Justin Vaughn & Jennifer Mercieca: Those who occupy the White House face daunting challenges

GUEST OPINION: PRESIDENTS DAY

February 15, 2014 

As millions of Americans celebrate Presidents Day with three-day weekends and discount shopping sprees, at least one citizen might greet the day with a bit of ambivalence: Barack Obama. For Obama, the day may well represent yet another reminder of the extraordinary expectations that Americans have, not just for his leadership but for all modern presidents, and the struggles he and his fellow chief executives have faced in attempting to fill the shoes of their greatest predecessors.

Americans have officially celebrated their presidents since at least 1862, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national commemoration of George Washington’s birth. In 1879, Congress passed legislation declaring Washington’s birthday a federal holiday, and in 1968 Lyndon Johnson signed into law a bill that officially tied that holiday to the third Monday of every February. An interesting and widely unknown fact about Presidents Day is that not only is that not the holiday’s name, but it only officially celebrates Washington. Over time, of course, most Americans have come to view it as a celebration of both Washington and Lincoln, who also had a February birth, and to a lesser extent the institution of the presidency itself.

The fact that we celebrate Washington’s birth explicitly and Lincoln’s implicitly with a federal holiday each February says as much about the greatness of those two leaders as it does about our expectations for the men — and someday the women — who hold that office. Every day that President Obama walks into the Oval Office is a day that he must strive to meet the impossible expectations that come with the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Today, merely keeping the ship of state steady falls well short of the fabled status of the presidency. Instead, as Ray Price once reminded then-candidate Richard Nixon, “Potential presidents are measured against an ideal that’s a combination of leading man, God, father, hero, pope, king, with maybe just a touch of the avenging Furies thrown in.”

More recent analyses of public opinion polls show that Americans expect presidents to simultaneously set a good moral example for the nation, use military force wisely, work well with Congress, increase government efficiency, reduce unemployment and inflation, and much more. Jimmy Carter was expected to rescue hostages in Iran, George W. Bush was held responsible for post-Katrina flooding in New Orleans, and Barack Obama was lambasted when BP’s oil continued to gush in the Gulf of Mexico.

We believe that the impossibility of the presidential task has become problematic. More importantly, we Americans are at least partially responsible for this state of affairs.

By retelling our history in ways that often romanticize the good while misremembering the bad, the leaders of today can only fall short of the mythologized standards of their predecessors. From Mount Rushmore to the monuments on the National Mall to the hagiographic presidential library museums scattered around the country, our rose-colored past is never far from sight. It is this version of American history that Obama — and before him two Bushes, Clinton, Reagan, Carter and many more — must confront when they attempt to perform the office in which they serve.

As the United States — and the institution of the presidency — continues its march into the millennium, we would do well to adjust our expectations, and in so doing give our future presidents a better chance of carrying our collective hopes to fruition.

Vaughn is assistant professor of political science at Boise State University. Mercieca is associate professor and associate head of communication at Texas A&M University. They recently published “The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency” (2014, Texas A&M University Press).

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