In the aftermath of the explosion of the Deep Water Horizon – that oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico – and the subsequent ecological catastrophe which is, as of right now, still intensifying something is happening in the minds of many Americans. They are realizing that Barack Obama, the President of the United States, is not a super hero. He cannot take out his Super-Duper Galactic Fix-It Ray and make the problem and all the foibles that come with trying to fix it just go away and neither can Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, or anyone else. Winning an election gets you a very big job, a place in the history books, and that’s it. The pants you put on in the morning may be bullet-proof – yes, they do exist – but you still put them on the same way anyone else does.
In the 2008 presidential election, particularly on the democratic side, much was made of the candidates’ personalities and whether or not they were “likable” enough. If it hadn’t been for that, I believe I’d be sitting here kvetching about the latest mistake President Clinton made – President Hillary Clinton, that is. She had everything – money, connections, experience – everything but a triple dose of charisma and that was her downfall. She couldn’t change who she was, so she lost. It’s not fair, but it’s the nature of the game. You have to be “likable” and you either are or you aren’t. For many people Barack Obama was The Man – the man to elect, the man to back, the man you’d want to have a beer with, just the man. In the world of Political High School, he was the captain of the football team and valedictorian all rolled into one while then-Senator Clinton was the jealous, geeky, overachiever on the debate team, and John McCain was the guy who played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. Neither of them had a chance in hindsight.
The problem with popularity in politics is, just like in high school, it’s fleeting. To be known simply as “popular” is to be unknown and invisible in a week’s time. Politics is a business fraught with unpopular positions. With some perpetually contentious issues like abortion, to take a firm stand one way or the other is to alienate a large section of the voting population. The only thing worse than taking a strong stand on a divisive issue is to take no stand at all. That just makes you look weak. If you manage to get elected, a whole new world of “un-likablity” opens up and is furthered by omnipresent mass media. Make one mistake, say one thing out of line, forget to smile at someone and it’s news and news always offends someone. Make a offhand comment about women in the workforce and someone will say you’re against stay-at-home moms and therefore single-handedly out to destroy the traditional American family. Question military expenses and you’re an evil, marxist, terrorist, hippy, America-hater. Innocently point out the good qualities of a colleague of the opposite sex, or of the same-sex if you are known by the public to be openly gay or lesbian, and you may very well end up being dragged by your sinificant other to couple’s counseling and have to explain yourself. Choose not to go to church and you become evil and completely anti-American even though there are plenty of Americans who don’t attend church and are also not enemies of the state.
These things all pale in comparison to what happens when a big problem comes along – unusually polarizing legislation, Supreme Court appointments, some sort of unforeseen tragedy. That’s when that cult of personality really begins to crack under the weight of the task at hand. It becomes blindingly clear that you can’t walk on water or fly or shoot lasers from your eyeballs. You’re still disappointingly human with only twenty-four hour days just like the rest of us. The pedestal you’ve been placed on by your supports erodes away from beneath your feet and you come tumbling down to earth to rejoin the rest of us mortals. People start to ask “What if? What if I’d pulled the other lever or checked the other box?” This is the predicament that our current president finds himself in. It’s not fair, but it’s the nature of the game. Presidents seem like they have more power than the rest of us and to some extent they do, but we forget they’re also astoundingly human. I could go into specific presidential examples of human frailty – the same problems we see every day in our own lives – but why bother. It’s all old news.
One would think that, in light of these recent events, we as a nation would be less inclined to idealize our political figures but it seems more prevalent today than it was two and a half years ago. For example, Sarah Palin could make a statement saying something needs to be acted upon and thousands of people would go out and make it happen regardless of what “it” actually is. The task is completely immaterial simply because Sarah Palin said “it” should be and they think Sarah Palin is the best human being that ever lived and is right all of the time. Ron Paul, the Congressman from Texas, has a similarly devoted and vocal following. Hillary Clinton, the current Secretary of State, still has quite a fan base even after her election lose and employment with the Obama administration, and some of them are fiercely loyal. Just search Clinton 2012 to see the kind of rumors bubbling up as campaign season approaches with all of these diehard fans lying in wait, though, historically, a primary challenger to the incumbent president has never won the nomination and only serves to split the party and make an election victory that much harder to achieve. Even so, hope springs eternal for some of her supporters who view her as the best hope for democrats in 2012. I say that’s a long ways off and a highly unlikely turn of events. Her high approval rating will plummet if she turns on the administration who employed her for three years or so. Nobody likes a turncoat not to mention that putting your sense of loyalty into question is never the best political move.
And what about Mr. Obama and his charisma? Well, while he may recover some popularity for one reason or another – these things go days by day – it’ll never be quite the same now that everyone knows he isn’t a super hero or a jedi knight or some other spectacular being. It’s like having a really attractive roommate. Everyone sees them as this Adonis-like figure, but you’ve seen them at their worst – hung-over, unhappy, angry, first thing in the morning – and you know that they have their moments just like anyone else. You can’t idealize someone after that because you know that they are no more or less than human.