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With the election coming up next month, I don’t know a single person who isn’t excited about this.
I teach a class called “Diversity in Society” at St. Catharine College. Somehow the class got on the topic of who would win the upcoming election. One student in the class asked me whether it made any difference in people’s lives who won. I answered “no”, but a better answer might have been “not very much” or “not as much as I would like”.
A President is in office for either four or eight years and, seemingly, his/her presidency is over in the blink of an eye. What the president does, of course, is greatly limited by Congress and constituent desires. How then to make the Presidency more meaningful?
One thought I have is that, while the President’s priorities have to be on policy matters, it should be possible for the President to educate the American people to a certain extent. I do not mean “educate”, in the sense of teaching math or other academic subjects, of course, but about life, or life lessons. The personal stories of both John McCain and Barack Obama are compelling, and the fact that they have reached the pinnacle of the political world places them, or whichever one of them wins the presidency, in a unique position to teach the American people something significant. In the case of McCain, he can teach us something about overcoming adversity in general, considering that he was in a POW camp for in excess of five years. In the case of Obama, he can teach us something about how to get along in a diverse world, and what he has personally experienced. as a target of prejudice. There are others in society who can teach us the same lessons, but the President has constant access to the media, and therefore is in a greater position to educate than others.
One might say that the president has all the time in the world to educate once he/she is out of office and writing his/her memoirs. Education can certainly take place under such circumstances, but the president does not have the same degree of attention from the American people, once he/she leaves office.
What would be the exact mechanism by which the President should educate? It could take the same form as the “fireside chats’ that President Roosevelt had with the country, during the Great Depression. It could take the form of interviews with journalists. It could also take the form of public speaking engagements. When the president educates the American people, it is stressed, this comes after crucial policy matters are addressed. Under the circumstances, it still seems possible for the president to do this.
Aside from the benefits already cited, educating the American people could well be a form of “job enrichment” for the president, and the next president may need such “job enrichment”, considering the fiscal limitations and international situation he/she will face upon entering office.
Dr. Harry Toder is Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice, and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at St. Catharine College, in St. Catharine, Ky.