Health Care and What It Means To Be President

Obama’s performance at the health care summit raises the bar for those who would succeed him.

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Remember when being the president just meant that you were “the decider”? This was the golden age of George W. Bush, when it really seemed like anyone—anyone—could be president. If we’re honest, it is only the model of the George W. Bush presidency that enables so many people to imagine that Sarah Palin could run the United States.

The problem for Palin and other popular lightweights is that the presidency is no longer what it was when George W. Bush occupied the White House. Landing on aircraft carriers, holding news conferences in which you forestall questions by giving long speeches, having no mastery of the details of the economy, military operations or geopolitical history, intimidating the opposition so you don’t have to engage them—all of that is the stuff of the past.

In just a year, Barack Obama has reworked the job description for president, showing how much an engaged, talented and smart president can do to invigorate debate and unclog the wheels of government. Like most employers, now that the American public has seen what a president can do, we’re not likely to go back to hiring someone who can’t do the job as good as the last guy.

The Blair House health care summit should have—if it hasn’t already—scared the dickens out of those potential presidential candidates who planned to have their advisers (or in the case of Bush, their vice presidents) do the heavy lifting. It doesn’t get more hands-on than Obama’s “all in” at the health care summit—where he rattled off facts and figures, told inspirational stories, countered the opposition with specifics, managed the time, identified areas of agreement and disagreement, and managed never to look bored or even annoyed.

Barely breaking a sweat, maintaining control, but most importantly demonstrating a superior mastery of the issue at hand, Obama shattered the idea of the CEO president, whose greatest leadership asset is the ability to “hire good people.” Instead, Obama showed that he owns not just the ideas and policies he advances, but also the substance and detail of those policies.