One of the hardest things for a president to do is to stay in touch with the concerns of everyday folk. It’s just the nature of holding a public office, but there are certainly degrees of distance. It is easier for a state legislator to mingle among the masses than it is for a governor. And it is much easier for a member of Congress to grab a bite in a local deli than it is for the President of the United States. Every public official is treated with some deference, but the higher up the political food chain, the more likely it is that encounters with the public will lack some authenticity.
I viewed the live news coverage of Barack Obama’s visit to the Tastee Sub Shop in Edison, New Jersey last week with this in mind. I watched as he disembarked from Air Force One to greet Governor Christie and Mayor Booker – shaking the former’s hand for a prolonged 34 seconds! [I’ve looked at the footage a few times and I’m still not sure who refused to let go.]
I watched as his motorcade pulled up to the shop, blocked from view by a strategically placed delivery truck. I watched people gathered behind barricades yards away wondering whether the President had arrived. Not very riveting stuff.
A while later, a news pool camera came to life and Obama spoke for a few minutes to selected members of the press corp. He talked about the meeting he just had with a handful of local small business owners and called for passage of tax credit legislation to aid small businesses. Then he was whisked off to New York to tape an episode of The View and headline a fundraiser.
So, on his trip to New Jersey (population 8.7 million), President Obama apparently spoke with a grand total of eight state residents: the governor, the mayors of Newark and Edison, and five small business owners. And according to reports, the president, typing on his Blackberry, barely acknowledged the crowds lining Plainfield Avenue during his drive from Marine One’s landing site a few miles from the shop.
Some have questioned the purpose of this presidential visit. If he really wanted to push for passage of the tax credit bill in question – which stalled in the Senate the following day – wouldn’t a high profile event with public statements by small business owners been more effective? We don’t even know what those five business owners said to Obama during that private meeting in Edison.
But maybe we should consider for a moment that generating support for legislation may not have been the president’s primary motivation for this visit. In a recent interview, Obama biographer Jonathan Alter said that the president is not avoiding the isolation of the office “as well as he needs to.” This trip may have been an effort to break through that isolation.
But why come to New Jersey at all? Considering the logistical hassle and cost to taxpayers, wouldn’t it have been cheaper to bring those five business owners to the White House? Cheaper, yes. More effective, maybe not.
By all accounts, it is difficult to be entirely honest with the leader of the free world when you meet him. Nearly everyone who has a presidential encounter reports being awestruck in some way, even if they vehemently disagreed with the incumbent’s politics. It follows that the rank and file citizens President Obama meets in his occasional excursions outside the White House are not always completely candid with him. Inside the White House, that likelihood diminishes even further.
We don’t know how frank those New Jersey business owners were during their short time with the president. But I’ll bet that they were more forthcoming sitting among cartons of chips and cases of soda than they would have been in the Oval Office. And the more often a president comes in contact with the public, the more likely he is to run across people who will speak openly with him. Unfortunately, this happens less and less given the security demands of the modern day presidency. [As I type this, I am looking out my window at the grounds where Woodrow Wilson mingled with voters during his 1916 re-election campaign.]
This is why it is increasingly important that presidents (and other elected officials) make sure their circle of advisors includes at least one or two people who are free to speak their mind without fear of repercussion. As to Obama, Alter claims that there are “very few people” within the White House who “are willing to tell him hard truths.” So maybe the president is in need of a court jester, a.k.a. Tom Fool (after Thomas Skelton, one of the last persons to hold the official title of “licensed fool”).
Jesters were de rigueur for the nobility through the early Renaissance. Unlike the common conception of them as simply clowns, jesters were valued members of a monarch’s court. While their prime responsibility was to entertain, jesters were also respected as sounding boards on important issues of the day. Basically, the jester was given license to speak his mind and was frequently the only advisor the monarch could trust to give an honest evaluation of the situation.
Of course, the “licensed fool” has some modern-day analogies – Stephen Colbert comes to mind. But all of these contemporary jesters exist outside the inner sanctum of power. If I may take this idea in a more serious direction, it is important for any leader to have an honest sounding board. And even if a president is surrounded by strong nay-saying counselors, they are also removed from the everyday concerns of citizens by virtue of their position in the halls of power.
Certainly, public opinion polls have been used to fill the void – and the current president appears to use them more than his predecessors. But poll results are cold measures in many ways detached from the concerns of the real people that underlie the percentages.
The conundrum is how a president keeps tabs on the public mood in an authentic way. Maybe the president should consider establishing an official advisor or council of advisors, drawn from the heartland of this country, whose sole purpose is to tell it like it is.
Or perhaps it’s time to bring back the court jester. No world leader should be without one.