In Sunday's Washington Post, Joel Achenbach took a great look at the banalities of the American presidency. We're holding the longest job interview in the history of the office--and we've now heard more than a dozen candidates explicate their best ideas for America in 2009. There's been plenty of chatter about mandates and tax caps and nukes. Even more chatter about infighting and money and getting out the vote. Still, no one, pundit or otherwise, can predict the daily, running-the-free-world routine we're expecting our remaining candidates to perform. As Achenbach notes, and as history instructs, it's because there's no telling how our leaders will decide to do the deed.
In strange echoes of Mark Halperin's scales-from-the-eyes op-ed last fall, on how "What it Takes" isn't, he writes:
What we don't tend to do, despite obsessive attention to this contest, is talk much about what the job entails. We talk instead about hot-button issues, the latest gaffe, the new sound bite, the polls, the electoral map. Presidential campaigns glancingly deal with the institution of the presidency while focusing on the more urgent issue of winning.
The closest thing we've seen to a job description on the campaign trail has been the 3 a.m. phone call ad, a caricature of the president as the national guardian, and one that still doesn't quite tell you what a president does during working hours.
Yet walking through both Roosevelt White Houses, the nine-to-five Reagan administration, Bush-era ascetism and the agonizing bull sessions of Bill Clinton's presidency, the only common thread may be the rapid aging that comes along with the Wilson china. And, campaign foreplay aside,
The last century is littered with failed or mediocre presidencies. The job nearly crushed men who once strode the landscape like titans. They self-destructed in some cases, or had no business being in the job in the first place.
So not only may "what it takes" change in a split second (cf. 9.11.01) -- such mystical powers might not come in handy until day, oh, 1000. Which is why, during Chris Wallace's ballyhooed Fox News Sunday interview with Barack Obama, one moment in particular jumps out:
WALLACE: Finally, and we have about a minute left, what have you learned in this campaign? And I don’t mean, gee, what a great country this is answer. What mistakes have you made? What have you learned about running for president? What have you learned about yourself?
OBAMA: I’ve learned that I have what I believe is the right temperament for the presidency. Which is, I don’t get too high when I’m high and I don’t get too low when I’m low. And we’ve gone through all kinds of ups and downs.
Is that all it takes?