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Commentary: Maybe we know what we want

Commentary: Maybe we know what we want

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Some analysts look at the last few American presidential elections and see a schizoid polity.

How do you follow Reagan/Bush with Clinton? Or an Obama with a Trump? Or a Trump with a Biden?

Others see a nation closely divided in which one team gets the upper hand in one battle and the other in the next — like a classic sports rivalry.

But what if the voters are smarter and more savvy than the talking heads give them credit for being?

What if we actually know what we want in a president?

I look at this election and I see voters giving Joe Biden an overwhelming popular vote. He is besting Donald Trump by over 5 million votes right now and is, according to statistician Nate Silver, on track to beat him by 8 million. It was the largest turnout in our nation’s history — some 161 million votes were cast (as opposed to the second-highest turnout of almost 139 million four years ago). And Biden may win an unprecedented 80 million votes — outdoing big vote getters like Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

The Trump voters came out of the hills and hollers as they did four years ago (in some cases in greater numbers). But this time Democratic voters were mobilized, too — especially in cities like Philadelphia, Atlanta and Milwaukee.

And yet, no blue wave.

How do the Republicans actually pick up seats in the House and (even if the Dems win two seats in Georgia) manage essentially a draw in the Senate, during a recession and a pandemic? And with a standard-bearer who is reviled by millions and disliked by millions more?

Here’s how: By being more in touch with the country than TV bloviators. And by having a wider and deeper sense of the country than its coasts.

Most Americans don’t want to defund the police, or demonize them, or obliterate statues of Washington, Jefferson and both Roosevelts, or have endless riots in our cities. We know damn well that multiple manifestations of racism, in individuals and institutions, are still pervasive, but we also know that this is not a racist nation. To the contrary, we are a nation ever striving to self-correct and perfect our union.

And we don’t like the speaker of the House disrespecting the president any more than we like the president disrespecting the speaker.

In other words, the voters embraced decency and civility in 2020 but rejected the precious nonsense. They want, as they have through most of the history of the country, a pragmatic government of the center. It may be center-right, like Reagan or one of the Bushes. It may be center-left, like Clinton or Obama, but it usually isn’t, and should not be, based on what Obama called “crazy stuff.”

We want the president to govern from the center.

We want Congress to legislate from the center.

I also think we know what we want in presidential character. It may seem more a matter of knowing it when we see it than being able to describe it. But I think what we want can be described. And I think it is four things:

First, we want the president to be able to articulate our common vision and values — especially in moments of national expectation or crisis. He or she needs to be a head of state in those moments. Franklin Roosevelt could do that. John F. Kennedy could. Ronald Reagan could.

Second, we want the president to protect the common good. As Joe Biden said the other day “that’s the job.” Be the threat terror, disease, a foreign power or unfair trade practices, we expect the president to be, once in office, more the commander in chief than the head of his party. Dwight Eisenhower was that and Gerald Ford was too, in his brief term.

Third, notwithstanding a healthy skepticism about “progress,” and how we measure it, we expect the president, to the extent that it is possible, to lead us forward, not backward. As Obama once said, “Better is still better.”

Finally, the president must have a very particular kind of courage — the courage to help the country see the need for initiatives we never considered. I am thinking here of JFK and the space program and Peace Corps. I am thinking even more of LBJ and the great civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s. And I am thinking of Obama and gay marriage (Biden helped persuade him).

The venerable old rocker Neil Young has a song in which he sings, “Someday, you’ll find, everything you’re looking for.” And it does sometimes seem that the country is to the presidency what an unsatisfied lover is to every marital prospect he rejects. But I actually think we are more rational than we give ourselves credit for being and that our requirements for president are knowable and can be satisfied.

Donald Trump’s policies were sufficiently centrist for the voters. If he was not presidential enough for many people it was not a matter of personality. Every president has a distinctive personality and puts his mark on the office. Harry Truman seemed crude after Roosevelt, and both Andrew Jackson and Lincoln were called vulgar by their enemies. To be presidential is to fulfill these four requirements. The more the better, for the president and for the country.

Keith C. Burris is editor, vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (kburris@post-gazette.com).

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