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February 6, 2014

Going the Distance to White House

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — Every president of the United States goes through difficult periods. It comes with the job. There are the daily demands of national security issues, the economy, policy initiatives, personnel, Congressional meetings, and social events. Heaven forbid a scandal breaks out. It takes a massive ego to be president since the pressures outweigh the perks. It’s little wonder that presidents age in office. The stress is unrelenting.

Beyond the demands of the office is the personal abuse presidents take in print and the social media. It is especially true with baby-boomers Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama since they arrived on the scene after the Internet went mainstream. To some people they weren’t worthy of being president. Clinton was too slick, Bush too stupid, and Obama too whatever (fill in the blank). It was not enough to dislike their policies. Their mere existence was open to debate.

For example, Obama recently said that he wouldn’t allow his hypothetical son to play pro football due to concussions and the general brutality of the game. Although that sounds like the normal reaction of a concerned parent the response from his critics was swift and unrelenting. He was called him a wimp and un-American. The irony is these same critics would have trashed him as an irresponsible parent if he had taken the opposite tact. Some presidents can never win.

In fact, President Obama may suffer from more distain than past occupants of the White House because today’s social media allows for invectives that never stop. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had their detractors but the “piling on” wasn’t as blatant or visible because the social media wasn’t as advanced.

A lengthy article by David Remnick in the Jan. 27 issue of The New Yorker gives insight into what it’s really like to be president. Going the Distance: The President Talks About His Tasks Ahead is a rare in-depth look at President Obama, his daily routine, and the effect his time in office has on his life and thought process. Although the article is unique to Obama it is similar to what many presidents have to go through. It isn’t often that the public gets such an inside look at their commander-in-chief.

If anyone reads the article with an open mind they will understand the constant pressures that a president is under. It is not meant to change someone’s opinion but instead give insights into Obama’s personality and the pressures of the job. If you liked or didn’t like him before you will probably continue to feel the same way. It’s just illuminating to see what demands a president experiences day-to-day.

Remnick’s access appears to be total. He’s invited on Air Force One for a fundraising trip to the West Coast. He’s able to observe the president directly and interview him one-on-one both on the plane and later in the Oval Office.

Some critics and even some supporters might question why he is spending his time fundraising instead of doing his job. Unfortunately, with all the money involved in politics these days it’s part of his “job.” They all do it but, unlike Clinton who reveled in it, Obama can’t stand it. He prefers quiet social gatherings to the forced nature of rubbing elbows at $16,000 per person fundraisers. Bush was known to be bright and articulate in intimate settings, but stumbled over the English language in formal speeches.

One of the things you can see is the difference between the campaign trail and actually being president. It’s easy to state how you would do things differently or how transparent your administration would be if you are elected. How quickly that changes once in office and you discover all the national security secrets you never knew. Suddenly campaign promises and transparency take on a whole new meaning.

A president has to weigh many different elements in deciding which way to turn. It isn’t always clear cut. Obama was hit by many history-changing events that he hadn’t anticipated including the Great Recession, the Arab Spring, the BP oil spill, and Hurricane Sandy. He also may have been naive in thinking that he was going to be the first “post-partisan” president or negligent when he allowed the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act. But nobody forced him to take the job.

One thing that Obama is totally aware of is the perception of him being aloof, ignorant of the intensity of the opposition, and not up to the job. He is constantly fighting through those notions with limited success. He knows that his poll numbers are in the toilet and his chances of getting anything through a Republican-controlled Congress are unlikely.

A president has to deal with constant crises many of which are unforeseen. In that regard President Obama is no different than any of our past chief executives. How history will ultimately judge him is another matter. David Maraniss did a fine job providing his background and rise to prominence in Barack Obama: The Story. Remnick essentially completes it in Going the Distance.