Richard Nixon was sometimes referred to as the “Imperial President.” Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1973 book bore that title. President Obama, on stage in the first of three presidential debates, personified that term. It may be his undoing in the November election.
The term, imperial presidency, originated in the 1960s, when the American presidency was deemed by some to be too self-important, a repository for presidential cronies, an excessive collection of constitutional powers that unjustly outsized the other two branches of government and an office unnecessarily revered because of its trappings and exclusivity. Granted, it is the most powerful office on earth, with a broad reach to affect the lives of Americans and others throughout the world. It deserves enormous respect. In fact, whether or not leaders are imperial totally depends on the attitude of those who hold the office, and how they comport themselves to the public at large.
Pundits and partisans alike concluded that Mr. Obama delivered an aloof performance in the Denver debate, “detached” and “uninspiring.” Al Gore faulted Colorado’s altitude! What the viewers saw, however, might well be what the viewers have gotten with Mr. Obama for the last four years — an aloof and detached president focused on the wrong issues.
While Mr. Romney pointed out some of the failures of the Obama presidency (high unemployment, a health care law still opposed by a majority of the public, a worsening, uncertain economy), Mr. Obama failed to offer a plausible defense of his record, perhaps signaling that he has none. Mr. Romney skillfully played the imperial presidency card when he referred to Mr. Obama being entitled to a “big airplane and a big house,” but not entitled to “your own facts.”
In 1837, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a children’s story entitled, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It was the story of two swindlers who convinced an emperor that they could fashion him a new set of clothing that would be invisible only to the unfit and stupid in the kingdom, but visible by all others. Even though the emperor himself couldn’t see his new clothing, he didn’t want to appear stupid to the swindlers. It took a child to exclaim while observing a parade featuring the emperor in his “new” clothes that, “The Emperor has no clothes!”
As the two presidential candidates plowed through their 90-minute debate, the child’s exclamation came to mind as millions watched the president’s performance — he seemed to have “no clothes.” And he had no teleprompter. Mr. Obama couldn’t defend his broken promise to significantly reduce the unemployment rate after the 2008 recession; he couldn’t rebut charges that he looted Medicare to fund Obamacare; he offered no response to justify spending $90 billion for green energy projects, many of which failed, while criticizing $2.8 billion in oil company accounting benefits; he didn’t deny responsibility for trillions in federal deficits and national debt. Instead, he defaulted to campaign rhetoric of taxing “millionaires and billionaires” as he seeks to restructure American capitalism.
Perhaps Mr. Obama exaggerates his historic achievement in reaching the American presidency. Perhaps he possesses a prickly personality that’s offended by those who challenge or criticize him or his policies. Or, perhaps he’s merely a 21st century example of the “imperial president,” Nixon-like in some respects, all knowing and un-needy; why else would he reportedly not meet with his cabinet since July, and only attend half of his daily intelligence briefings? Why else wouldn’t he diligently work together with members of Congress between now and Jan. 1 to avoid the looming “fiscal cliff” that will destroy the already-struggling American economy and create further financial despair?
Voting is largely an emotional act; we vote for people we like, respect and with whose views we agree. We want our presidential leaders to appear confident, well spoken and intelligent, so that we’ll know they’ll do what’s right for our country in times of crisis. We also want to trust our president. We usually reject those who impress us as “imperial” and those who have “no clothes.” The 2004 candidacy of Sen. John Kerry comes to mind. So does Jimmy Carter, who after four years just didn’t seem up to the job.
One debate performance won’t decide the 2012 presidential election, but in the coming days, we’ll see whether Mr. Obama deserves a second term. The emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen story lost his way; he was too vain to see his own misdirection. Interpreting the story, author Jack Zipes once said, “Sight becomes insight, and prompts action.”