NOVEMBER 29, 2010
Obama needs to hear a voice from outside the presidential bubble.
By PEGGY NOONAN
A reporter covering the president’s trip to Indiana this week said Mr. Obama was visiting the heartland in part to get out of the presidential bubble. I’m sure this was true. Presidents always get to the point where they want to escape Washington, and their lives, and their jobs. But they never can. Because when you’re president and you go to Indiana, you take the bubble with you. Your bubble meets Indiana; your bubble witnesses Indianans. But you don’t get out of the bubble in Indiana. Once you’re in the bubble—once you’re in the midst of a huge apparatus, once you have the cars and the aides and the security and the staffers—there is no getting out of it.
You cannot shake the bubble. Wherever you go, there it is. And the worst part is that the army of staff, security and aides that exists to be a barrier between a president and danger, or a president and inconvenience, winds up being a barrier between a president and reality.
You lose touch with America and Americans in the bubble, no matter who you are, or what party. This accounts for some of the spectacular blunders presidents make.
Because of the bubble, successful presidents have to walk into the presidency with an extremely strong sense of the reality of their country. In time, with the wear and tear of things, this sense of How Things Really Are may dissipate, disappear or remain stable, but it won’t get stronger. It never gets stronger. High political office is like great affluence: It detaches you. It separates you from normal life.
Once you’re president, you’re not going to be able to change the features on your famous face; you’re not going to be able to escape security, grab a fishing rod, and go sit on the side of a river waiting for normal Americans to walk by, settle in, fish with you, and say normal American things, from which you will garner insights into what normal Americans think.
What a president should ideally have, and what I think we all agree Mr. Obama badly needs, is an assistant whose sole job it is to explain and interpret the American people to him. Presidents already have special assistants for domestic policy, for congressional relations and national security. Why not a special assistant for reality? Someone to translate the views of the people, and explain how they think. An advocate for the average, a representative for the normal, to the extent America does normal.
If Mr. Obama had a special assistant for reality this week, this is how their dialogue might have gone over the anti-TSA uprising.
President: This thing is all ginned up, isn’t it? Right-wing websites fanned it. Then the mainstream media jumped in to display their phony populist street cred. Right?
Special Assistant for Reality: No, Mr. President, it was more spontaneous. Websites can’t fan fires that aren’t there. This is like the town hall uprisings of summer 2009. In the past month, citizens took videos at airports the same way town hall protesters made videos there, and put them on YouTube. The more pictures of pat-downs people saw, the more they opposed them.
President: What’s the essence of the opposition?
SAR: Sir, Americans don’t like it when strangers touch their private parts. Especially when the strangers are in government uniforms and say they’re here to help.
President: Is it that we didn’t roll it out right? We made a mistake in not telling people in advance we were changing the procedure.
SAR: Um, no, Mr. President. If you’d told them in advance, they would have rebelled sooner.
President: We should have pointed out not everyone goes through the new machines, and only a minority get patted down.
SAR: Mr. President, if you’d told people, “Hello, there’s only 1 chance in 3 you’ll be molested at the airport today” most people wouldn’t think, “Oh good, I like those odds.”
President: But the polls are with me. People support the screenings.
SAR: At the moment, according to some. But most Americans don’t fly frequently, and the protocols are new. As time passes, support will go steadily down.
President: I’ve noted with sensitivity that I’m aware all this is a real inconvenience.
SAR: It’s not an inconvenience, it’s a humiliation. In the new machine, and in the pat-downs, citizens are told to spread their feet and put their hands in the air. It’s an attitude of submission—the same one the cops make the perps assume on “America’s Most Wanted.” Then, while you stand there in public in the attitude of submission, strangers touch intimate areas of your body. It’s a violation of privacy. It leaves people feeling reduced. It’s like society has decided you’re a meat sack and not a soul. Humans have a natural, untaught understanding of the apartness of their bodies, and they don’t like it when their space is violated. They recoil, and protest.
President: But you can have the pat-downs done in private.
SAR: Mr. President, you don’t know this, but when you ask for that, a lot of TSA people get pretty passive-aggressive. They get Bureaucratic Dead Face and start barking, “I need a supervisor! Private pat-down!” And everyone looks, and the line slows down, and you start to feel like you’re putting everyone out. You wait and wait, and finally they get another TSA person, and they take you into the little room and it’s embarrassing, and you start to realize you’re going to miss your plane. It’s then that you realize: all this is how they discourage private pat-downs.
President: I’ve wondered if this general feeling of discomfort might be related to a certain Puritan strain within American thinking—a kind of horror at the body that, melded with, say, old Catholic teaching, not to be pejorative, might make for a pretty combustible cultural cocktail. This heightened consciousness of the body might suggest an element of physical shame we hadn’t taken into account.
SAR: Mr. President, the rebellion isn’t shame-based, it’s John Wayne-based.
President: I don’t follow.
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SAR: John Wayne removes his boots and hat and puts his six-shooter on the belt, he gets through the scanner, and now he’s standing there and sees what’s being done to other people. A TSA guy is walking toward him, snapping his rubber gloves. Guy gets up close to Wayne, starts feeling his waist and hips. Wayne says, “Touch the jewels, Pilgrim, and I’ll knock you into tomorrow.”
President: John Wayne is dead.
SAR: No, he’s not. You’ve got to understand that. Everyone’s got an Inner Duke, even grandma.
President: What should I do?
SAR: Back off. Say you spent a day watching YouTube. You’re not giving in to pressure, you’re conceding to common sense. “Free men and women have a right not to be trifled with. We’ll find a better way.”
President: If I don’t?
SAR: Well, every businessman in America already thinks you’ve been grabbing his gonads. You’ll continue that general symbolism.
President: Janet Napolitano won’t like it. Drudge is always after her. He’ll get all “Big Sis Bows Now.” She might quit.
SAR: Oh God, yes. A twofer!
President: I’d look like I got rolled.
SAR: Then look strong. Fire her. She’s been a disaster from day one. Now she’s the face of the debacle.
President: Won’t they think I’m weak?
SAR: No. They’ll think you returned to Planet Earth. They’ll think ground control broke through to Major Tom. They’ll think you took a step outside the bubble.