By Robert A. Vella
Imagine, if you will, wearing the U.S. President’s shoes today. You’re sitting in the Oval Office. You enjoy great fame and power. You have an intelligent, caring, and pretty wife. You have two beautiful and fortunate children. You’ve had great success in your educational and professional careers. People respect you. The pinnacle of personal achievement is your exalted throne. What could possibly be better?
Yet, all this is juxtaposed against the realities and responsibilities of a turbulent 21st century world where existential threats loom around every corner, where the populace is becoming increasingly uneasy and irrational, where the day-to-day pressures to perform must be unbearable at times for any single human being.
No, you definitely wouldn’t want to wear the President’s shoes – not today, not ever. That is, unless you’re an insufferable narcissist, a sociopathic megalomaniac, or a duty-bound technocrat. And, therein lays our problem. The world has gotten too big, too complex, and too crazy to effectively govern. Those drawn to seek political power in this new day and age might be precisely the people who should never attain it.
Consider what President Obama (a technocrat) has on his plate right now:
- Rampant inequalities of wealth, opportunity, and treatment.
- A culturally polarized nation fracturing into combative groups motivated by fear, anger, and seeking retribution.
- An embittered populace distrustful of large social institutions, turning away from traditional civic engagement and towards ideological extremism.
- Foreign and domestic terrorism driven largely by religious fanaticism.
- Dangerously militarized and aggressive law enforcement agencies.
- The already-ignited powder keg of the Middle East region.
- A very shaky European Union, the U.S.’s most important ally.
- Vigorous geopolitical challenges to American hegemony from China and Russia.
- The prospect of catastrophic climate change, disease, mass migrations, food shortages, and uncontrollable war.
- A rebirth of authoritarianism, the rise of transnational corporate power, and the failure of democracy.
- An upcoming election that has everyone on edge, including his own political party.
Such monumental challenges facing squarely at one person, no matter how emotionally stable that individual might be, must pose serious psychological problems for them. It is known that first responders (i.e. police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel) tend to cope with the human misery they regularly encounter by detaching themselves from it. This gives the impression of callousness, but it is a natural form of self-preservation. The President of the United States does have the advantage of many support mechanisms, though the burden of responsibility must weigh heavily regardless. When we criticize our leaders as being too aloof, we are not typically cognizant of this human reality.
My guess is that Barack Obama, the man, eagerly awaits leaving the White House. The psychological relief of that day must be alluring. What are your thoughts?