Another bit of good luck for the president will be a dramatic change in the attitude of the press. Beginning on Day One, the press will start focusing on optimism and magnifying every faintest sign of progress, in order to help President Obama. They will blow out the sails of his myth-making and miracle-working. All to the good! It beats unrelenting negativism.
American presidents are, inevitably, something like Christ figures. They must all suffer and, eventually, fall. Human nature, as the Poet says, cannot bear too much success.
We may hope that the new president, who has an acute mind, recognizes what fate has in store for him–and puts if off as long as he can by adjusting the myths under which he campaigned, to the realities of the way the world works. There are signs he has already begun that (in protecting the transition in Iraq, in defending the homeland against terrorist attacks, in seeking the economic benefits of low tax rates, just to mention a few just now in evidence). The new sober tone of the inaugural may be a further indication.
But there are other signs he and his team have a lot to learn, in order to come down to the world as it is. He has already seriously neglected some of the traditional courtesies and deferences that a president owes to individual Senators, his team has failed properly and solidly to vet several of his cabinet choices. His mantra of “change” is indiscriminate and myth-building. There are many solid rocks in American life that, his inaugural address affirmed, he would not want to change.
Also, we Americans inherit a happy tradition, which it is good to see the new administration celebrating. Abraham Lincoln once taught us that being born in a log cabin in the hard-scrabble hills of Kentucky was no bar to being elected president of the United States. Power has been peacefully handed off from one administration to another 44 times in American history (including the first to take up this office, George Washington, who was handed off power peacefully by a new Constitution). It has usually been done with a personal courtesy and a popular enthusiasm about which the Constitution is silent–unless one counts the Constitution written down in American hearts and mores. Leges sine moribus vanae. (Laws cut off from mores are empty.)
These lessons of principle and of tradition–and many other practical ones learned by presidents down the years (about appeasement, about the effects of government spending on inflation, etc.)–Obama is now in a position to learn, if he chooses to do so. Traditions live only by changing. But where to prune and where to let live is the highest of human arts, Aristotle taught.
So, as the earliest Americans greeted Washington, for Obama, too: “Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!” Plus also a little sadness for what must come.
– Michael Novak’s website is www.michaelnovak.net and his wife Karen’s is www.laub-novakartist.com