In Graham Greene’s classic novel, “The End of the Affair,” a mediocre government functionary is described as being “important rather as an elephant is important, from the size of his department.”
The biggest “elephant” in the nation would seem to be the most important man in the nation, President Barack Obama. Obama is remarkable in that in memory no one has risen to such heights based on so few apparent accomplishments.
At Harvard Law School, Obama was by all accounts a fine student. Still, it is noteworthy that as president of the Law Review he never published a single signed piece. After law school he was given an advance to write a book about race and the law. Unable to finish the book on time he was given another advance. He never completed the book on what was ostensibly his specialty. Instead he wrote a memoir, “Dreams of My Father,” which thanks to journalist David Maraniss we now know contains multiple inaccuracies and outright invented occurrences.
Obama then took a position as Senior Lecturer at University of Chicago School of Law, one of the most prestigious law school in the nation. Again, this is unusual. Normally law schools, to say nothing of elite law schools, do not hire faculty who have never published on the law. Also, Senior Lecturer positions are usually used for established luminaries that the school wants on faculty for the status they provide. For example, Judge Richard Posner, one of our generation’s great jurists, is a Senior Lecturer at University of Chicago. But Obama got this position more as a coronation rather than based on any accomplishment.
Some years later Obama was elected to the Illinois State Legislature where he earned the reputation as “Senator Present,” an appellation he gained from his frequent use of the “present” vote to avoid having to support or oppose controversial bills.
In 2004 Obama won a race for U.S. Senate. As a U.S. Senator, Obama authored no bills of note and chaired exactly one subcommittee, which he never bothered to convene.
So Barack Obama became President of the United States based more on personality rather than actual accomplishment. This has continued to manifest itself in his presidency. Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace less for what he had done, which was nothing, than who he was. Even Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, was actually more the result of congressional negotiation than presidential leadership.
If there is a lesson, it is that voters should be less impressed by what a candidates claim to be and more impressed by what candidates have accomplished. It isn’t about which candidate makes the best media star, but which one actually has a record that shows success at the hard work of actually making public policy.
Empty image appeals and personality based politics are now the norm in our politics. It is up to us the voters to look for candidates who perhaps have less flash but perhaps have more of the sobriety and work-ethic to actually make our government work. We need work-horses, not show-horses. And certainly no elephants.
Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.