Jodi Kantor’s story about the President’s competitiveness has gotten a lot of attention, primarily because it fits into (a) a narrative of the President as someone who is good at lots of things (as his supporters see it) or (b) a narrative of the President as a huge egotist (as his detractors would say).
For me, it brings something else to mind: Can you imagine being the kind of person who would run for President? And not just “run for President” in the quixotic sense. I mean being the kind of person for whom the presidency is an achievable goal, and being the kind of person who would then devote countless years toward achieving that goal, and being the kind of person who would see all of the obstacles and drawbacks and downsides and still want that job.
I think this every time the spotlight shines on someone running for/vaguely contemplating/even within shouting distance of the presidency. Why on earth would a person want to do that? Put aside the power and the money and the mansion and the jet and everything else. Would that lifestyle actually appeal to any sane person? This notion of being someone wholly dissected by the media, someone who can’t decide to go out for dinner (or not) without it becoming A Big Thing, is not limited to presidential aspirants. But it grows and metastasizes when you are running for the presidency. Your kids are fair game. Your brother-in-law, sure, him too. Your entire world and universe is never, ever the same, and all you get in return for it is a largely thankless job wherein you have to make an endless stream of decisions, any one of which could turn out to be the one that irrevocably cements your name in history books as a failure.
That’s part of what galls me when someone says yes, but you get to be president, the most powerful person in the world! You get to ride on Air Force One and greet athletes and have state dinners and you never, ever struggle to get a restaurant reservation, and people serve at your beck and call. Sure, yes, that’s great! Being super powerful and influential and rich — and even if you aren’t terribly rich during your presidency, you are treated as such due to the perks, and you become terribly rich right after — these are probably fun things. But you are graded on such a curve. If you screw up at your job today, what happens? You get yelled at, maybe you get demoted. Hell, maybe you get fired. If the President screws up, it will be etched in history from now until the United States no longer exists that that President screwed up. Perhaps this is because so few people have ever held the office, or perhaps it’s because we insist on treating it as a sort of neo-monarchy. But if you do a decent job — if you don’t do anything particularly great and you don’t really screw anything up — your best case scenario is still leaving office reviled by half of the country. If you do anything wrong, that’s it, your name will be mentioned alongside Presidents Johnson, Hoover and Buchanan. Boom: History.
Anyway, so the stakes are obviously higher, and getting the job is a nightmare, and the job itself sounds like an endless array of terrors perpetually offered on the precipice of disaster, and the only real perks are wealth and fame and people bringing you whatever food you want at any hour of the day. So why do it? Why would a human being want that? Most of us realized/decided at some point or other that, okay, that’s not for us. Most of us are not like President Obama or Governor Romney or any of the other men and women who not only nursed this ambition but actively worked toward it, people who saw the same faults and the downsides as the rest of us but still, inexplicably, worked even harder to overcome the obstacles therein.
And I know, I know: We need these people. We do need politicians and public servants and the types of dedicated crazy people who will devote their lives to working in government, whether in these active leadership positions or in the behind-the-scenes staffer roles. And so it’s great that there are people willing to devote their lives to the actual running of your particular city/township/state/country/etc.
But so when I read that story about President Obama’s competitiveness — a fervor for winning/being the best that I found kind of hilarious, to be honest, because can you imagine being one of that guy’s longtime friends? If he’s always been like that, arguing that “AI” is a legitimate Scrabble word or something, imagine what happens when he says it now and you argue and he’s all “Oh, hold that thought, I’ve gotta go check on the status of our Mars rover, NBD” — all I thought was, sure, yes, okay, that makes sense. Someone who would decide that they want to seek the presidency, the kind of person who would start living their life in such a manner as to guide them to such an occasion, the type of man or woman who would see the campaign and decide it’s worth it to get the incredibly thankless and soul-sucking job of the presidency, the sort of individual who would say “If it was good enough for Nixon, it’s a good enough job for me,” the particular type of mind that would think that yep, they are worthy of holding our nuclear launch codes and being the face of our nation — yes, I can believe that such a person might be slightly insane.