Why, exactly, do we care so much who’s our president?
Yes, the president has a lot of power for good or ill. When someone told me shortly after the election that life would go on with Bush in the White House, I responded that for some people without health care, or in Iraq, it won’t. It may well be that the funereal campus mood the day after was everyone thinking, in the most specific terms, of what a second Bush term might entail. I can think of plenty of bad things he could do. But it wasn’t those scenarios I had in mind in the first rush of realizing he’d won. Nor does it seem to have been for most other people. As I asked what everyone was worried about, I heard a couple of answers, but people had to think for a moment first.
It’s not as though a president has absolute power. Even with Congress dominated by their parties, Clinton couldn’t get his health-care plan passed, and Bush couldn’t get his most conservative judges through a filibuster. (There are always recess appointments, but that’s another question.) We might expect some of the more dangerous aspects of the Bush agenda to happen immediately — I’m betting on an ever-more-regressive tax system, for one — but others are much farther down the road. Realistically, something like overturning Roe v. Wade would take Bush years. Pro-choice organizers have plenty of time and options. And yet when people did tell me what scared them so much about four more years of Bush, it was much more likely to be something like abortion, which is largely out of his hands, than something like taxes, where his leadership has been decisive so far.
People who oppose Bush obviously find his policies anywhere from incautious to offensive. I certainly tend to. But it seems to me that the emotional stakes so many Yalies had in this election sprang more from a vaguer, broader sense of shared values. When Bush, in his victory speech, asked those who voted against him for their support, he didn’t try to persuade them he was right about policy. He was asking them to admit he stands for them in a more mystical sense.
Our nation’s capital is full of opulent monuments to presidents, drawing on the royal and religious imagery of the ancient world. The Washington Monument was deliberately Pharaonic, Lincoln’s Greek, Jefferson’s Roman. FDR always said he wanted a memorial no larger than his desk, but Clinton had to build him a new one on the usual grand scale. Do the tourist buses stop at monuments to our greatest jurists and legislators? Does anyone memorize the names and terms of all the speakers of the House or all the Supreme Court justices? We don’t treat presidents like constitutional heads of a coequal branch of government. We treat them like royalty, or something more. And when Bush asks for my support but not my agreement, it’s that ritual treatment he means.
The problem is, the presidency is, at base, a representative office. Its limited mandate comes from the consent of the governed and evaporates without such consent. While I’ll allow Bush won fair and square this time out, I still cannot as a Christian give consent to much of what he stands for. We all understand this principle, I think: Conservatives certainly applied it to Clinton. The office of the president compels a degree of respect — and we could do better at that — but not support as such. Our sovereign earthly allegiance as Americans is to flag and republic, not the person of a monarch.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting real representatives, people who will implement your preferred policies and share your values. I worked for some of those myself this last cycle. But I’ve had to admit in retrospect that I, like some others, was looking for more than that. We look for someone whose whole presidency could serve mimetically, could hold up a mirror to our own versions of the American dream. We look for the nation made flesh, our own American god-king. And we won’t find him.
No president could possibly live up to that kind of calling for a whole country, at least as long as he’s alive. Washington didn’t: He faced bitter partisan opposition, as poisonous in tone as anything you’d find today. Nor did Lincoln: The Second Inaugural moves me to tears, but it moved Booth to bullets. Even Kennedy, maybe the most popular of modern presidents, had his haters. My great-aunt used to give my mother all her Kennedy half-dollars because she couldn’t stand to carry his image.
Yet this president, like so many before him, still buys into this idolatry. When he asks that we support his person in spite of his policy, he’s really asking that all America help carve out his place in our secular mythology. That we must not do. In refusing such support, we do neither him nor his office any disrespect. Rather, we uphold his office when we ask him simply to make just laws and put them into practice. We fool ourselves if we think him Messiah or Antichrist. Whether we agree with his actions or not, we need to remember that he’s our president — that is, just another man.
Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College.