Stop Focusing on the Face; Focus on the Rest
We humans like to draw our attention to the face. A quick scan is all we need to generate a first impression, and given that faces tend not to be hidden, we figure our cursory evaluation is more than sufficient for sizing up the visage to which we’ve turned our attention. Similarly, we use the face as a means to describe a large part of the whole, even when it only represents a fraction of that whole. Sure, we recognize the face can’t exist without the rest of the body, but that doesn’t stop us from zeroing in on its features and flaws and using it to explain much more than it realistically can.
Sure, I could be referring to the way we assess other people’s looks—but that would make this too straightforward. Rather, this is the lens through which I wish to evaluate much of our political and institutional discourse, specifically as it relates to finding new leaders.
The most obvious place to start is the office of the presidency. Contrary to what news outlets may have you believe, politics does happen during the years in between presidential elections. Sure, talk about Donald Trump’s latest whining—ehm, I’m sorry—“winning”—or Hillary Clinton’s most recent non-answer, or Ted Cruz’s responses to both, or Bernie Sanders lone inequality act, may consume huge percentages of 2016 headlines and airtime, but they can hardly be considered practical politics—the kind of stuff that actually affects everyday people.
Yet, at the same time, the public is just fascinated by anything and everything they have to say. Relevance or practicality be damned. Let’s listen to more of what these faces of their parties have to say. Sure, one could make the case that the outsized attention given to the candidates over, say, the 143 acts passed by the 114th Congress in the past 15 months is the media’s fault; they are the ones who chose what gets covered and what doesn’t. But the media only sells what we buy. And we buy faces.
I’d argue this political tic of ours has deep roots. We know presidents by their consecrated portraits, with each individual centered perfectly, devoid of any other person or object in the background. We name libraries and aircraft carriers after presidents. We put them on mountains and dollar bills. However, our extreme veneration for the individuals who held the position, regardless of how great their tenures were (or should how well the country did while they held the office) feeds the narrative that the president is more a supreme figure, uninfluenced by anything or anyone, than a mortal subject to other’s opinions and who must deal with unforeseen circumstances out of his control. Sure, this could be explained by the fact that the president is the one with the final say on many matters—the decision maker who bears sole responsibility in some of the nation’s toughest decisions—but to think he is the only one who needs to be seared into our collective political memories is folly.
I’m also willing to entertain the argument that we focus so much on the candidates because of the very real possibility they will be the next president crafting the policies that will affect us for the next four years. They are the ones who may have their hands on the nuclear codes. They may serve as the commander -in-chief that leads our country to new heights or brings us to new lows. Of course they need to be scrutinized meticulously.
But when we consider the legacies of past presidents, especially more recent ones, we realize that there is huge disagreement over which policies enacted under which president made which impact on which economic scale or which social group. The extreme focus on the individuals who may assume the presidency in the next term neglects the many circumstances that are and will remain out of their control.
Moreover, while many will always jump to the quickest or most clear cut answer regarding a presidential legacy; academics, scholars, or even ordinary journalists can always pull one more curtain back, or connect causative dots back to some earlier or extra-political factor that influenced the outcome of some issue under whichever President, spinning the effects in whichever direction they choose. Essentially, it will always be difficult to assess the impact any one singular president had in steering the country differently on the macro-issues like the economy and global events, which largely remain out of the president’s control.
My point is—while focusing on a president and their policies we very quickly—and very naively—lose sight of the myriad factors that go into making reality, reality. Politics happens every year, not just the ones that are multiples of four. We elect 468/9 Congresspeople every two years to craft laws, and new presidents every four to institute them. The supreme court rules on big cases with huge political ramifications every time it's in session. CEO’s and large institutions innovate, create, destroy and revamp huge sectors of our economy on a daily basis. Wars start and wars end, completely out of the control of our president, all the time. I don’t doubt the leader of the free world has some say—even an outsized say—over how to proceed, but to believe one man or woman will drastically affect our political or economic fortunes on their own is just plain silly.
A few contemporary examples:
-While stumping for his wife Hillary on the campaign trail, former president Bill Clinton has caught flak for his 1994 crime bill, with activists and fellow politicians blaming it, and by extension Clinton himself, for high incarceration rates in the black community. Yet, as recently as April 14, The Atlantic published an article demonstrating how, when passed, it was a bipartisan effort in both Houses of Congress and was supported by African American mayors across the country. Yet, Bill Clinton has been and remains the main target for those who demonize the law.
-Former President George Bush will be forever remembered as the president who presided over the Great Recession and housing market collapse, with critics blaming him for not doing enough to regulate big banks beforehand, and not holding them accountable afterwards. They tie his name and the financial crisis together, without considering the fact that several administrations before his, as far back as President Jimmy Carter and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, encouraged banks to give out high-risk loans to prospective homeowners who could barely afford a down payment.
-Under President Barack Obama, starting with the Arab Spring early in his first term, the Middle East and North Africa could be described as anything but stable. After popular uprisings against dictators in some countries and violent jihadist insurrection in others, the region has descended into chaos. Much of the blame for the chaos falls squarely on the President for his inaction or insufficient action to assert American military might and quell the unrest. Yet to blame one administration for the chaos—wrought with centuries old religious divisions and deep-seated hate—is myopic.
Sure, we can critique the way the administration speaks about the chaos or suggest new courses of action (as I did in an earlier edition of The Commentator regarding the ongoing Syrian crisis), but to wrongfully assume fault lies squarely with the current president is to give in to our basest political inclination—the face is responsible—while wrongfully misattributing omniscience to a single individual or the position that individual holds.
Yes, the faces of our country are important, but their colleagues, political foes, foreign counterparts, amorphous and faceless economic trends and a whole host of other social factors carry a great amount of inertia.
Similarly, we need to recognize the problems a president must deal with originated in the months, years, even decades and centuries that proceed them. We may fault leaders for things that occur on their watch, but we need to remember the watch was ticking way before any single president took office.
This isn’t to say people in powerful positions, with the control and authority to steer entire institutions or countries don’t deserve blame when things go sour or praise when they work out great—they do. Leaders are still leaders. But we certainly need to start framing larger pictures.