Don't Wait for a Thank You, Mr. President

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, August 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

Don't Wait for a Thank You, Mr. President


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

Feeling underappreciated is among the most common of human emotions. From time to time we all indulge in at least a bit of self-pity. The sense that the world does not understand our greatness or our gifts can manifest itself in different ways. Some people may be maudlin, others angry, but one thing is universal to the condition: frustration.

It was a frustrated Robert Gibbs who spoke harshly about what he called the "professional left" last week in an interview with the newspaper The Hill. Liberals, the White House press secretary was saying, are not sufficiently grateful for the work President Obama has done on behalf of progressive causes. Gibbs's remark must at least partially reflect the president's own views, and it surely represents the prevailing view of Obama's inner circle.

The Obama White House is now feeling the effects of an inescapable historical fact: presidents rarely enjoy prolonged popularity in real time. They just do not. In memory we recast reality and choose to think--wrongly--that the leaders we consider great were thought of in such terms in their own eras.

Yet from Washington (who nearly retired in frustration after a single term) and Jefferson (who was bitterly hated by Federalists) to Jackson (who was attacked as an American Bonaparte) to FDR (his enemies referred to him as "that man") to Reagan (who was thought to be a nuclear cowboy), even the most revered figures in our history have suffered what Obama is suffering, and what a President McCain would be suffering, too: the corrosive effects of a restless present that cares little about the past, even the very recent past, and wants to know only what you are going to do for it next. One of the inherent tragedies of public life is that it attracts men and women who crave approval and affection while the nature of the undertaking--the making of choices, the compromises, the inevitable failures--severely limits the amount of approval and affection that flow from the many to the one. That is a key distinction between the winning of elections and the governing of a country, for elections at least give the winner a frisson of joy at a race well run. But it is just that: a frisson, not a sustainable stream.

If a president can accept that his friends will always bay for more and his foes will always just bay, he stands a better chance of remaining vaguely sane than if he makes the (totally understandable) mistake of expecting people to thank him for his work. …

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