Magazine article The American Prospect

The President's Movie: Like Most Liberals, Obama Resists Entering the Darkened Theater That Reagan Mastered

Magazine article The American Prospect

The President's Movie: Like Most Liberals, Obama Resists Entering the Darkened Theater That Reagan Mastered

Article excerpt

Most people seem to agree that the single greatest mystery of the Obama presidency is how a candidate who stoked hope, raised expectations, and stirred tens of millions of Americans to embrace change became a president who banked the fires of hope, lowered expectations, and dampened the belief of tens of millions of Americans that anything in the country could be changed. Theories, of course, abound: that Barack Obama, like John F. Kennedy before him, ran as an idealist but had always intended to govern as a pragmatist; that the toxic political environment prevented him from accomplishing the magnitude of change his supporters wanted; that the problems he inherited from Bush were simply too overwhelming; that in fighting for healthcare reform he chose the wrong battle; that the public itself always demands change during an election only to be terrified of it afterward; and, last but not least, that Democrats are just plain doomed.

But there is another possibility--one that is less political than philosophical. Obama may have misunderstood how the presidency has evolved since the days of Ronald Reagan so that Obama's very conception of the office is outmoded. Obama still thinks that the way to achieve his goals is to come up with the right policy and to build political support for it with logical argument. He doesn't understand the extent to which one of the primary functions of the presidency is emotive: to provide a sense of psychological comfort to the nation that, once accomplished, might well lead to legislative achievements--may, in fact, be the best route to those achievements--but can also be an end in itself. People want a president who makes them feel good.

Every president, whether he says so explicitly or not, approaches the presidency with a metaphor in mind. Theodore Roosevelt thought of his as a "bully pulpit" from which to educate the public. Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to think of his as a national living room from which he could bolster American spirits in dark times. John F. Kennedy seemed to think of his as a salon. George W. Bush acted as if his were a testosterone-drenched fraternity.


Each of these metaphors has its benefits--and its problems--but it was left to Reagan to find a metaphor that reshaped the entire institution of the presidency to the point where his successors could ignore his conception at their peril. For him, the presidency was no bully pulpit, living room, salon, or fraternity. Nor was it the college lectern that Obama seems to think it is from which he can calmly and rationally explain his policies. It was a darkened theater in which Reagan could project a movie about the country's desires and dreams--an American fantasy.

Reagan came to this idea naturally from his training as an actor. An actor's object is to move an audience, excite it, and ultimately give it pleasure. When Reagan entered politics, he intuited that theatrical performance and political office were essentially the same. The goal was, once again, effect--to make the audience feel. He understood that in the age of mass culture, the relationship between the president and his public was paramount and that his primary role was to be the actor-in-chief who starred in the national movie and provided vicarious thrills.

This was a radically different conception of the presidency, but because it was couched in all sorts of bold policy pronouncements, not everyone caught on that the pronouncements were smokescreens covering the movie screen. Before Reagan, only FDR seemed to have presentiments that the presidential function was as much psychological as political and that an effective president, particularly in bad times, had to be an entertainer as much as, if not more than, a politician. Die-hard liberals used to blanch when Reagan cited FDR as his inspiration, but this is undoubtedly what he meant. Roosevelt wasn't a political forebear; he was an aesthetic forebear who vehemently promoted optimism. …

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