In the entertaining 1995 movie, The American President, President Andrew Shepherd played by Michael Douglas starts a relationship with an environment lobbyist, Sydney Ellen Wade played by Annette Benning. The president’s high approval rating takes a dive as the public’s discomfort with a dating president takes hold. President Shepherd refuses to engage the public or political opposition on the issue, taking the “high road” that his private life is none of the public’s business. As his chief of staff A.J. MacInerney played by Martin Sheen retorts, “the American public has a funny way of deciding what is and what is not their business.”
Eventually, one of the president’s chief advisers Lewis Rothschild played by Michael J. Fox confronts the president with the latter’s refusal to speak up and defend his relationship against withering attacks by the president’s election rival, Senator Bob Rumson played by Richard Dreyfus. While acknowledging the President’s patriotism, Rothschild passionately claims that,
“People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”
It seems that at the moment some notable portion of the American people are indeed “drinking the sand.”
On the one hand we have Democrat Bernie Sanders, an intense campaigner, appealing mainly to younger and poorer Americans with the promise that if we just tax the top one percent, trillions of dollars will eventually appear to provide free education, free health care, and higher payouts for Social Security. Maybe someone ought to level with the American people and tell them that no such sums are available. If Mr. Sanders were elected we could expect a dramatic increase in the number of wealthy Americans giving up their passports and moving overseas, adding to the record numbers claiming that distinction last year. (Remember Bjorn Borg moving to Monaco to escape Sweden’s tax burden?)
Then we have political neophyte Donald Trump who has raised insulting people to an art form and has been rewarded with zealous support by a sizeable minority of Americans. Mr Trump promises to suddenly “make America great again” by building a wall on the border with Mexico, taxing Chinese imports by 45%, and refusing to allow Muslims into the U.S. (with notable exceptions for Muslim celebrities). Disentangling ourselves from the labor of Mexico, the goods of China and the energy of immigrants will be more painful than Mr. Trump and others might imagine. Of course Mr. Trump and his minions as well as the media ignore the benefits of free trade to U.S. jobs and business profits, especially for small businesses.
The answers sound so easy.
Of course the rhetoric of these two demagogues (Yes, liberals, Mr. Sanders is one too!) feels so empowering after bearing with the reserved and aloof “Professor-in-Chief” for the last eight years. The public loves the loud and emboldening language of Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump; it feels so liberating to think we can charge into the future behind an aggressive leader. After all, Americans have made it a habit of electing presidents who possess qualities the previous president conspicuously lacked. Jimmy Carter to Richard Nixon seems the best example.
President Obama has refused to sell his policies aggressively and use the bully pulpit to engage the public. His quiet intellectual tone and undemonstrative appeal to rationality has made Americans thirst for more dynamism. He has left the American people feeling adrift in a sea of sand, in a world that seems so threatening. Of course a Republican-led Congress, slightly more popular than terrorists, has successfully stonewalled almost every move he made.
This leaves many Americans yearning for some direction. But as President Shepherd retorted to his adviser Lewis Rothschild in the movie, “people don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty, they drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.” Maybe “we the people” should do a little investigating to try and discover what we might get ourselves into before casting a ballot for a candidate promising pie-in-the-sky solutions that feel emotionally satisfying.