Battles Over So Hail To The Chief And Target Economic Slide
Written by Michael Lewis on November 6, 2008
By Michael Lewis
Campaign innuendo and vituperation are over, praise be. Barring election glitches, you know who’ll be president.
As I write I don’t know. But of this I’m sure:
Despite talk of growing divisions, all will call the victor our own. Despite a campaign some call nastiest ever, our people and our leaders will unite as always. Nations that fail in this either war internally or disintegrate.
We will stop yelling about who is worst. We will forget threats that were said to be gravest ever but aren’t.
We will get on with being Americans, a people of vast differences that we ignore except during an election season that has seemed never-ending. We will reunite with neighbors with whom we have clashed politically for a year.
It ended not a moment too soon, because we face a serious struggle with a global economy that first turned sour right here in the good old USA.
We must work on saving jobs and homes, on sustaining businesses and rebuilding as we fight the slide, and uniting to come out of it as fast as possible.
It’s no time for grudges or ideological divides. Even in an election year, in fact, we agreed on federal ownership of bank shares, unthinkable as recently as spring.
We’ve important work, and we will do it. Just as the nation came together after Sept. 11, it will unite after Nov. 4 to battle an economic attack.
Until Tuesday night we’d lost focus, clouded by election-year hot air. Some even vowed to head to Canada rather than live a day under an Obama presidency. Others said the same of a McCain victory.
Now that one is president-elect, count on your fingers those who actually flee. Freely as Canada has embraced immigrants, they can’t emigrate before the inauguration.
The quickest entry to Canada — 16-day processing — is as a protected person or convention refugee. Other groups are far slower, so would-be émigrés would remain in the US under the president of someone else’s choice.
But Canada won’t call people refugees just because they don’t like fellow citizens’ presidential choice. Remember, no matter who won, a large slice of this nation was opposed.
And, unhappy as you may be today with that choice, we have voted him in freely. Many on this globe still cannot do the same. Be proud.
Friday, three persons drowned in Miami-Dade trying to slip in from abroad. About 40 people on the ship were trying to do the same. Everyone wants to be here. Why grumble?
Think, too: What can the candidate not of your choice do for or to us? Far less than the hot air claims.
Both senators made vows for the economy, for housing, for social security, for healthcare, for energy — a litany of "what I’m going to do when I’m president."
Truth is, the winner can do precisely none of it. Congress will do any legislating we do. The president can only sign, allow it to pass or veto it.
The president-elect’s "what I’m going to do" becomes "what I want Congress to do." Presidents can be persuasive, but bet your last dime that Congress will alter any plans, sometimes unrecognizably.
So if the McCain or Obama agenda enraged you, relax. No president has made a full platform law. Campaign promises may show intent (sometimes not even that) but they never depict our exact future.
Formally, the president is commander-in-chief (but he cannot declare war), chief of state (visible but ceremonial), diplomat (who may or may not meet with foreigners seen as enemies), chief executive (setting agency policies), judicial prodder (appointing Supreme Court justices and federal judges, but only with aid of Congress) and granter of clemency (often to grant favors).
The president also can claim emergency powers in extreme crises, such as the national emergency President Bush declared after 9/11.
Then come informal powers. He’s nominal party leader.
More vital, the president has moral suasion, setting tone for a nation. He can command television time for a message, offer leadership, set the pace, work to heal wounds, pull us together and act as parent in the bully pulpit from which he can set a national direction.
To succeed in the informal arena, however, the president needs us to stick with him. And this need to maintain a bond with citizens keeps a president on a short leash.
If you fear the president-elect will veer far left (or far right), remember that to stay powerful he must maintain support in a land that is mostly centrist. On a global scale, our far left is pretty near our far right in viewpoint and daily life. Democrat and Republican live and work together. No strong ethnic, class or economic levels divide the persuasions.
The president, in other words, only maintains full power if he keeps most citizens with him — or, better put, if he stays firmly with them. If he is off tone, he won’t play in Peoria — or the rest of the nation.
In summary, the president can’t stray far from the people, the people don’t stray far from the political center, and Americans always come together after the political battle. So don’t worry about campaign hot air.
True, you say, until this year, but this campaign has been the ugliest, breaking the mold. Unity may have permanently yielded.
But was it really ugliest? We just mentally erase the slime once the election is over.
Recall 1800, the only time a vice president (Thomas Jefferson) battled an incumbent (John Adams). Jefferson said Adams had a "hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Adams’ side asked voters who might consider Jefferson, "Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames… female chastity violated… children writhing on the pike?"
Makes this year’s drivel seem tame.
Or take 1828. President John Quincy Adams’ supporters called Andrew Jackson’s wife a "dirty black wench" and a "convicted adulteress" who was prone to "open and notorious lewdness." Jackson’s people claimed Adams had sold his wife’s maid as a concubine to the czar of Russia. All fables.
In 1860, candidate Stephen Douglas called Abe Lincoln a "horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman."
In 1928, Republicans claimed New York Democrat Al Smith, a Catholic, had commissioned a secret 3,500-mile-long tunnel from the Vatican to the Holland Tunnel, then being dug, and that the Pope would have a say in all presidential matters.
With such mudslinging in our history, how bad can current slinging of the S word be?
No, not socialist. The S word is senator — only twice in 33 presidential elections that lacked an incumbent has a senator won (Warren Harding in 1920, John Kennedy in 1960). Theory is, voters want a president who has actually run something. Senators run nothing. And this year, the S word fit both candidates.
Well, S word or no, one of them will be running a pretty big something as of January.
And by January we must heal quickly. We did it in 2000 after the Bush-Gore recount. By 9/11 we were all pulling together — at least, until all was under control.
We do best, in fact, in dark times, and this is one. It’s not the Great Depression of the 1930s, but we cannot remain at each other’s throats as we were until Tuesday.
As monarchies do to unite, we need to shout our own version of "The King is dead. Long live the King" to welcome the new leader of all of us, not just of his own party. "Hail to the Chief" will do.
The one thing that we cannot afford to do is remain so hot under the collar that we opt out.
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