The Corner

If You Want to Change American Culture, Should You Be Running for President?

Over on the home page, Henry Payne reports from Dr. Ben Carson’s campaign kickoff event, and summarizes Carson’s message, “It’s Not Politics or Economics, It’s the Culture.”

Dr. Carson may very well be right. (Mike Huckabee, announcing today, has also emphasized the need for an American cultural and/or spiritual renewal to overcome our current plethora of problems, as has once and perhaps future candidate Rick Santorum.) It’s easy to imagine an America with a better, healthier, culture: Children raised by moms and dads in stable homes. Teenagers finishing high school and going on to trade school or college. Young adults staying away from crime and addictions of all kinds. Neighbors looking out for each other, instead of calling the cops on children of “free-range parents” they deem insufficiently irresponsible. Folks who are facing hard times embraced by a warm support network of family, friends, neighbors, and their broader community — Americans going through their lives reassured by the sense that if they stumble and fall, their churches, synagogues, and other faith groups and Burkean platoons will be there to catch them and help them back on their feet.

The thing is, if you genuinely believe the biggest problems in America today are cultural, and not economic or political . . . should you really be running for president? Sure, the president of the United States is indisputably a pretty important cultural figure, and President Obama has been a ubiquitous, insufferably overexposed popular culture figure. But the job isn’t primarily cultural, is it? (Perhaps Obama’s preference to be celebrity-in-chief — popping up on the late-night shows, inviting musicians to perform at the White House, holding a White House ceremony for every championship sports team, and little rituals like his March Madness picks – represents some turning point in the role of the presidency in American life.) Still, there was a time when presidents were seen as boring and an arm’s length, at least, from popular culture. The days of a president were occupied by life-and-death matters of state, national security, economics, foreign policy, and so on.

Who is the most influential cultural figure in America today? A few years back we might have said Oprah Winfrey. Taylor Swift? The programming director for one of the networks, or HBO? Franklin Graham, Joel Osteen, or Rick Warren? Kevin Feige, the guy running Marvel Studios?

I’m asking, because I can see strong arguments both ways: If you really want to change American culture for the better, is the Oval Office really the best place to make the attempt?

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