Commentary

Drunk with Power and Esteem, Presidents’ Sanity Disappears

It’s hard not to worry about the president’s grip on reality.

I don’t mean President Barack Obama specifically — he seems fairly even-keeled as chief executives go. I mean all modern presidents. Each lives in an atmosphere that can make even the most well-adjusted personalities intoxicated with power. And given the massive power the modern president wields, we ought to give more thought than we do to how the Oval Office environment can warp character.

One of our greatest — and sanest — chief executives, Calvin Coolidge, wrote in 1929 that it was hard for the president to “avoid the malady of self-delusion,” living as he does in an “artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation.”

Obama seems to recognize the psychological dangers that accompany life in the presidential ‘bubble.’”

Coolidge, who had a meager staff of 38, didn’t know the half of it. Today’s president lives in a bubble of hundreds of sycophants, flies a tricked-out 747 and knows that he’s the most powerful man in any room he enters.

Silent Cal couldn’t have imagined the atmosphere of celebrity adoration that envelops today’s chief: “OMG! Obama swatted a fly! So cool! He went to Ray’s Hell Burger! Just like any normal person with a massive Secret Service detail!” How long could any of us remain “grounded” in an environment where we’re constantly treated like a god?

Cornell University psychologist Robert Millman argues that many celebrities suffer from “acquired situational narcissism.” As Millman explains, otherwise emotionally healthy people often develop delusions of grandeur after they strike it big in Hollywood. When “a celebrity walks into a room,” Millman writes, “everyone looks at him: he’s a prince.” After a while, what happens is our star “gets so used to everyone looking at him, that he stops looking back at them.”

Celebrity pathology is harmless fun when we scan Us Weekly in the checkout line. But if the president loses his grip, there’s rather more at stake.

Past presidents, drunk on adulation and tormented by responsibilities no movie star faces, have indeed lost their grip. In an Oval Office meeting in 1967, asked by a reporter why America was in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson unzipped his fly, wagged the presidential member at his questioner and exclaimed, “This is why!” Two presidential aides consulted psychiatrists about Johnson’s sanity.

Obama seems to recognize the psychological dangers that accompany life in the presidential “bubble.” In The Audacity of Hope, he describes a meeting with President George W. Bush where, as a new senator, Obama was struck by Bush’s “messianic certainty,” and “reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring.”

By all accounts, Obama has tried to guard against Oval Office isolation. He’s encouraged dissent among his aides and made a point of keeping his Blackberry.

But those steps are hardly equal to the temptations the modern president faces. It’s nice that Obama has kept his handheld device. Yet, few have the president’s e-mail address, and those who do are scared to use it. As one of Obama’s Blackberry buddies commented, “He’s no longer Barack. He’s an institution.”

The Founders’ presidency was a comparatively humble office, a “chief magistrate” constrained by constitutional limits and enjoying few of the trappings of great power.

If we worry about the temptations presidential power brings — and we should — there’s only one solution: Cut the presidency back down to its proper constitutional size.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.