Hurricane Sandy’s mad dash towards the east coast of the United States—the country’s most valuable real estate—is a good reminder of the unpredictability of international events. Rightly or wrongly, presidents, department secretaries, ranking members of congress, and other important people frequently get blamed for a lot of what goes wrong in this country and, quite often, for what goes wrong outside of it. It varies from case to case as to just how much blame can be placed on individual leaders; as Kanye West has argued, even the effects of hurricanes can be blamed on important political officials, but without question, the mere arrival of a destructive hurricane, while potentially disastrous, is certainly no one’s fault.
But why is it that so many other sticky things which are very difficult to effect (such as unemployment, domestic political disputes abroad like the Arab spring or, even, post-hurricane disaster relief) are blamed on key political leaders? Why aren’t voters more sympathetic to the difficulties of running a highly complex organization like a country? Perhaps the better question is, why would anyone willingly choose a line of work for which there is very little praise when things go well, a never ending supply of vitriol when things go wrong, and the knowledge going in that you could climb the Matterhorn barefoot in January and 50% of the country would still ask why you didn’t surmount Everest?
The answer is simple and it doesn’t take a cynic to come to this conclusion: in a winner take all political system, there is a strong incentive to capitalize on any and all opportunities to make the opponent look bad. Blaming the other party for the world’s problems and taking the credit for all good things should hardly come as a shock to anyone. To reiterate, what’s really astonishing is that there are people who actually seek out this line of work and somehow enjoy it.
The Obama Administration’s mishandling of the terrorist attacks in Benghazi is but the latest example of an unpredictable event turning into a PR disaster for a public official. Debates over whether or not it was a terrorist attack or whether or not the Administration denied CIA requests for more protection accomplish nothing; if the president knew an attack was coming, undoubtedly he would have done something. When in doubt, always say it out loud: “the president ignored a CIA request for help; therefore, he didn’t care whether the ambassador died or not.” Those jumping on the president right now don’t care any more or less than the president about the value of American lives. They just see an opportunity. But again, this should not come as a surprise.
It’s a good idea in light of election season, then, to praise the good character of our elected officials who have chosen a difficult job for which they will never receive due sympathy. Our political process would improve if we compared political dilemmas to hurricanes (complex, hard-to-control, and even harder to predict) instead of describing them as perfectly controllable events that only go awry when leaders show bad judgment. As it turns out, it’s actually really hard to run a country.