Let’s Not Portray the President as a National Therapist

Today’s New York Times editorial on President Obama’s speech yesterday in Arizona bears the title “As We Mourn”, a straightforward and simple heading, but the first sentence is striking:
It is a president’s responsibility to salve a national wound.
As with the title, the phrasing is clear and direct, sententiously so, the “It is” bearing just as much certitude as the word “responsibility.” The editors make this declaration as a pat fact, then proceed to comment on the president’s address, the opening statement apparently offered as incontrovertible.
Yet it is a remarkable assumption. It doesn’t cast the president as leader or policy-maker. It casts him as physician or therapist. The nation has been wounded and the president must administer care. And the president doesn’t tender his remedies voluntarily or as offerings outside the established duties of his office. Aid and comfort are an essential part of the job.
What to say about this conception, except to begin with the personal assertion that I certainly don’t rely on the president for relief in cases such as the Arizona shootings? Indeed, to do otherwise, to expect comfort, is to complicate the president’s charge, to add a burden to an already impossible job. It places too much symbolic pressure on one person, which was precisely the mistake that the media and the intelligentsia committed during the 2008 campaign. They made Obama into a savior, puffed him up as the Answer to eight years of malfeasance and mendacity. Once the up-and-down tasks of governance and legislation unfolded in the months after the inauguration, the inevitable happened. The image of the president came back to earth and suffered by comparison.

The Times and others still subscribe to the salv-ic image of the presidency, however, because it originates well before the 2008 election and Obama’s arrival. It dates back to the paternalism of FDR, who stated in his famous inaugural address:

. . . if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.

This conception of leadership runs contrary to deep-seated American norms, including individualism and self-reliance, the sovereignty of the people and local control, and, of course, limited government. Perhaps one can understand how could such basic values be so thoroughly eclipsed during the Depression, but how the Arizona event can do so calls for study.
One has to pin some of the blame on higher education. Only if the curriculum allows such paternalistic conceptions to pass without check can they stand so firmly and unquestioningly in public life, including newspaper editorials. Or rather, only if students progress through college without any exposure to the Constitution, the Founding, economic freedoms in the New World, and so on can such expressions fly by as set truths.
That certainly is the case with most institutions. When the American Council of Trustees and Alumni examined the general education requirements at 100 colleges and universities, it found only 11 of them that made each student take a course in U.S. government or history.
That feeble rate is a challenge to conservatives and libertarians in 2011. If you want to pull elected officials off the paternal pedestal, if you want to reduce the size of government and end the national fixation on what goes on inside the Beltway, you better make the general education policies of the campus a focus of effort.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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