small minority were people who actively fear an Obama presidency.
Since Election Day, Obama supporters have worked to ensure that the poets took proper note of their efforts to canvass, have continued to fight for those pivotal 60 Senate seats, and have made fun of a fringe who feared an Obama presidency. But they have not worked to make sure that those who celebrated on Old Campus and those bunkered in Bass have come together to work towards common goals. A loyal opposition has yet to be formed.
Adam Lior Hirst is a junior in Branford College.