Former pro-basketball player Charles Barkley famously said (eventually in a commercial even) that he wasn’t a role model.
The same applies to a president. A president is not “role model in chief.” He’s not a father figure.
A president is basically a manager. We hire him (maybe her, one day), give him the keys to the store, and say, “You’re in charge for a while. Don’t screw it up.”
But the desire for the feeling of reassurance that you get from a father figure is quite seductive, and it can lead to some undesirable consequences. People tend not only to force this role on the president, but to make his potential for fulfilling father-figure fantasies the basis for giving their votes. I’ve written about “brand worship,” “coolness worship,” “celebrity worship,” and other religions in the United States, but this is another one: father-figure worship.
Let me be clear – there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking up to, respecting, and loving your actual father. What I’m talking about here is the transfer of those same sorts of feelings to what are often false idols.
Seeing the president as a father figure can lead voters to support a president even if the leads the country on a misguided misadventure. Conversely, the people that don’t accept a certain president as matching their imagined father-figure image will reject legitimate policies that the president tries to implement – even if the image-rejectors themselves would benefit from it.
The tendency to look at our presidents as father figures has led to the expectation that presidents will live up to the image. If a president doesn’t match someone’s pre-formed image of a father figure, the president will be unable to overcome this expectation, even if he’s really pretty good at his job.
Maybe we should have presidential candidates give speeches from behind screens so that they can’t be seen. It would be like auditioning on the TV show, “The Voice.” We would be forced to pay attention to policy ideas instead of facades.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.
Tom also posts on thrustblog.blogspot.com