High Upon the Presidential Trapeze

In many ways being President is like a performer high upon the trapeze, one wrong step and the whole show will come to a crashing halt. We reflect this understanding of the presidency in the rules and principles we use to judge Presidents. We also instinctively judge whether presidential candidates and their running mates can manage this tightrope act. We often talk about balanced policies and balanced candidates. And when we look at presidential candidates, we apply the same standards.

We look for individual who will best balance a list of qualities we believe a President should posses. Some of these qualities are intelligence, honesty, courage, ability to feel the pulse of the nation, ability to communicate, stamina, sense of history, compassion, experience, vision, executive ability, and etc (Dunn, 2008). The list is long and the ability of one man to posses all these qualities is nearly impossible. So we often judge vice presidential candidates in light of how they complement their respective presidential candidate.

For Barack Obama, one of his biggest weaknesses is his lack of experience. This weakness extends to a lack of overall length of time and more specifically to a lack of foreign policy experience. Joe Biden’s resume complements these weaknesses with his long tenure in the Senate and his experience on committees dealing with foreign policy.

John McCain is very experience, but he wanted to add to his image as a reformer. So he looked for someone outside of Washington D.C.  He also needed to bring some excitement back into the campaign. The selection of Sarah Palin is exactly what he was looking for.

Returning to the metaphor of a trapeze act, Cronin and Genovese (Dunn, 2007, 66) wrote that the American presidency has 9 paradoxes. One of those paradoxes is that, “ We yearn for the democratic ‘common person’ and also for the uncommon, charismatic, heroic, visionary performance.”

We see this in play right now. Obama’s near “rock star” status definitely matches the second have of the paradox. But it is Obama’s status that is beginning to hurt his campaign. As his status grows, he also grows farther removed from the “common folk.” This status may also be hurting him because as the expectation rises, the less people believe he will actually be able to accomplish his policies objectives. They are fearful of a tremendous letdown after such a dramatic buildup (Dunn, 2001, 9).

McCain only partially matches the paradox’s second half. Because of his military service in Vietnam, Americans easily associate him with heroic service. He is also seen as having sacrificed above and beyond for the defense of liberty. Conversely, charismatic and visionary are not terms that are associated with McCain. Considering the first part of the paradox, it is also McCain’s military service that best connects him to the common man.

Biden lacks on both sides of this paradox. Having served in the U.S. Senate for an extended period of time, Biden is perceived as far removed from the American people. Being one of a hundred Senators also makes his achievements perceived less than “uncommon, charismatic, heroic” or “visionary” (Dunn, 2007, 66).

Palin is balancing the paradox unlike any of the other three candidates. Since the announcement that McCain chose her as his VP, she has reached a “rock star” status equal to or surpassing Obama’s own status. Her record as a Governor is readymade for creating an image of an “uncommon, charismatic, heroic, visionary” performer (Dunn, 2007, 66). Despite this extraordinary rise in the status, she is still perceived as a common American. Such lines as “hockey mom” and her family make it easy for Americans to relate to her.

So with just over a month left in this greatest show on earth, there is plenty of time for all of the candidates to wow us with their ongoing trapeze act. Only November will tell who walked the line better than anyone else.


Dunn, C. (2001). The scarlet thread of scandal: Morality and the American presidency. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC.

Dunn, C. (2007). The seven laws of presidential leadership: An introduction to the American Presidency. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Dunn, C. (2008). Lecture. Delivered September 10, 2008 at Regent University.

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