Politics & Policy

Why 2016 Has You So Stressed

(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Does this year’s presidential race feel a lot more stressful than usual?

2016 is shaping up to be the sixth or seventh consecutive “most important election of our lifetimes.” Each successive presidential cycle seems more epic than the last, with far-reaching and often grim consequences for average Americans hanging in the balance.

Here are five good reasons why:

1. Barack Obama transformed his job from president to king. Obamacare was never supported by a majority of the American public, but the president charged ahead anyway, using every trick in the book to ram it through Congress. After the law was enacted, the White House unilaterally changed its rules at a whim in response to political pressure.

It was the beginning of a disturbing pattern.

Obama decreed millions of illegal immigrants could no longer be deported. His administration insisted the Iran nuclear deal wasn’t really a treaty and didn’t need ratification by the Senate. Congress wasn’t consulted before he took military action in Libya, nor were they notified as required by law before he swapped prisoners with the Taliban. When Senate approval of his nominations appeared unlikely, he just made recess appointments.

I could go on and on and on citing other examples of Obama’s dangerous disregard for the constitutional separation of powers: The lesson of his presidency is that a sufficiently shameless president can get what he wants, since any attempt to reverse his decisions will require long, protracted legal battles with no guarantee of success.

You must shiver at the thought of whichever candidate you can’t stand — Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders — having the same powers to shape policy at will. Even the Republican candidates who denounce Obama’s power grabs are suspect; how many of them could really resist following his example if given the chance?

2. At some point soon, the Supreme Court will experience a high rate of age-induced turnover. With the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, there’s now a Supreme Court nomination in the balance. However this nomination fight shakes out, it’s exceedingly likely that there will be others to come in the next four years. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 82. Anthony Kennedy is 79. Stephen Breyer is 77. Clarence Thomas is 67. Could you imagine one president appointing a majority of the Supreme Court justices? That hasn’t happened since Dwight Eisenhower.

3. The media’s favorite soap opera will get a new protagonist. Journalists believe they’re writing the first draft of history. Almost every reporter dreams of writing a big story, with a narrative fit for a Hollywood movie or miniseries: a heroic protagonist, a villainous antagonist, triumphs, setbacks, plot twists, intrigue, and a happy ending. Numerous political consultants endorse this approach to resolving political disputes — tell a story in which you and your side is the hero, those who disagree are the villains, and the audience, that shrinking pool of persuadable voters, chooses good over evil.

The media inevitably will turn the next president into the new main character of this ongoing drama, reporting every heroic triumph and tragic setback with a focus on what it means for him/her, rather than what it means for us. And if the new president is a Republican, the tone of the show will shift.

It’s virtually impossible for a president to resist buying into the cartoon image of himself painted by the press, such that it alters his very real, very consequential actions.

Under a Democratic president, the soap opera is about a heroic figure struggling to protect the vulnerable from powerful special interests driven by greed. (Take a moment to realize that on The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin managed to persuade viewers that the President of the United States was the plucky underdog persevering against long odds week after week.)

Under a Republican president, the show becomes a House of Cards-style Shakespearean tragedy, as a haunted man, blinded by ideology, is driven to embrace one bad idea after another, driving his country into a ditch despite the best efforts of noble, heroic Democrats to stop him.

In either eventuality, as Obama has demonstrated, it’s virtually impossible for a president to resist buying into the cartoon image of himself painted by the press, such that it alters his very real, very consequential actions. And that is bad news for the millions of people those actions touch.

#share#4. The next president is almost certain to be an insufferably ubiquitous pop cultural figure. Yes, presidents have been a pop culture presence for decades, at least since Richard Nixon appeared on Laugh-In in 1968.

But Obama took the pop-culture aspect of the job to insanely overdone new heights. He showed up on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman. He slow-jammed the news on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and made multiple appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He taped a Q&A promoting Conan O’Brien’s transition to The Tonight Show, a promotion for George Lopez’s short-lived late-night program, videos for The Colbert Report and the Colbert-helmed Late Show, and a prime-time special with Oprah. He grilled with Food Network star Bobby Flay, popped up in commercials during Thanksgiving football, and filled out his March Madness brackets on ESPN every year. He hung out with Ellen DeGeneres. And of course, he made several stops on American Idol.

We don’t have the option of tuning out presidents who annoy us anymore, because avoiding the news no longer removes a president from our lives. Naturally, the hosts of these programs swoon over their special guest and guffaw at every canned one-liner from the president, as otherwise enjoyable, apolitical programming becomes soft-focus propaganda for whatever the administration wants to promote in a given week.

We’re not just choosing a commander-in-chief in November; we’re electing a celebrity-in-chief, a ubiquitous cultural figure who will be an unavoidable presence for the next four years. If you think you can’t stand to see these figures as candidates, imagine how you’ll feel after they win.

5. Every candidate’s core base of supporters starts to resemble a cult of personality. Yes, we get it, you’re emotionally invested in your candidate becoming president. But at some point enthusiasm and the need to believe in the overwhelming superiority of your favorite overrides rationality.

Every debate answer becomes the greatest public statement since the Gettysburg Address. Every decision is another brilliant move in a game of 3-D chess that critics, the poor saps, cannot comprehend. It wasn’t a gaffe, and even if it was, it doesn’t matter. That poll is wrong. All the good polls show your guy doing great. This unexpected bit of breaking news is further proof he was right all along. No other candidate ever has a good line, good answer, good idea, or good day.

The candidates themselves, of course, have an interest in promoting this kind of blinkered, slavish loyalty in their fans. And the result is that after a while, the presidential race starts to feel more like a duel between cult leaders.

This is not the way to choose a new leader of the free world.

#related#Those of us who want a president who acts under constitutional limits, who won’t see his presidency as a Joseph Campbell-style “hero’s journey”, who focuses on governing as opposed to the perpetual campaign, and who has a base of supporters capable of distinguishing between admiration and blind devotion are likely to be disappointed by 2016.

The good news, if it can be called good news, is that every cult of personality comes crashing down eventually. But in the process, there’s usually a giant mess left behind for the next guy to clean up.

We don’t call them “cycles” for nothing, after all.

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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