Average And Elite Politicians

By , February 16, 2010 4:04 pm
Palin addresses the Tea Party

Sarah Palin’s and Barack Obama’s very different styles and appeal illustrate the contradiction Americans have about our leaders. Some people like Joe the Plumbers. Others like elites. Others like the two wrapped up into one.

Palin, who has said she’s thinking about running for president in 2012, blew away the Tea Party Convention crowd in Nashville for a price of $100,000. What unique brand of folksy does the Tea Party get for 100-grand? She delivers lines like, “How’s that hope-y, change-y stuff working out for ya?” and writes on her hand. (You’d think with all that money, she could just remember the four concepts she scribbled on her palm.)

On the other hand (pun intended), Obama’s State of the Union speech last month was just the opposite of Palin’s folksy speech. There were the customary two introductions of the president and 91 ovations, including 58 that brought Congress – at least some of them – to their feet. Kings, queens and dictators get that type of adulation.

I realize I’m talking more about style here than substance. Intelligence, the ability to juggle multiple problems and motivate others to help with those problems are important skills for a president, but style is important, too. How politicians present themselves and their ideas can make or break a campaign or tenure in office.

The over-the-top ceremony we give to officeholders, particularly presidents, runs counter to the man-of-the-people quality we demand from the men and women who campaign to get elected to office. On the campaign trail, candidates do everything they can to show how “regular” they are. “Regular,” of course, means “not elite.” Ivy League educated Obama went to diners and had beers with voters. Hillary Clinton, who also went to an Ivy League school, downed shots on the campaign trail and Republican flavor-of-the-moment Senator Scott Brown made his GMC truck a part of his campaign.

Once in office, though, politicians, particularly in higher office, are given the accoutrements of political success: titles, adulation and ceremony. They are adorned as soon as the inauguration is over. Politicians aren’t addressed as Mr. McCain, Ms. Palin or Mr. Obama. It’s Senator, Governor and Mr. President. And they have these titles for the rest of their lives! After the inauguration, a huge parade and numerous balls welcome the First Couple to the White House. They’re like a royal couple moving into the American Presidential Palace.

It’s easy to see why we would want our politicians to seem down-to-earth and in-touch with our needs. We want them to know what we go through. We want them to feel our pain. They represent our interests and us – they’re supposed to, at least.

There’s another possible source for the reason why we want our politicians to be ordinary and extraordinary. We’re a country based on the premise of social and economic mobility. We tell our children they can be anything they want: an astronaut, a baseball player or president of the United States. So, when we see politicians of any level, we want to believe we can do that. We may not want the job, but I think Americans want to believe that anyone can achieve high office. It’s the notion that we have the opportunity to be chosen and elevated by our peers to our nation’s political aristocracy.

Of course, being president is huge job and an awesome responsibility. The president and the rest our leaders – federal, state and local – are trusted with everything from our roads and parks to our rights and freedom. The pressure, power and responsibility call for an extra-ordinary person. They don’t have to be aloof, but maybe they shouldn’t be just anybody.

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