With Presidents’ Day coming to a close and the election cycle reaching its climax this year, I find myself thinking about the office of the presidency and what it means to the American people.
There have been good presidents and bad ones, and some quite forgettable. The President has the launch codes and makes difficult decisions about policy. He (or she) is the Commander in Chief, our top leader.
But what does it really mean to be president? Why do we elect certain men to the post and what do we expect from them?
When I think of Presidents past, one of the first things that comes to mind is their speeches. “Four score” and “ask not” and all that. In fact, when I picture a president, I imagine a man in a suit giving a speech.
I wonder how many speeches a president gives in a week. From the formal ones to the interviews in front of those noisy helicopters, the president is always communicating. On the campaign trail, he makes promises. On camera, he explains his positions and decisions. When a crisis arises, we expect words of comfort and solidarity.
Perhaps more than anything else, the president is the communicator of our values. He is the one responsible for representing who we are, not only to foreign entities but to us ourselves. Our top leader tells us who we are, in more ways than one. He explains things, communicates the reason and the value behind what makes us who we are.
Many do not agree with the president and the values he is communicating. This has been true throughout history.
But I think one of the reasons we pay so much attention to every word from our top leaders is that they are our most influential culture setters. They communicate what we should view with honor and shame. Culture, after all, is the value we communicate. And all of those speeches and explanations are windows into the culture.
One thing that is difficult to grapple with is that the president both sets and reveals culture. After all, we elected this person to speak for us. We chose him to be the mouthpiece of our nation, to represent our culture. The office of the presidency is a window into the values of America. That sickens many, and has throughout history, but is an unavoidable truth.
All presidents in all organizations carry this responsibility. They are representative, meaning they have been chosen because the organization they lead has selected him/her as the communicator of the organization’s values, the culture bearer.
If we want something different, what we are really saying is the true values of our organization are not being communicated properly. In a nation our size, there is fundamental and inevitable disagreement about what values ought to be communicated and what culture truly represents America. The President has the difficult task of speaking for all of the people, the value of America as an organization, not just the ones who chose him. And America has the task of holding elected officials accountable to the values they are communicating on our behalf.