Jeff Jacoby

Faced with a field of mediocrity

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / April 24, 2011

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UNDERWHELMED BY the way the 2012 presidential contest is shaping up? With more than 18 months remaining before Election Day, sensible Americans have better things to dwell on than the next race for the White House. But if you are contemplating the upcoming electoral marathon, “underwhelmed’’ probably overstates your level of enthusiasm.

The virtually certain Democratic nominee, President Obama, generates little of the ecstasy that followed him on the campaign trail in 2008. It wasn’t that long ago that women were fainting during Obama’s speeches. Now his oratory puts the vice president to sleep. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, fully half of Americans disapprove of Obama’s job performance; 37 percent say they “strongly’’ disapprove.

But Obama is rocking the casbah compared with the Republican hopefuls. Most of them have yet to be noticed by voters, let alone to win their admiration or ardor. When Republican respondents were asked whom they would vote for in a primary or caucus, The Washington Post reported last week, only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney managed to register in the double digits, with a meager 16 percent. The Republicans’ second-most popular choice? “No one,’’ at 12 percent.

Meanwhile, a new survey from the Pew Research Center finds that a majority of Americans — 53 percent — cannot come up with a name when asked which potential Republican candidate they’ve been hearing about the most lately. (Twenty-six percent mentioned real-estate tycoon Donald Trump, a self-promoter who excels at getting headlines but is about as plausible a GOP candidate as Rufus T. Firefly.) Another poll, for The New York Times and CBS, finds that of 11 men and women seen as possible Republican contestants in 2012, not one is regarded favorably by most Americans; even among Republican voters, only former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin are viewed favorably by more than half the respondents.

When asked whom they were most enthusiastic about, 9 percent of Republicans named Romney and 8 percent cited Huckabee. But nearly 60 percent of Republicans couldn’t identify any candidate who excites them.

These numbers and reactions will shift as the contest takes shape. But between now and Election Day 2012, Americans will once again find themselves winnowing a field of wannabes whose most distinctive characteristic is the intensity of their ambition — not the brilliance of their intellect, the perfection of their character, or the excellence of their judgment. A year from November, it isn’t absolutely impossible that the president we elect will turn out to be another Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, or Reagan. But another Van Buren, Taylor, Nixon, or Carter seems a much more likely bet.

In 1888, the Oxford historian James Bryce published “The American Commonwealth,’’ a survey of American democracy. The book is best remembered for its eighth chapter, which tried to explain “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents.’’

Bryce argued that the US presidency was “not more frequently filled by great and striking men’’ for several reasons. One was that in America, it was more common for gifted individuals to go into business than into politics. Another was “that eminent men make more enemies’’ and were therefore “less desirable candidates.’’ A third was that “the ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity.’’

But Bryce’s key insight was that “the merits of a president are one thing and those of a candidate another thing.’’ The skills and smarts it takes to win the White House are very different from the talents and instincts that make a great chief executive. That was as true in 1888 as it is today.

Our quadrennial array of presidential hopefuls so often seems disappointing and unexciting because we can rarely imagine any of them as a candidate for Mount Rushmore. Yet even the men on Mount Rushmore, George Washington excepted, were candidates first — ambitious, political, obsessed with winning. It is a paradox of our democracy that great presidents are not made, they are elected, and that what it takes to get elected — above all, bottomless ambition — isn’t what most of us want in our presidents. Is it any surprise we’re underwhelmed?

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at