Oh, to be the US President
Before attending the first session of Professor Mackenzie's class, The American Presidency, last week, I had every intention of bashing the public showing the Obamas have made of their "Date Night" ritual. After all, isn't that the trend the American media follows when presidents make a showing of being "normal people" who engage in "everyday activities"? How could Barack be taking Michelle on ritzy dates while the American economy is facing depression, we are engaged in two trying and exhausting wars, healthcare reform is on the brink of failure, Haiti is facing the aftermath of a horrible natural disaster and, not to mention, the country is showing discontent with Obama by electing a Republican senator--Scott Brown--in a well-known democratic state? Post-class (and reading assignment), however, I realized that Obama is merely making a classic presidential mistake--that of failing to live up to the presidential/executive image in favor of pursuing a more personal, "I'm the same as any other American citizen" image.
What do I mean in suggesting that a distinction exists between presidential and personal image? A president serves as a symbol for Americans; he or she is always in the spotlight and is expected to uphold the highest standards. Voters do not want just a normal person in office, and as a result, the media does not treat kindly the personal activities of a president. However, presidents often make the mistake of attempting to connect with their constituents by making a show of "everyday activities." As a result, the media is attracted to criticizing the images presidents project while in office.
Take, for example, George W. Bush and his golfing expeditions--wait, sorry, bad example; the media was not criticizing the fact that Bush W. was golfing but rather that he had promised the nation, in an act of solidarity with those in Iraq, that he would give up golf for as long as the United States remained engaged in war.
Seriously though, one day Bill Clinton decided to get a haircut. What is newsworthy about that? Who cares if the president gets a haircut? Doesn't everyone get haircuts? Apparently, an extraordinary amount of people care when it concerns the president. For the media, there was an obvious way to break the story--find the scandal behind it. In Bill Clinton's case it was $200. That is, President Clinton paid $200 to get a trendy haircut in L.A while sitting on Air Force One. It comes as no surprise that the media had a field day with this: taxpayers' money gone to waste!
How about George H.W. Bush? In his case, the media took advantage of a trip to the grocery store--somewhat embarrassingly, Bush H.W. was unable to use a price scanner. President Nixon made the mistake of walking on the beach--in a suit, tie, and dress shoes. Calvin Coolidge took a two-hour nap everyday after lunch--thus delaying his presidential duties. Lyndon Johnson enjoyed hanging out on his ranch and, incidentally, drunk driving his car around it, pretending the breaks didn't work to scare his passengers, and ending up in the river. John Quincy Adams liked to swim--in the nude every morning in the Potomac River.
Throughout the centuries, presidents have engaged in activities that have drawn the media's and the public's attention--and criticism. Unfortunately for a president, even if he or she is doing the same thing (perhaps even paying as much for a haircut) as some American citizens, it is impossible to avoid the scrutiny of the public.
This brings me back to Date Night. While I have come to terms with the fact that it is entirely normal for presidents to continue living life as per usual in some ways, i.e. going on dates, I still feel the need to criticize the extravagance of these dates. The Obamas have been spotted at a posh, trendy restaurant in Georgetown, flying to Chicago for dinner and, most notoriously, destroying New York City traffic patterns in order to have dinner in the Village, attend a Broadway show and end the evening driving up Sixth avenue, escorted by scores of limos to the awaiting Air Force One. In an interview with CNN's Roland Martin, Michelle was quoted saying, "All the parents out there, have your date nights. It's important for kids to know that their parents are connecting." This may be true, Michelle, but please, keep your dates low-key. There is no need for the President and his wife to indulge in such unnecessary extravagances, at least while Barack is in office and the media is ready to attack.