It is the peculiar job of an American president to embody citizens’ greatest hopes and fears, to be magnified in the popular imagination and national psyche into a world-straddling colossus. Thanks to the foresight, skepticism and, perhaps, perverse sense of humor of the founders of our democracy, the president’s vast symbolic power is hobbled and constrained on every side by our multiply divided system of government. American democracy is premised on the idea that power corrupts, that human beings tend to be selfish, cowardly and, if not stupid, short-sighted, foolish, and ever mindful of the whims of the electorate. The president can propose and sign legislation, but can’t pass it without majorities of two separate and often warring legislative houses; even executive orders are subject to review by unelected judges whose lifetime tenure gives them a considerably longer shelf-life than commanders-in-chief.
Americans rarely elect presidents whose talents warrant their high office, but when, as in 2008, we do, we paradoxically ensure that they will fall short of the potential with which we fell in love when we voted them in. Whatever their strengths or accomplishments, presidents are judged them harshly and caricatured savagely. That is their role in our political and psychological economy: to represent fantasies of absolute power that we mercilessly, relentlessly puncture. We doom our presidents to fail our greatest hopes than risk empowering tyrants who fulfill our worst fears.
I wonder if we ever really know how heavily our rages and disappointments weigh upon our presidents, how deeply they are wounded by our constant adulation and assault. I wish sometimes we could speak to them not as symbols but as human beings whose most unforgivably failing is, perhaps, that they are so much like those who elect them.
Letter to a President
We think our horror isn’t ours.
It is. We think that you can’t imagine
how horrible it is to lose, to perish
with loss for a spine. We do.
We docket you before our indignation
for the worst of what you’ve been,
strip you of vulnerability, youth, your own deep disappointments,
leave you with no right or evidence
to defend yourself against us. But we know how it feels
to brood over remains of ideals
sacrificed to a world
that will never remember
the states in which we reversed depression,
the freshness we found in our worn-out generations,
the courage with which we survived biography’s limitations,
the lightness with which we wore, the gratitude with which we surrendered,
the beautiful forms of our lives.