Good leaders must have that quality of being present but not intrusive

Originally Published at Shout Out UK on Friday 28th August 2020.

Omnipresence is not a word we normally use in the political context, but in this case it is most pertinent.

At the beginning of the Republican Convention, the party’s National Committee passed a resolution saying that it ‘enthusiastically supports President Trump and will continue to support the President’s America-first agenda’. Resolutions are normally used to agree on policy platforms and to espouse new ideas. Not this time. The Republican Party has been circumscribed  and absorbed by one man — Trump.

The new face of Republicans

It can be disputed what Trumpism is and even if such an ideology exists. But his character, discourse, and personality are now the embodiments of the Republican Party. On each night of the convention, the President made a public appearance and a member of his family made a flagship speech. This takeover is all the more extraordinary if one recalls October 2016, when in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape Republicans contemplated replacing their candidate and many distanced themselves from Trump.

The reasoning behind Trump’s omnipresence is twofold. First, it is a reflection of his takeover of the Republican Party — former president George Bush was deliberately not present in the way Carter, Clinton, and Obama were at the Democrat’s convention last week. Secondly, it furthers the charge against ‘basement Biden’ — a candidate who’s allegedly too scared and weak to leave his house, and too prone to gaffes to be allowed out in public more than is strictly necessary.

Trump and his VP Mike Pence both visited the convention host city of Charlotte in deliberate contrast to Biden who remained in his home state. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy opportunistically told delegates:

‘I hope you realize the difference between Republican and Democratic conventions. Our nominees show up’.

But are voters attracted to the omnipresence of their leaders? Or is it a false illusion of power?

The Boris-Biden connection

So what’s uniting Boris Johnson and Joe Biden? Namely the accusation that both men have been caught missing in action. When Covid-19 first hit America, Biden failed to make headlines and was consigned to poorly-produced speeches whilst isolating from his home. Similarly, when the controversy over downgraded A-Level results consumed UK headlines, the Prime Minister made no official statement and allowed his flailing education secretary to take the heat.

To their critics, both politicians are not really in charge. Both lack a grip over events and allow others to do the work for them. Republicans frequently claim that Biden will be a puppet president for the radical left if elected — albeit this is also linked to questions over his age. In the eyes of their proponents, policies concerning education should be left to the education secretary — after all, this is a form of Cabinet Government. For these reasons, planning for the pandemic was left to scientific advisors before the PM finally took charge.

The  power pyramid

But underlining this debate is a fundamental question. How much power do the leaders of our modern governments truly hold? In America, a heavily devolved governmental system meant that the President lacked the constitutional means to enforce lockdown and to his frustration, force states to reopen. Similarly in the UK, more powers are being devolved to regions. The Test, Track and Trace system is now in the hands of local councils — an admittance that centralised power in this instance was ineffective.

Yet even if power is seeping away from the traditional centre, this has not been accompanied by a change in whom the public hold accountable for political decisions. Hoping to take advantage of this, the SNP are performing an extraordinary dance of blaming the UK Government for things that have gone wrong, whilst claiming credit for successes. In the US, Trump is facing heavy criticism for racially-motivated riots occurring in 20 cities across America — 17 of which are under the devolved control of Democratic politicians.

What all this indicates is that the way forward for politicians consists in outwardly professing power and taking responsibility, whilst behind the scenes the reality is that most of them lack the ability to truly effect change. Boris Johnson has voiced this obstacle during the present pandemic when he talked of his frustration at pulling levers of government and finding nothing happens.

The Quiet President?

But there is a cursory tale emerging from the views of Biden supporters. They are tired of a 24/7 presidency — where the leader and his scandals fill all the airtime and occupy discourse each day. The Democratic hopeful thus deliberately poses as a quieter, calmer future president. Biden wants his voters to believe that he will not consume the American conversation the way Trump has done.

Still, people need a leader to reassure and rally them together. In the case of Britain, it is the UK Government that  sets the tone and pace for reopening society and following scientific advice. During Johnson’s time in intensive care, the nation certainly felt a longing for a leader who could discharge their fears. This is something only a national leader can provide. Likewise, across the Atlantic, Donald Trump (however controversially) paves the way for certain states to enforce stricter immigration policies or roll back regulations on fossil fuel emissions. A leader, depending on what they say and do, still determines the overall direction of a country.

The period between 2016 and 2020 will be regarded as a great social experiment. Helped by cable news channels and twitter, the omnipresent leader was born. This election, and more importantly its aftermath, will provide an answer as to whether omnipresence really is the preferred quality in place of restraint.