The Emptiness of ‘Presidential’
by
Obama speaks at a town hall, June 3, 2020 (YouTube screenshot)

We’ve all seen it happen again and again. Every time there’s a social or political upheaval in the U.S., President Trump responds in the way that he does, for better or for worse. Then Barack Obama releases his take — usually a pithy five-minute video, or an essay, or both — and the press goes wild. The adulation displayed every time inevitably features the term “presidential,” as well as breathless analysis about how Obama managed to slam Trump without ever mentioning his successor by name, such is his mastery of words and oratory. 

We’re getting another round of this just now, with not one but all four living ex-presidents chiming in on the death of George Floyd and the riots from coast to coast. Obama is offering his classic video and essay combo. George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter have each given more concise statements through their respective foundations. 

Out rolled that word, “presidential.” U.S. News was the quickest to the punch. Chris Cillizza of CNN couldn’t get enough, declaring that Obama and Bush had “showed what real leadership looks like.” The Washington Post applauded the four ex-presidents for using their platforms to “illuminate the humanity in all Americans,” and cast Trump as the odd one out of the bunch, for being the president who prefers to use his platform to kick puppies instead, presumably. 

Reasonable people can take issue with some of the points made by America’s former heads of state. Clinton curiously spends the first half of his statement drawing a line between white and black Americans and the second half decrying the “us versus them … world we’re living in.” The central question that Bush asks in his statement is, “How do we end systemic racism in our society?” He proffers no real solutions of his own, which seems like a recipe for only deepening the tribalization and racialization plaguing American politics. Obama, for his part, appeals to the reader to make sure that Americans “have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society.” In plain terms: vote for Joe Biden in November. 

Still, the statements do contain a nice — even poignant — expression of sympathy for a tragic event. What is truly objectionable is how the statements have been weaponized by media commentators for the nth time to rebuke and attack President Trump for his law-and-order response to the rioting, and to sow more division when there is plenty to go around already. 

The presidency is an executive position, not a ceremonial one. Expressing empathy and reaching out to the aggrieved in times of unrest is no doubt a large part of the president’s role. If it were all that the president had to do, then Obama and Bush would indeed be acting impeccably presidential right now. But it is not. George Floyd’s death is one of the two main reasons why this crisis has been so tragic. The other reason consists of the Americans who have lost their lives, livelihoods, or neighborhoods because of the senseless actions of unconstrained rioters and looters. 

One can debate whether or not President Trump’s rhetoric on this matter has been helpful. What is indisputable is that Obama’s “presidential” alternative, which appears to consist of lightly criticizing the “small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms,” would not have prevented a substantial part of Minneapolis from burning to the ground. A truly presidential leader has an obligation not only to George Floyd, but also to all those small business owners and hardworking Americans in the Twin Cities and elsewhere aspiring to the American Dream with the assumption that the state guarantees their life and property.

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