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.
Some, no doubt, will find his remark to Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., condescending, but Obama’s reminder today that working out health care reform is “hard work” was no throwaway line. Most of us, if we’re honest, were thinking as Obama schooled Cantor, “and he watches SportsCenter?”
The winner of this summit is the American people. Every time President Obama sets a high standard of what we should expect from our elected officials, the American people benefit. We benefit in the substantive discussion and policymaking that can flow from these efforts, but also in the implication that public service should be the calling of the best and the brightest, not the ambitious and the calculating, or even just the popular.
Ironically, in this regard, Obama’s powerful and engaged presidential presence helps the Republican Party, too. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, may do a good job of rallying the spirit of “no,” but it was old-school Republican, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a sober and thoughtful guy, who was chosen to present the impressive opening statement at the summit on behalf of the GOP.
As Sen. John McCain should remember from the campaign and as he discovered again Thursday when he tried to re-open the negative partisan attacks, only smart, specific, civil challenges to substance can defeat this president in a face-to-face battle. Obama’s terse shutdown of McCain’s antics left the 48-year-old president looking like the grown-up and McCain like the petulant child. In short, Obama is forcing the Republicans to be smarter and more thoughtful.
The health care summit proved again that those who have counted Obama out are woefully premature. Moreover, President Obama’s performance at the health care summit underscored that he is moving the presidency beyond the reach of those whose principal résumé points are a kind of charming, folksy populism. Americans have come to expect more of their president, and every time Obama delivers, he ratchets up the standard for those who think they want to take on his job.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.