It is a logical fallacy and a clinical delusion, and the body politic is suffering from both: magical thinking—the false linkage of causal events, in this case between the president and, well, everything. Hence the claim—literally childish, as will be seen—that the president personally as well as his policy in the Middle East are somehow to blame for an eruption of rioting against American targets in that region. The concomitant argument from the Romney camp is that were their man president, the riots never would have happened: a claim that is patently absurd except to those who seriously believe enraged rioters en route to a demonstration halfway around the world actually pause first to ask themselves whether the President of the United States frowns upon their actions.
Such is the grandiose—and magical—view we have come to have of the presidency today. It is also, clinically speaking, narcissistic: it interprets every event, whether causally linked to the president or not, as a reflection on him. Foreign policy is where the narcissism is most evident, but the disorder is hardly quarantined. It has infected our understanding of economics too. Both candidates for president deliver promises to “create” certain millions of jobs despite the fact that—at least on Mitt Romney’s economic assumptions—every adult knows the president can do no such thing. Nor is Romney suffering from the disorder alone. President Obama’s wanton use of the first person—“I” cut taxes on the middle class, “we” created jobs, etc.—as well as the messianic vision his party has espoused of the progressive capacities of the presidency since Woodrow Wilson make it difficult to muster much sympathy for the blame they are receiving for distant events today.
Like most disorders among governors, this disease was ultimately caught from the governed. It arises from what psychologists would identify as a literally childish trait: the need to believe that all adverse events are caused by discrete actors who can be identified and therefore held responsible. The trait is recognizable to any parent assaulted by the universal charge, apparently programmed into the brain at birth, “It’s all your fault.” So is the infant’s first fascination: causation—the cup that falls off the highchair after being given a nudge, the reflection in the mirror that waves back. A world in which adverse events cannot be linked to discrete causes is too chaotic and unsafe for the child’s mind to contemplate. But adults learn—or are supposed to—that bad things happen without a single source of blame. No one, for example, causes trees to fall on homes during storms: The child asks who felled the limb; the adult understands that nobody did.
The problem is that in the political and economic words, causation is often a mirage. Many events in those realms are either largely the product of infinitely diffuse actors or are substantially influenced by chance circumstances. Macroeconomic trends like real estate crashes or employment slumps are the products of an effectively limitless array of individual decisions so diffuse that it is often—perhaps usually—meaningless to ascribe blame for them on any one entity. Yet just as Machiavelli reminds us that what are virtues in private can be vices in politics, healthy adult behavior often becomes deranged and neurotic when transferred to the public realm, whose anonymity and scant accountability enable magical thinking to prevail.
The neurosis is especially acute—and dangerous—when concentrated on the presidency. As Gene Healy has masterfully demonstrated in his Cult of the Presidency, the president’s job is now not merely to execute the laws but to salve all wounds, assuage all ills and protect against all adversities. Similarly, the functions Clinton Rossiter famously identifies for the president—which range from “Chief of State,” which is fair enough, all the way to “Guardian of the Economy,” which is delusional—arise not merely from presidents’ thirst for power but ultimately from the public’s childlike need to be lulled into a feeling, however false, of security delivered by a benevolent and omnipotent protector. The problem, as Healy recognizes, is that a president who is responsible for everything must be empowered to do anything. Thus the post-9/11 fantasy that a sufficiently powerful government could protect the United States against all eventualities has given rise to a security state the likes of which not even the most robust defender of the presidency could once have imagined.
After the tragic death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens at the hands of a mob that may or may not have been planned, neoconservative commentators rushed to the airwaves, Internet and beyond to lay the blame for riotous behavior at the feet of the president’s supposedly failed Middle East policy. But the idea that an American policy can stabilize a region riven by conflict for virtually all of historical memory is lunacy. William Kristol, for example, said the attack on the embassy in Libya demonstrated the need for “American leadership.” The sentiment is appealing until one asks the irksome question: To do what, precisely? To lead where? What conceivable policy—however muscular—exerts any restraining power on rogue and irrational actors demonstrating against a film in Libya or Yemen? Does anyone seriously believe that sufficient bluster from the Oval Office would restrain them? Is it not the premise of the neoconservative argument that we should fear terrorists precisely because they are irrational fanatics? Holding the president accountable for failing to instill prohibitive fear in ragtag mobs on the other side of the world is both silly and, strictly speaking, childish. Indeed, the president cannot even be realistically understood to be the causal agent of all events in his own sprawling branch of government, including a wayward statement issued from an embassy in Egypt on, of all media, Twitter.
Similarly, Newt Gingrich assailed the President for describing the events in Libya as “senseless violence” when they were, on the former House Speaker’s analysis, “acts of war” perpetrated by radical Islamists waging armed combat against the United States. But where is this Islamist army, that we may exact our vengeance on it? The problem is that if the enemy does not exist as a discrete and identifiable entity, it is difficult to see how sufficient bluster from the Oval Office could deter it. Gingrich’s description of “Islamists”—who, on even the most fearful reading, are diffused across countless organizations—is prone to the myth-making that sees every event as preventable, every enemy as identifiable, every tragedy as a reflection on the president. It is unsurprising that the war Gingrich detects would be waged—and its garlands worn—by the president too.
That is not to say that policies do not sometimes cause adverse events. Obviously, government actions can wound the economy. Certainly, a weak-willed foreign policy can tempt enemies—and, it should be added, presidents ranging the world with armies for whose use they are unaccountable but to a self-emasculated Congress, can wreak havoc. But it is a very different thing to assume—again, the clinical term is narcissism—that any event anywhere is a commentary on the United States. It is especially dangerous to conclude, from there, that what is a reflection on the United States is consequently a reflection on the president. A hunt for causal agents that leads inexorably to the White House gate not only wrongly places the president at the center of our political system, a degree of power no Framer would have entrusted to one person, it also places the presidency at the center of our lives.
Both candidates have encouraged our childishness because both aspire to wield the power our need for causation inevitably confers. They might, instead, have used such issues as job creation or the riots in the Middle East as learning opportunities, times to say: “We can affect these things around the edges, but no one should expect the United States or, least of all, its president to control distant or disparate events.” They might have reminded us that the world does not dance on strings held in the hands of the president. These might have been teachable moments. Being grownups, we ought not actually expect candidates to take the opportunity. But it is not unreasonable to lament their failure to do so.