President Obama’s speech last night at the Democratic National Convention has been widely understood as pointed thematic rebuke of Donald Trump. Although Obama kept his references to the Republican presidential nominee to a minimum, nobody doubts whom the President was referring to as a “homegrown demagogue.”
But the speech, and the video tribute to Obama’s presidency that preceded it, also sought to juxtapose Trump’s unique brand of brazen thoughtlessness against Obama’s long-standing self presentation as a leader with unique moral depth about the choices he faces in office. “Nothing truly prepares you for the demands of the Oval Office,” the president said. “Until you’ve sat at that desk, you don’t know what it’s like to manage a global crisis or send young people to war.” The video tribute (simply titled, “Barack Obama”) made a similar point: the presidency is a difficult and lonely burden to bear, and requires a particular strength of will and character in order to bear it adequately.
Many, if not most, of the stills of President Obama displayed in the video echoed George Tames’s famous photo of John F. Kennedy, “The Loneliest Job.” The president stands with his back to the viewer, shoulders hunched under an incomprehensible weight. Or if he’s facing the camera, he looks distant and grim.
“He’s all alone,” says Vice President Joe Biden during the voiceover about Obama. “This is his decision.”
At another point, a speaker declares that “there is a temperament associated with being president that [Obama] uniquely has.” This “temperament,” the video suggests, allows Obama to bear up and carry on under the weight of the presidency—but also ensures that he is constantly aware of the terrible responsibility that this office entails.
The obvious point, never stated, is that Donald Trump does not have a similar temperament.
I’ve written before about Obama’s consistent public presentation of himself as a leader wracked by moral anguish—a kind of philosopher-president, who ponders theories of just war in the Oval Office and keenly feels the pain of the moral compromises he must necessarily make in order to govern. In the past, I criticized this self-presentation as something that, in its worst form, approaches narcissism. Who is the President, even if he is the most powerful person in the world, to determine that he alone is equipped with the moral awareness required to sufficiently guide leadership and hold in check the potential excesses of presidential power?
This understanding of President Obama’s unique moral nobility was almost risible in 2012, when the administration reportedly looked into implementing institutional checks on the targeted killing program in the runup to a potential Mitt Romney presidency. The implication was that new restraints on the drone program were necessary before anyone other than Obama had his hands on it. And it would be similarly risible in almost any other election year involving any other candidate for the office.
The trouble is that this year, Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President of the United States—a man who has made a career and a persona out of what appears to be a total lack of moral awareness or care for other people. And with the not-insignificant chance of a Trump presidency looming in our national future, President Obama’s insistence on publicly reassuring us of his own moral seriousness, even anguish, about big choices suddenly does not seem quite like moral preening. It is, in fact, strangely calming all of a sudden.
The rise of Trump is an excellent demonstration, if nothing else, that the moral fiber of a president (or prospective president) really does matter. As Benjamin Wittes has explained, it is intrinsic to the office of the presidency itself that the decisions of the president as an individual must carry great weight. And those decisions are necessarily shaped by the president’s individual moral character.
Ben quotes Federalist 70, in which Alexander Hamilton argues that the nature and power of the presidency depends on its being held by only one individual at a time—that the executive not be a council but a single person. Hamilton argues that a single executive will not only have an easier time getting things done, but will also be easier to blame. If only one person is in charge, we’ll all know who’s responsible when something goes wrong. A single individual will bear all responsibility—and with any luck, this will constrain that individual from perpetrating “mischief” in the first place.
This Hamiltonian vision of the presidency lends itself well to Obama’s public expressions of anguish and moral seriousness. After all, if Hamilton is right about the presidency, Obama should feel that he, and he alone, is responsible. He should feel deeply the weight of his terrible burden. Perhaps the nature of the office as “the loneliest job” is intrinsic to the singular structure of the presidency itself.
The manner in which Obama foregrounds this aspect of the presidency sometimes has an overly demonstrative quality. It’s as if he’s not sure that you really understand, so he wants it emphasized over and over and over again.
But then comes along Trump, who appears to have no sense whatsoever of the gravity of the presidential office. I won’t bore—or amuse—you with a long litany of Trump’s comments and actions that seem to mock the presidency. It’s a far shorter list, in fact, to compile those incidents in which he has behaved in a fashion that seems consistent with it. He once even suggested that, if elected, he might not bother taking office in the first place.
Machiavelli famously wrote, “I love my native city more than my own soul.” Reading his words centuries later, Hannah Arendt understood this sentiment as an expression of a willingness to make moral compromises on behalf of his country, which she regarded as a necessary trait for someone who wants to participate in politics. In Arendt’s translation, the question becomes “whether one [is] capable of loving the world more than one’s own self.” Whether this is true of Obama, or of Hillary Clinton, I don’t pretend to know. For Trump, on the other hand, the question answers itself.
It turns out that a little moral demonstrativeness isn’t the worst thing in the world. It may even have some value.