Presidents Day: Why on Earth Would Anyone Want to be President?

...stress galore, life in the bubble, constant criticism

In the end, Presidents are all alone with their burden (Photo: Paul Brandus/West Wing Reports)
Paul Brandus (Feb. 18, 2013)

Why would anyone want to be President of the United States? At first glance, it's a crazy question. After all, think of the worldwide fame. The incredible perks. Your housing is taken care of. And what a house: 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 6 levels in the Residence. There are also 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators. All on 18 lush acres. Pretty good security, too. You can walk to work. There are butlers, chefs, aides to respond to your every whim. Going somewhere? Cops clear the road for your driver to zip on by. There’s also a private 747, and your own helicopter – which lands in the backyard. And let’s not forget the private movie theater, which is no big deal these days, but if you want, you can invite the film’s stars to watch it with you – and they’re usually eager to oblige. There’s also a mountain getaway that’s all yours for free. The money’s OK too: a $400,000 salary, $50,000 annual expense account, $100,000 tax-free travel account and $19,000 for entertainment. Lots of people suck up to you, try to impress you and laugh at your jokes even if they’re not funny.  What’s not to love?

Yet the presidency was “the four most miserable years of my life,” complained John Quincy Adams.

“No bed of roses,” James Polk observed.

And Martin Van Buren: “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”

It’s a common refrain. From George Washington to Barack Obama, everyone who has served as President of the United States has complained about the job. Even though they fought like the dickens to get it.

Think about it: Everything you do, everything you say is scrutinized and criticized by, well, everyone. Chances are you’re irritating half of them all the time. It’s like being behind the wheel of a car with 150 million backseat drivers complaining that you’re going the wrong way. Just about every day, someone shows up outside your house and yells at you. Once in a while they’ll flip you the bird. The whole world is watching, too. Sometimes you’ll be hung in effigy, or your image set on fire or spit upon. Thinned-skin types need not apply.

Your family is picked on too. Your wife’s clothes, her appearance, her weight, it’s all fair game. Have kids? Their love life, every up and down, the public hungers for every scrap it can get, and no matter how much is revealed, it’s never enough. Even pets get no respect. Bo, the Obama family dog, made headlines a few years ago when he pooped on the new carpeting  on Air Force One.

There’s no escape. Turn on just about any news show, open any newspaper, look at any website and you’ll find yourself ravaged by vicious smears, lies and insults. Think this is a recent phenomenon? The rude, prying fourth estate goes all the way back to George Washington, who was accused of being not the father of his country but a traitor to it. Thomas Jefferson said the press (which referred to the author of the Declaration of Independence as “Mad Tom”) twisted "every act of my administration in tortured, exaggerated and indecent terms." Lincoln was portrayed as a baboon and a power hungry tyrant. Woodrow Wilson compared reporters to a pack of wolves, "waiting to tear one to pieces," and Lyndon Johnson bitterly complained “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’”

Some things never change. 

Beyond their traditional duties – head of state, head of the executive branch of government, commander-in-chief, Presidents these days are also expected to be healer-in-chief, the national consoler in the aftermath of a disaster. Hurricanes, tornados, shootings, fires, floods: why hasn’t the President shown up yet? How come it took (insert number) days?  How come he only stayed (insert number) hours? One time, a guy in San Diego sent me a message saying that a traffic light was out, and could President Obama help?   

There’s also a perception that Presidents have far more power than they actually do. Of Dwight Eisenhower, the former General elected to the presidency in 1952, his predecessor Harry Truman joked “He’ll sit there all day saying, ‘do this, do that’ and nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the army.”

Indeed, the military is the only institution in the country that is obligated to follow presidential orders. Everyone else – Senators, Congressmen, Governors – must be stroked, seduced, persuaded. Some Presidents – like LBJ – excelled at this; others, like Jimmy Carter, did not.

Why does a President need to stroke, seduce and persuade? Doesn’t he run the government? No, he runs just 1/3 of it. Congress – comprised of 435 Representatives and 100 Senators – each with their own agenda and constituency to please, is one third and the Supreme Court – whose nine members, who serve for life if they wish and were probably put there by prior presidents – are answerable to no one.

You’re always “on.” In public, you’re constantly photographed. Unpleasant questions are shouted at you. In private, there are those 3:00 a.m. phone calls with bad news from all corners of the globe. Life and death decisions have to be made, often instantly, and ultimately alone. Only the toughest decisions land on the President’s desk; easier choices are made at a lower level. If a tough presidential decision works out, everyone tries to take credit: “Victory has a thousand fathers,” John F. Kennedy noted. But if it doesn’t? “Defeat is an orphan.”

Just like you need downtime from your job, Presidents need a break too. They are human, after all. But unlike you, a trip to, say, a beach resort or ranch is accompanied by a huge contingent of aides, and the always suffocating layers of security. It’s not really a vacation. Just ask Nancy Reagan. “Presidents don’t get vacations,” she observed, “they get a change of scenery. The job goes with you.” It does indeed.

Who would want to deal with all that? I can think of only one reason to be President: so I could one day be an ex-President. Now that’s a dream job.


-Paul Brandus


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