Barack Obama was a giant at Harvard Law. He left a powerful mark on legal legend Lawrence Tribe who remembers him as one of the best students he ever taught. While there he led the prestigious Harvard Law Journal, and later accepted a faculty position at the University of Chicago. In addition to his academic credentials and political achievements, he successfully submitted thirteen papers to scientific journals while serving as President of the United States.
Obama is not the only President to have works published in science journals. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had papers accepted while in office. With a handful of exceptions, all our Presidents since Lincoln have had advanced degrees or graduated from our top military academies. All of them have had deep prior experience in government, usually Governors, Senators or Congressmen. Since the Civil War, the White House has been occupied by a long series of seasoned, distinguished professionals.
Our new President has a TV show, a gold-plated apartment, and a foul mouth. Get used to it. The age of the professional President may have come to an end.
Explanations for Trump’s surprise win generally focus on his racist appeals and the economic frustrations of Rust Belt whites. However, another factor figures into this debacle which may point to longer term political impact. Slow down for a moment in the check-out line at the grocery store and survey the tabloids. They are plastered with adoring images of Trump. Describing the tabloids as pro-Trump is a gross understatement. He is depicted there as an epic hero, a demigod, a shining celebrity President.
Trump’s campaign exposed giant gaps in the firewall of qualifications and competence we assumed would block rank celebrities from senior political roles. Hollywood has taken notice. So have the Democrats.
In the week after the election, Michael Moore suggested that Democrats should nominate Tom Hanks or Oprah in 2020. That idea is starting to work its way into the policy-making class. Jeet Heer wrote in New Republic this week:
Democrats’ main problem last year wasn’t in appealing to anti-elitist voters; it was in getting out the party’s base. A magnetic, attractive movie star would have a far better chance of accomplishing that than just another accomplished, dowdy politician.
This is true, but it misses the point. If all that matters is putting a Democrat in White House, then rolling out the star power makes sense. Trump has demonstrated the political pull of celebrity, even for a low-rent celebrity that built his career out of being an asshole. And Democrats enjoy an unassailable celebrity edge. Practically any liberal celebrity could outpoll any conservative celebrity ten times out of ten. But what’s the point of winning the White House if your winner is a loser?
Presidents have actual responsibilities in the real world. This breach of the celebrity/politics firewall has implications that reach beyond Donald Trump. While Beyonce or Ben Affleck or George Clooney or any other relatively housetrained celebrity would be less piggish and authoritarian than Trump, that’s not enough. An ‘accomplished, dowdy politician’ may be boring, they might also be able to find Pakistan on a map. Even a nice celebrity could still be so grossly unprepared to execute their duties as to unleash havoc.
Since at least the time of the first Roosevelt, the Presidency has been a very large job with highly complex demands. Performing the job poorly could have serious, even lethal consequences for millions of Americans. We have come to expect that the job should be taken seriously, and it should be occupied by sober, accomplished professionals. We might appreciate a candidate with a catchy tagline, it was still more important for them to know what they were doing.
Of course, some carried deeper credentials on paper than others. Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan raised eyebrows for their supposedly limited qualifications, yet, both had been Governors. Reagan had been a major political figure for two decades. He had served as leader of a large labor union and earned two terms leading the nation’s largest state.
For the first time in living memory we will now have a celebrity President who fails any credible standard of competence or qualification. The solution emerging on the left, attempting to replace Trump with a better celebrity, fails to address the core problem. For the country to survive in a dawning age celebrity politics, the power of the Presidency and the reach of the federal government may have to be constrained. If competent political professionals are going to be consistently defeated by tabloid figures, then it may be time to rethink the power of the office itself.
Washington has often been described as Hollywood for ugly people. That refuge of nerds is now in danger. By shredding the assumption that Presidents need some off-screen qualifications, Trump has given us a problem likely to outlast his miserable administration. If Democrats respond in-kind, unleashing their overwhelming arsenal of entertainers on Washington, scientific articles and advanced degrees will soon be eclipsed by leaders sporting Grammies, Oscars or Super Bowl rings. A long era of competent, professional political leadership may be coming to an end.