In Times Like These, It's Good Not To Have To Be The Decider

July 24, 2009|By Ron Smith

I have never envied the powerful. To achieve great power, cosmic law mandates a commensurate price must be paid by the power-seeker. The splendor that comes with being the president of the United States, the world's sole superpower - as we are so often reminded with overweening pride - exacts a huge toll on the man in the White House. Sure, he lives in the grandest style imaginable, in a magnificent mansion, with Air Force One at his disposal and a huge staff of military and civilian helpers to usher him through his busy days.

The cost? No privacy and constant scrutiny.

I remember watching a documentary on the White House during the Dubya years and President George W. Bush remarking how he'd certainly miss the trappings of supreme power once his second term ended, how thrilling it was to be awakened in the morning by an aide asking him what he might want to start his day. He made no secret of the excitement he felt as president to be whisked away by Marine One helicopters and flown over the clogged streets and highways in and around the nation's capital to board the hugely expensive flying White House, which was the topic of a companion documentary.

I paid close attention to both programs. It was fascinating to get a close-up look at the way the White House is run, by people really dedicated to their jobs, every task done to its utmost, from the kitchen to the grounds to the interior maintenance. Obviously, the staffers there, from the highest to the lowest, are incredibly proud of what they do. The same goes for the officers and crew of Air Force One. It's a plum assignment, and it was terrifically interesting for me to see how much goes into any presidential trip.

I remember monitoring my own interior self for any stirring of envy. I found none. Wouldn't I really have liked to be a ruler? No, I wouldn't want to live in a bubble and to have to pretend that I understood everything and had answers for all the problems besetting the empire. (I do some of that pretending as a talk show host and columnist, but luckily there is no wielding of actual power.)

I can't stand meetings, have no interest in hiring and firing people and would be shaken to the core to have to pretend that I and my fellow elected officials could possibly know what to do about, say, fixing the 15 percent of the economy that is our health care system. Yet that's precisely what presidents have to do, what Barack Obama did as he stood before the cameras Wednesday night and urged those watching to believe that he, his advisers and the Democrats in Congress have really devised effective answers to the runaway cost of providing health services to the American people, and that these answers, laid out in the purposefully dense and turgid 1,400-plus pages of H.R. 3200 must be made law ASAP or disaster will befall us.

Is there any embarrassment in the fact that after promising total "transparency" if elected president, Mr. Obama instead has given us more of the notorious Bush opaqueness? The White House, for example, has refused to make public the names of health care executives and lobbyists with whom the president has met. It's privileged information, says the Secret Service, not something to be divulged to the great unwashed.

There is a sense of urgency about all the dramatic legislation proposed by President Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress. They have to get these things - changing the health care system to their liking, and getting some kind of cap and trade bill enacted - done before their irksome details cause a backlash sufficient to derail them.

Then, there's the economy. Is it on the road to recovery? Has it been fixed, or are we still teetering on the edge of a dreaded depression? The jury is out. We are more fully committed to the war in Afghanistan. This has become President Obama's war. Can it succeed?

So many serious things swirl about. His poll numbers are sliding. Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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