Technology and the Post-War Presidency

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Picture by White House Photographer Pete Souza, White House Flickr Collection, 2 May 2011.

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.

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5 thoughts on “Technology and the Post-War Presidency

  1. Lisa

    What? How has the president’s “over-saturation with technology” diminished “the executive’s actual function in contrast to the broader constitutional entitlements of the legislative branch.”

    There are a lot of threads I’m not following in this article. There is no mention of how politics is limiting the ability of the president. No mention of the complexity involved in winning and keeping support. No mention of Republicans!

    An angle I could sink my teeth into would be a discussion of how this high-tech PR bullshit detracts from the real issues. How this high-tech PR posturing is a sign that politics has reached an all time low, where the sound bite (ne: glamour shot) beats substance every time. Although, I really love Obama’s stance and his sweater in this photo! Very manly.

  2. Zee

    I agree with Lisa, the article does have some loose ends.
    As for the photograph, Obama and rating, my thoughts are as follows:

    The U.S.A. is the most powerful country in the world and Americans obviously love this (who wouldn’t?) Obama has never been very knowledgeable in a lot of respects, read he is not smart and trained enough for his present position, that of the head of the most powerful nation. Most importantly, his lack of skills – and possibly true understanding of the international scene have been detrimental to America, and dare I say to the world at large.

    By associating himself with the national administration group who more or less know what they’re doing, plus the photo being strongly connected to a positive stance on America’s enemies (Osama’s death), his ratings got up as he appeared at least more informed about that int’l politics. The casual attire does the trick as always for lower class guys (“he’s one of us”). And as I was saying, he did fall back into bad ratings because the whole high rating was fake (not faked) in the first place: the fact remains that Obama cannot deal with either internal or external issues and Americans have figured that out pretty soon after having elected him (mind you, they’re not as stupid as Canadians-and-the-rest-of-the-world think they are).

    I find the photo an interesting historical portrait, actually. Imagine it painted on a canvas rather than shot with a camera. Technology is just the background and Lisa is right, PR screams from its every inch. That’s really the only thing Obama is quite good at. But that won’t save America unfortunately. And if America goes down, people, we all are.

    POST-war?? You wish! Oh sorry, which war are we taking about? 🙂

  3. A.J. Rowley

    All good points, Lisa.

    I wanted to remove the usual crutches — like politics (“the art of the possible”), wavering support of the Democratic base and independents, and, of course, Republicans — in order to force a different sort of discussion about America’s head-of-state. Specifically, the expectation that they can solve all the nation’s ills.

    It seems to derive from the office’s association with, and use of, technology. What’s more: this expectation may have become so entrenched that no alternative even comes to mind. You know, in the same way that we expect technology to provide a solution to every problem.

  4. Lisa

    Zee – you lost me at “Obama has never been very knowledgeable in a lot of respects, read he is not smart and trained enough for his present position, that of the head of the most powerful nation.” Seriously? Ugh!

    And, A.J., I think you could write a really insightful and interesting piece about the role of technology in warfare and diplomacy and how the public wants the simple solutions promised by things like “surgical strikes” etc… But I just don’t think that’s what you have done here.

  5. Zee

    @ A.J.
    America’s head-of-state is not supposed to solve everything, but he is supposed to know how to handle crises – which Obama most unfortunately doesn’t. That’s why he has bad “reviews” (ratings) from his very people. In this sense, you may be right: technology by itself could be a better answer than Obama. LOL!
    @ Lisa
    Yes, seriously.

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