This post attempts to answer two questions:
If you could spend a few weeks being Barack Obama, what would you learn about his life and the world in which he lives?
How would this experience change the way you think about the man, his policies, and the American presidency?
I don’t think about national politics very often, but I often think about Barack Obama, because he lives a very unusual life. Only a few dozen people have led modern nations with anything close to the United States’ current level of wealth and power.
If you’ve never run the country, it may seem impossible to put yourself in the President’s size-12 shoes. We can debate his policies and study his upbringing, you might think, but we can’t know what goes through his head when he makes decisions, or brushes his teeth in the morning.
I don’t think this is entirely true. Yes, the President’s innermost thoughts may be off-limits. But certain things about his life — important things, things which take up a lot of space in his head — are somewhat predictable.
If you woke up in Barack Obama’s brain, with access to all his thoughts, here are five things I think you’d find out within a week or two. It’s up to you whether you agree, and whether you think any differently about the man or his job as a result.
1. You are forced to make important decisions despite your vast limitations.
Almost every day, you make a decision with more global impact than anything the average American will ever do.
Sometimes you’re spending billions of dollars. Sometimes you’re choosing whether to risk the lives of American soldiers. Sometimes you are literally deciding whether someone on the other side of the world will live or die.
You make these decisions with access to vast amounts of information — more information than any other person in the world can access — but you are an ordinary man. You’re smart, but you can only hold so many facts and figures in your head at the same time. You have help from people you respect and trust, people who’ve worked with you for years — but sometimes those people disagree and you have to pick a side.
Outside the White House, millions of people are judging every decision you make. The day after you do something, brilliant thinkers write scathing editorials about how wrong you were. You read those editorials and you know they have a point, because you considered that option, but no one will ever know that. Or maybe you didn’t consider that option, because you had dozens of options and exactly two hours of time in which to think about every briefing you heard and every summary you read.
You will never know as much about any decision you make as the people around you. You never served in the military, but you make decisions after listening to an argument between your best generals. You aren’t an economist, but you make decisions after reading three competing briefs from economists with a combined 70 years of tenure. You know that the generals and the economists aren’t telling you 95% of what they know because you wouldn’t have the time or experience to understand it.
If you’re anything like me, you find this experience immensely frustrating. What’s more, you find it exhausting — like a neverending college course where there’s new reading every day and every homework assignment is “change the country” and you’ll never score higher than 50% on the test of whether people agree with you.
2. Millions of people hate you, and thousands of people want to kill you.
You are one of the world’s most hated individuals.
Some of the people who hate you are world leaders who employ spies and assassins. Some of the people who hate you are ordinary Americans who own some of the country’s 270 million guns.
Some Americans hated you from the moment they read their first chain letter about you. Some Americans who voted for you in 2008 hate you now. (Some people in the second group use the word “disappointed”, which makes your skin crawl.)
On an average day, you receive 15 death threats. Most of them aren’t serious, but it only takes one.
You don’t read most of the threats people send to the White House, and you’ve learned never to read the comments on certain websites. But you know about some of the most serious threats. Once every few months, they are serious enough that the Secret Service delays a public appearance or reroutes your transportation.
Every serious threat so far has been quietly broken up by one of your many lines of defense. You wonder how much better the Secret Service has gotten since some maniac almost killed Reagan. You really aren’t sure.
Your wife and daughters have security, but less than you do. Malia is going to college and will have less protection there than in Washington. She may not need protection, and rationally you know that no child of a President has ever been assassinated, but that doesn’t help with the occasional nightmares.
3. You hold enormous power over the lives of strangers.
As we’ve said, you can choose to risk the lives of soldiers. You can wage war. You can choose whether or not the United States will invade another nation and change the lives of, say, twenty million Syrians. Whatever choice you make, you will save some people and kill other people as a result.
You have directly ordered the deaths of several people. They may have been bad people, killers, but it’s still unsettling to give an order that ends with a missile exploding inside of a house.
You haven’t closed Guantanamo Bay. You’ve been trying to close it for seven years, but maybe you could have tried harder. You could have worked longer hours, called in more favors, freed at least a few more prisoners — but you thought about it and realized it wasn’t the best thing you could do for the United States with your limited time and political capital. As a result, 93 people are still in prison, some of them innocent, and there’s a good chance they’ll still be there the day you lose all your Presidential power.
For that matter, there are a lot of Americans in prison. Some of them are there because you thought about pardoning them but decided not to. Every day, you wake up as a free man, and they don’t.
You tried to create a healthcare program that would save American lives. You got a program, but it wasn’t the one you wanted. Some people will die or go bankrupt because the program isn’t perfect and can’t catch up with them in time. You wonder what you could have tried that might have led to a better Obamacare. Hell, sometimes you wonder whether Obamacare has even been successful.
You want to think so, but every new study says something different. Same goes for every single goddamn policy you ever supported. You are the most powerful person in the world, and you have only a vague understanding of what you’ve done with that power. Who did you save? Who did you kill? On the whole, did you make the world a better place?
(Historians will debate that question for centuries, and they’ll never reach a consensus.)
4. For the most part, you aren’t allowed to express yourself.
This would be annoying even if you were an ordinary person — but you’re not!
You have access to knowledge that could radically change the way people see the world. Your maxed-out security clearance gives you access to the ultimate version of Wikileaks. But you can’t talk about most of that, not ever.
Of course, there are lots of Presidential things you can talk about after you retire. But even if you publish a thousand-page book, you’ll only be able to squeeze in a fraction of what you heard and saw during your eight years as the most powerful person on the planet.
You do get some chances to say what’s on your mind — lots of speeches, and of course the State of the Union. But your speeches are mostly boilerplate, and you don’t write most of them anyway. Every time you speak from the heart, there’s a chance you’ll make a catastrophic mistake that defines how the public views you for the rest of your term.
So you stay conservative, and try not to make off-the-cuff remarks. For good measure, you keep a careful mental file of all the things you know but can’t reveal. You gripe to Michelle at night, but otherwise you are meticulously polite to the people whose purpose in life is to thwart your plans just because you made them. (You can let loose once a year, and you make the most of it, but still.)
5. You have a family, friends, and a past.
Before you were the President, you were Barry, and Barack the editor, and Senator Obama. You met a woman named Michelle and fell in love and got married and raised children. You went to house parties and made friends all around Chicago. Your worldview and values were shaped over almost 50 years before you stepped into the Oval Office.
You are also the face of the nation, the person who gets out of bed every morning and has to represent 300 million Americans. You get letters from thousands of these people every day, and they all want something different.
The Platonic ideal of a president would reflect the goals and desires of all those Americans. But you aren’t that Platonic ideal. You’re some guy from Chicago who asked permission to be America for four years, and then 53% of the voters said “yes, please, go forth and be America”, and now you wake up every day and you run a country. Still, whatever the day’s news, whatever decision you have to make, you face your task as an individual with a single, narrow perspective.