What distinguishes one presidency from another? What ensures that some presidents remain virtually anonymous, whilst others live on as household names? To some degree it is their ability to seize the Presidential Moment. History reveals that whilst presidents may take office they do not necessarily become embraced by the nation until later in their term since they struggle to cloak themselves in the aura of the presidency until an event forces them to do so.
Wondering what I mean by this?
The assassination attempt on Reagan brought the country behind Ronnie in a way that seems to have been unlikely had the event not occurred. The Gipperr’s survival, coming less than 20 years after the national tragedy in Dallas, transformed him into a national icon who had literally taken one for the team and come through, smiling, joking and promising a new dawn. Morning in America was very nearly America in mourning, but Reagan’s living presence become the embodiment of the 1980s and a touchstone for Republican leaders ever since. Granted, Reagan had little say in the matter, but his resilience and personality counted. What impressed the American people was the manner in which he faced the situation and his ability to deliver a few gags with his surgeons before being operated on. (“I hope you’re all Republicans”)
Flash forward to 1995. Bill Clinton was rapidly on his way to being a one-term president. He had been elected with 43% of the popular vote, had failed to secure health care, had made a hash of the gays in the military row, had failed to get two candidates appointed Attorney General, had the White-water issue hanging over his head, was facing claims of sexual harassment from Paula Jones, claims of inappropriate behaviour by his former Arkansas state troopers and his party had just lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. The meteoric rise of Newt Gingrich even forced Clinton to explain his continued relevancy live on CNN thanks to the impertinence of Judy Woodruff. This was a president who had nowhere to go but back to Arkansas.
And then the Federal Building was attacked in Oklahoma City.
This one event galvanised Clinton and he found his Presidential Moment. In a time of national tragedy, the eyes of the nation and its collective media turned not to the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader, but the President of the United States, and for the first time, Clinton proved equal to his office. His task was made somewhat easier by the ties the bombers had to right-wing militias, but his speech in Oklahoma spoke of compassion and the need to unify as a nation. It brought the nation together and in an instant transformed Bill Clinton into the living embodiment of the President of the UNITED States, not just an elected official. From that point on, his operation was smoother, his ratings improved, as he correctly assumed the mantle of the office. His capacity to do so and he benefit he would draw from it, even helped him overcome the impeachment crisis of his second term, though it would not be enough to guarantee the election of his vice president.
Gore’s defeat gave rise to another presidency that took time to assume the full powers of the office. George W. Bush took office in the aftermath of the protracted debacle in Florida and his inaugural parade was the first to be declared a National Security Event by the US Security Services. His motorcade was raced through Lafayette Park to avoid the crowds who were already protesting against Bush, arguably before his presidency had even begun. For the following eight months Bush managed to risk relations with Russia by withdrawing from the AMB Treaty, risk relations with China over a downed spy plane, and alienated much of the world by failing to endorse the Kyoto agreement.
And then came 9/11.
Interestingly, however, Bush’s initial reaction to the national tragedy was not perceived well. To ensure the safety of the office of the presidency, the Secret Service demanded that Air Force One fly from Florida to Barksdale Air Force base near Shreveport, Louisiana and then on to the US Strategic Command centre in Offutt, Nebraska. Meanwhile, on the ground in lower Manhattan, the world’s media was focused on Ruddy Guiliani, the outgoing Mayor of New York, who was about to be christened Mayor of the World in a performance that would put the nation’s leader in the shade. Even when Bush was able to return to the White house, his performance in front of the cameras was not inspiring, as he virtually ran from the Oval Office in tears.
Yet Bush did find his Presidential Moment in the midst of the rubble of the Twin Towers when he spoke to rescue workers. Speaking through a megaphone (bullhorn) he famously told his audience (who were having trouble hearing him) “I hear you, the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will all of us soon.” In a single moment, he became THE president of the United States and brought together a grieving nation and a shocked world. Arguably, for a short time, President Bush could have done much to unify the world into a new era of peace and harmony. Beyond the individual tragedies of that day, this lost opportunity looms large as an historical blunder of epic proportions. Regardless, Bush’s ability to seize his presidential moment ensured his re-election in 2004 and allowed him to remain in office far longer than many had predicted in his initial months.
His place in the Oval Office would be taken by the first non-white president, Barack Obama, whose election was likened to a new start for America after the Bush years. Yet as Bush alienated the left, so too would Obama alienate the right, who saw him as elitist and too eager to introduced social policies that ran counter to the American can-do attitude. His right to govern was questioned by ‘birthers’ who claimed he was not an American citizen and by those who claimed he was a Muslim. With the losses incurred in the 2010 mid-term elections, many were predicting a one-term presidency for Obama.
Whilst that may still be a possibility, the assassination attempt on the life of Congresswoman Giffords and the president’s speech at the national memorial service appears to have been the moment that Obama seized the Presidential Moment. Even Glen Beck of Fox News, credited Obama with finding his voice and of rising to the occasion.
Not all presidencies are equal. Some presidents go their entire term in office without finding their presidential voice, or having a true presidential moment. But recent history has revealed a series of administrations were this has occurred, and in that moment, a nationally elected but still regional figure transforms. In that moment, his previous life is cast off and he becomes the President of the United States, a unifying figure capable of uniting the nation and guiding it towards a new dawn. The coming months will reveal the extent to which Obama is capable of emulating the likes of Clinton, Bush and Reagan. The rewards are there for he taking if he can do so, as is electoral oblivion if he does not…