I approached President Obama’s book “A Promised Land” full of anticipation. Being a politics-nerd with a deep sense of appreciation for gossip, I couldn’t wait to hear (I‘m also an audiobook guy) the President’s impression of foreign leaders and recent events. There were, literally, impressions — The President does a great German accent for Angela Merkel and a less convincing yet entertaining Benjamin Netanyahu. Unexpectedly, I was left with something completely different after finishing the book.
It shouldn't be surprising that being the president of the world-leading superpower is a tough job. President Obama actually states that he slept well most nights and that facing life and death dilemmas was a rarity, but reaching the end of his book, the President's tone began to change.
In chapter 22, President Obama talks about a recurring dream he was having while in office:
“I find myself on the street of some unnamed city, a neighborhood with trees, storefronts, light traffic. the day is pleasant and warm, with a soft breeze, and people are out shopping or walking their dogs, or coming home from work. in one version I’m riding a bike, but most often I’m on foot and I’m strolling along without any thoughts in particular… No one recognizes me, my security detail is gone, there’s nowhere I have to be, my choices have no consequence…. I feel like I won the lottery”.
The President doesn’t elaborate any further, the dream is pretty telling as it is, but he leaves it at that. Then, in chapter 24, Obama tells of a talk he had with former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel before he left the White House to run for Mayor of Chicago.
“More than once we asked ourselves why we chose such stressful lives. ‘After we're finished we should try something simpler’, I said to him one day. ‘We could move our families to Hawaii and open a smoothie stand on the beach’. ‘Smoothies are too complicated’, Rahm said, ‘we’ll sell T-shirts, but just white T-shirts, in medium. that’s it, no other colors or patterns or sizes. we don’t want to have to make any decisions.”
At this point, I left the political gossip behind. The main takeaway for me was the feeling that President Obama is trying to send a sort of distress signal. He was trying to let us know, through dreams and funny small-talk, that this job — with everything excepted from the person who holds it — is REALLY hard. It might even be too hard for one person to handle.
In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote “The president’s task has become impossible for me or any other man”. In 1955, a review issued by President Herbert Hoover suggested adding a second, administrative, vice president to help the president with his work.
Things have changed since, not necessarily for the better.
The digital age we live in adds more extreme pressure and demands on a president than ever before. Nowadays it’s not enough for a president to simply lead. We expect them to look good on TV. They need to be charismatic and charming at all times. A president needs to act like a celebrity. They are constantly scrutinized for their looks, the way they move, act, and talk. We keep a very close and inspecting eye on their families and friends.
And then there’s the responsibility. The world is very complex, and only getting more so. There are more threats than ever, and they are potentially more harmful. We expect our leaders to make the right call, time and time again, there’s no room for slipups. Hundreds of TV channels, radio talk shows, and hundreds of millions of people all over social media are all watching, and they have lots to say.
A president doesn’t have years to train for this job, not even that many months. There isn’t any school for presidents. In a fast-changing world, the guidelines for a current president are written on the go.
One moment you're a candidate, the next you’re moving into the West Wing. Your life changes completely and while you're still processing it, you're also supposed to run the world.
Now, don’t get me wrong, scrutiny is important. We need to hold our leaders to high standards. We need them to be good, we need them to be smart and act smart. We need them to be role models. However, it sometimes seems like what we expect from our presidents, the list of demands we hold, is more suitable for a superhero rather than an actual human being.
Dr. Michael Roizen, the author of “Real Age: Are You as Young as You Can Be?”, reviewed the medical records of US presidents starting from the 1920s. “The typical person who lives one year ages one year”, he said, “the typical president ages two years for every year they are in office”.
President Obama is certainly not the first to feel the pressure of the higher office. A study by Duke University found that the rate of depression found in US Presidents was at a higher rate than expected in US males. 18 presidents were diagnosed by the researchers as having at least one psychiatric disorder, mainly depression and anxiety. President Nixon, for example, reportedly took prescription drugs for anxiety and depression and was heavily drinking.
The immense pressure and extreme demands make the presidency a job not suitable for the faint-hearted, and also for those who are — how shall I put it — completely free of any mental issues to begin with.
Researches studied US presidents and UK prime ministers from the past 100 years and found that many had some form of self-exultation and grand belief in their importance. Many were found to exhibit hubristic behavior even before taking office.
A different study from Emory University in Georgia found that several presidents exhibited psychopathic traits. “They might allow people to rise to positions of leadership”, said Professor Scott Lilienfeld, “I’m less confident they’re going to result in better overall leadership, especially in the long term.”
In other words. A person that wants to be president and is willing to do what it takes in order to get there, needs to be a bit ‘crazy’. After becoming president, this person might become even ‘crazier’.
In psychology, there’s a known term called ‘decision fatigue’. The more decisions a person needs to make for a longer period of time the worst this person gets in making a serious, informed, and calculated choice.
A study that was done by researchers from Stanford University and Ben-Gurion University in Isreal looked into judges’ rulings in parole hearings. They found that prisoners that appeared in front of a judge in the early morning were 7 times more likely to be paroled than those who appeared in court in the latter part of the day.
Being, as President George W. Bush called it, “The Decider” is a tough role. That’s why many leaders try to eliminate the less important decisions in their lives and focus on the essential ones.
President Obama, for example, only wore gray or blue suits. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make”, he told Vanity Fair.
Mark Zuckerberg acts in the same way, regularly wearing a plain gray T-shirt. Indeed, CEOs and entrepreneurs suffer from mental health issues as well. A recent study of 242 entrepreneurs found that 49% reported struggling with at least one mental condition.
In his book “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency”, John Dickerson asks what if the problem isn’t the president but the presidency? The notion that the highest office in the land is too much for one person to hold is not new. And yet, leaders discussing their hardship while in office still might come off as weakness.
In April 2017, President Trump admitted in an interview that he thought the presidency “would be easier”. He was ridiculed by some of his critics. It was actually a very important sign for us all to think about — being president nowadays might be too tough.
In the UK, the prime minister’s office had to strongly deny reports that Boris Johnson, the PM and a father of a newborn child, was taking power naps during working days. It came off as irresponsible for the leader of the nation to be tired.
Changes could, and probably should be made to the higher offices. Our leaders could be getting more help, and have a more supportive system to accommodate them.
But some of the work also depends on us, the public. We need to remember that it is in our interest for the president to be able to do a good job. It is in our interest to have good people willing to take power without being motivated by grand illusions of self-power. We need to be a bit more tolerant and always keep in mind that a president is not superhuman but only a human being.
1. “A Promised Land” by Barack Obama
2. President Obama before and after his presidency