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All work and no play

The position of President of the United States is often called the toughest job in the world. The office is high pressure and he (so far they have all been “he”) is on the clock 24/7/365. Every waking moment of his day is tightly scripted and scheduled, and even when he sleeps his aides are awake and working nearby and may wake him at any given moment (like at 3am) to ask him what they should do about some crisis in East Bumphuck or Outer Hismind.

Except for those times when the 25th Amendment says the VPOTUS is in charge because the POTUS is temporarily incapacitated (like during surgery) the POTUS is never far from the military guy carrying “the football” which is the briefcase that contains the launch codes to nuke the planet.

The POTUS job includes a certain amount of ceremonial stuff like funerals, state dinners and supermarket openings. In England they let QEII attend state funerals and ribbon cuttings and let the PM focus on business. Here in the Untied States we often send the VPOTUS to greet or go watch them bury the leaders of unimportant countries.

But sometimes the situation requires us to send someone more important than Mr. Potato Head or Joe the Talking Donkey, like when the leader of China drops by to discuss increasing the credit limit on our national VISA card. It’s a little-known fact that King Saud (who owns all the world’s oil that isn’t leaking into the Gulf of Mexico) only allows the actual POTUS to bow and kiss his ring or hold his hand.

Ceremonies really do have an important purpose. Despite the way the political philosophies of Western Civilization exalt the individual, the truth is humans are social animals and we depend on each other for survival. Tribalism appears to one of our innate characteristics, and evidence shows that even in the most primitive times of pre-history humans always banded together as families, tribes and clans. To be cast out of the group was often the ultimate punishment and was tantamount to a death sentence.

As our society has grown larger and more complex we have needed (and found) ways to bind together diverse groups of strangers as a single unit. Ceremonies are an important psychological tool to identify and define the boundaries of “our” tribe and affirm our membership therein. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance may seem silly and meaningless but it is one of many ways we separate “us” from “them.”

The military puts so much emphasis on drill and ceremony because it is vital that the soldiers see themselves as an army and not a bunch of individuals. A soldier who has faith that his comrades on either side will not abandon him will feel a strong moral obligation to stand his ground and not abandon them either.

Some ceremonies are indispensable because they mark the transfer of power. The ceremony pictured here was no mere formality:

In November 1963 U.S. District Court Judge Sarah T. Hughes was hastily summoned to Air Force One to administer the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson. (She remains the only woman to swear in a POTUS) The picture is iconic because at a critical time in our history it provided reassurance that we would endure as a nation. Our leader had fallen, but we were not leaderless.

Not all ceremonies are created equally, however. While the cumulative effect of White House photo-ops with the POTUS congratulating athletic champions and spelling-bee winners is important, the individual events are not. In times of crisis the VPOTUS can fill-in or those kinds of ceremonies can be dispensed with altogether.

Our system of government requires that the POTUS run for office, and our two-party version of democracy requires him to participate in activities to support his chosen party and its members. This is true even for a “lame-duck” POTUS who is finishing his second term in office because he still needs support in Congress.

But we expect (or at least hope) that at critical times the POTUS will forsake the good of his party or even his own interests for the sake of the nation. Jimmy Carter tried to run for reelection using a “Rose Garden” strategy saying he was too busy with the Iranian Hostage Crisis to go out and hustle for votes. That strategy worked for a while, but the crisis outlasted the voters’ patience and Jimmy abandoned the strategy after Ted Kennedy won a primary.

More than one POTUS has visibly aged in office. We don’t want our POTUS to burn out on the job so we need to allow him some R&R (or I&I as we called it in the army) so he can recharge his batteries. Allowing him time with his family and friends is critical to his mental health. This applies even more so to a bad POTUS than a good one – we don’t want a bad one to get any worse than he already is.

But it’s politically stupid for a POTUS to proclaim he will “never rest” until some crisis is over and then promptly head off for vacation. Doing that tends to give people the idea that he is lying to them. Even those of us who are jaded and cynical enough to accept a POTUS lying to us about something minor that is really none of our business anyway (like a non-marital blow-job) still expect him to tell us the truth about important stuff (like whether Iraq has WMD’s.)

Throughout most of human history there has been an on-going political debate about the proper role and scope of government. I’m not talking about the form of government, such as monarchy, democracy, etc, I’m talking about the size, power and responsibilities that government should have. But even libertarians accept that government should have some responsibilities, such as defending the nation from foreign aggression.

There is a general consensus in this country that in times of great crisis (like war, disaster, famine or economic depression) that the government should “do something.” While there is usually no agreement on exactly what the government should do very few people would agree that the government should sit idly by and do nothing.

When the people of a nation lose faith in their government to protect them it is ripe for civil war and only force and fear will prevent rebellion. People will even accept oppressive dictatorship if they believe the dictator is protecting them from something even worse.

However, since force and fear are anathema to democracy, it is vital that we retain faith in our government. Many of us endured the dark years of the Bush-Cheney (mal)administration because even though we had no faith in the people who were then leading our nation, we had faith in our system of government and saw those four eight years as a temporary hardship rather than a permanent condition.

During the past couple weeks we’ve seen a bogus meme emanating from the Kool-aid Kingdom. This meme claims that the media and others are unfairly demanding that President Obama “emote” when he speaks about oil spill crisis.

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