The former White House photographer Pete Souza’s book, a collection of more than 300 photos of Barack Obama’s presidency, is a tour through the psychological landscape of the office. President Obama stands by the bedside of wounded soldiers he sent into battle and in the ruins left by natural disasters. He counsels his daughter from a seat on the backyard swing while on television oil oozes from the Deepwater Horizon spill. He sits, leans, and paces through endless meetings. He plays host—to the Chinese president, the Israeli premier, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, kids in Halloween costumes, African American boys and girls.
The presidential brain must handle a wider variety of acute experiences than perhaps any other brain on the planet. Meanwhile, the president lives in a most peculiar unreality. His picture is on almost every wall of his workplace. The other walls contain paintings of the men who achieved greatness in his job, as well as those who muddled through. It’s like taking a test with your competition’s scores posted around you.
As Lyndon Johnson put it, sometimes the president is little more than “a jackass in a hailstorm.”
James K. Polk’s wife, Sarah, was so concerned that the 11th president might enter a room unnoticed, she asked the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to get people to turn their head when he arrived.
Today we notice when the president doesn’t show up. We are a president-obsessed nation, so much so that we undermine the very idea of our constitutional democracy. No one man—or woman—can possibly represent the varied, competing interests of 327 million citizens. And it may be that no man—or woman—can perform the ever-expanding duties of office while managing an executive branch of 2 million employees (not including the armed forces) charged with everything from regulating air pollution to x-raying passengers before they board an airplane.