You likely saw this photograph sometime over the last few weeks.
It depicts U.S. President Barack Obama and his national security team — including, among others: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and Vice President — in the White House Situation Room, Sunday 1 May 2011.
The subject of their fascination, as the president would go on to reveal in a televised national address only a few hours later, is “Operation Neptune Spear” — otherwise known as the covert assassination of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs.
Let’s come back to this photograph shortly.
Since the end of World War II, the President of the United States of America has been increasingly surrounded by, and associated with, technology. This has transformed otherwise lackluster head-of-state affairs — domestic and foreign diplomacy, inter-governmental coordination (including military), and legislative consultation and assent — into a mobile, press-ready event with a “what’s next” action-sheen.
Consider that: the president travels short distances by Marine Corps helicopter (Marine One, c. 1957) or custom limousine, and long distances in a modified commercial airliner (Air Force One, c. 1953); and is accompanied, at all times, by guards (reputed for their sophisticated location-to-location coordination), and briefcase (carried by a military attaché) that contains the launch codes to the nuclear arsenal — which is, itself, deployed over a wide variety of military technology (missiles, submarines, jets, etc.), all coordinated through a vast satellite network.
And this is to say nothing of other things, like the White House Situation Room (c. 1961) for stay-at-home military and nuclear coordination, and John. F. Kennedy’s indelible association between the presidency and NASA space technology (c. 1962) in the minds of an entire generation.
In short: no other head-of-state has this much tech and gadgetry at their disposal, let alone associated with their image. It has significantly helped to entrench the myth-like reverence for the office and its holders — far beyond the previous era’s apocryphal silliness: George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Abraham Lincoln freed all of the slaves.
Some of this technology has been a deliberate, albeit kitschy attempt to antagonize the Soviets throughout the Cold War; but mostly, it been a genuine display of affluence and ingenuity in keeping with other executive branches around the world, in various forms throughout recent history.
Now, back to that photograph.
The presidency’s over-saturation with technology has aided and abetted the expectation that the president can fix the nation’s ills — perhaps single-handedly, if necessary — while diminishing the executive’s actual function in contrast to the broader constitutional entitlements of the legislative branch.
Of course, it doesn’t help that every would-be president since Harry Truman’s “buck stops here” photo-op sloganeering has perpetuated this expectation on the campaign trail, which seems to start earlier and earlier every election cycle.
Most recently, it explains how President Obama slid from an inaugural approval rating of 82% to approximately 50% for the better part of 2010 and into 2011, without any major scandal or incident. It would seem that, however unfairly, Americans expected their new president to settle all of their foreign and domestic woes, post-haste.
After news of Osama bin Laden’s death and the release of this photograph, Obama’s approval rating increased; however, it has since declined following the media’s rediscovery of stalled unemployment figures and other economic problems.
The photograph illustrates how the president can rise to the expectation of mobilizing every technological edge to further national interest, to be literally caught in action, but also fail to curb the appetite for further actions; or, more directly, to use the opportunity to describe the cost of past policies and outline a national course-correction.
While an abundance of superior technology came to elevate the apparent capabilities of the U.S. head-of-state over its counterparts around the word, it may end up limiting both the occupants of that office and the nation itself to solutions based solely on those tools.
The presidency has the capacity for more than the gadgetry it has come to be associated with, and known for, but it will take a deliberate effort to rebuild the office’s capacity for other forms of leadership within the popular imagination.