Appearing Act

Obama's 'personal presidency' is overexposing the Commander in Chief, and painting him into the corners of the Oval Office.
By STEVEN STARK  |  March 10, 2009

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Barack Obama is ubiquitous. In his first six weeks in office, he's given an inaugural address, a State of the Union–like speech to a joint-session of Congress (since new presidents don't really report on the state of the union), and an hour-long press conference. He's also made several campaign trips and has been a daily fixture on magazine covers and the news shows. He's talking to us all the time.

Yes, he's an intriguing and appealing figure. But you don't have to go out on a limb to surmise that he may be risking overexposure — which often leads to failure.

This is not an argument about the longevity of political popularity. Rather, it has to do with Obama's creating what political scientist Theodore Lowi called "a personal presidency," in which one unreasonably exaggerates the power of a president to influence events — especially economic ones. Going down that path, warned Lowi, is a sure road to political failure.

"As visibility goes up, so do expectations and vulnerability," Lowi once told a reporter. "There's more of a chance to make really big mistakes. It's a treadmill to oblivion. It's why modern history is filled with so many failed presidencies."

A long line of skilled politicians have managed to wear out their political welcome with their sheer omnipresence. Take Jimmy Carter, who was wildly popular in his first few months in office. By the end of only one year, Russell Baker wrote in the New York Times: "If the Carter administration were a television show, it would have been canceled months ago."

It's worth recalling that, in the last comparable economic crisis, FDR gave just 16 Fireside Chats during his first eight years in office — an average of only two a year.

The pitfalls of creating a personal presidency are perhaps unavoidable. After all, the American system of government dictates that, though presidents can promise much, they can deliver very little. Our constitutional scheme gives them little direct power, especially in the domain of domestic affairs. And most of the crises now facing the country don't lend themselves to clear answers that can be carried out with a signature on a single executive order — no matter how hard we want to believe that Obama can "save" us all.

What's more, in such fields as economics, "rules" aren't rules at all, but only theories — even if they come from Larry Summers. And until we elect Nostradamus, we don't have a president who can foretell the future. When a world economy tanks, the United States has woefully limited power to influence the course of events.

Betting it all
Even so, Obama is all over the place. He seems to think that he's still in the middle of his "rock star" campaign, when the nation was understandably excited about electing its first African-American president. But we've already been there and done that.

Meanwhile, in full campaign mode, he's still promising this and predicting that: he'll create 3.5 million jobs, double the nation's supply of renewable energy in three years, and cut the deficit in half in four years.

Yes, in the 1960s John F. Kennedy set a goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. But if the goal wasn't met, 10 years later it would be somebody else's problem.

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