posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2009 01:04 PM
One can only imagine what Barack Obama must have been thinking when the torch passed to him from George W Bush on Tuesday 20th January. Probably no president since Roosevelt has had so much on his plate and even FDR was actually experienced and in the White House before America got dragged into WWII.
All top jobs are lonely and none more so than the US presidency. I love reading political biographies and have read a great many from Caesar to Stalin to Bevin to Bevan to Nixon. Some like Caesar and Nixon also published their own accounts. What has always struck me about people in power is not how powerful they feel but how powerless they feel. They want to do so much more but feel hampered by the difficulty in using the tools around them or influencing those with whom they have no direct control over.
The responsibility of their office and the power and powerlessness they feel also attracts loneliness. Sure they have a great many advisers and aides to make things happen but no matter how good the advice (which is usually conflicting) and support, they know that in the end it is down to what they decide. That can be a very lonely experience. As president Harry Truman said “the buck stops here.”
One of my favourite old politicians is Denis Healey. I once interviewed him as a student in Leeds when he was Labour’s foreign affairs spokeperson (previously he had been defence secretary and chancellor of the exchequer – Britain’s finance minister). He said of the American political system “the president has all the responsibility but lacks power whilst Congress has power but lacks responsibility.”
So I suspect that when Obama sits behind his desk in the Oval Office, there will be many times when he feels lonely and in need of support. No one person, not even a US president can solve the economy, climate change and so forth by himself. He needs help. But in helping Obama solve some these and other problems, we are of course helping the world as a whole to become a better place.