The American President ended on an oddly positive note. Shepherd finally clapped back at the low-life Rumson who exploited the President’s chivalrous silence in response to all character assassination attempts. Then the president triumphantly walked into the chamber for the State of the Union Address after announcing two Bills he would put before Congress, two pure, unadulterated, good for America, no back room deal bills. On top of that, he regained the backing of his staff, and he even got the girl in the process. And the viewer gets the sense that everything ends well, that all will be okay for President Alan Shepherd.
But would this extend to the reelection, nine months from where the movie ended? I am not so sure. Objectively, President Shepherd was not in a better place than he was before he gave his rousing speech to the press corps. His approval rating was still at a dismal 41%, the 20% reduction in emissions he supports is still unlikely to pass, and now his crime bill that would have been a victory if only in name, was now less tenable because he rewrote it to take away assault rifles and handguns from Americans who are loathe to give away their assault rifles and handguns. I find it hard to believe that his one speech and a new posture on fighting back overcomes all these obstacles and changes the hearts and minds of Americans on embittered arguments.
Take the approval rating for example. Twelve presidents faced reelection in the presidential job approval ratings era (taken in June). Four of them lost reelection- George HW Bush (37%), Jimmy Carter (32%), Gerald Ford (45%), and Donald Trump (41%). The last of these was the exact same approval rating Shepherd had in January of his election year, and the end of the movie. Notably President Truman won reelection with a 40% approval rating, but every other president was above 46%.
Now we can assume President Shepherd’s rating will rise towards his high point of 63% with his new approach to combatting Rumson’s attacks. However, it is hard to imagine that they return all the way to 63% considering the reasons the ratings dropped are all still problems, the president merely addressed the issues, he did not solve them. Because he seems to be a terrific rhetorician and has a history of good will with his country, his rating will go up. But he is still dating and sleeping with a lobbyist, he will still have to engage in character attacks (which he avoided the first time and wonders to his chief of staff out loud if he even could have won the first time if he had had to undergo them), and now he lost the backing of strong legislative pushes, and a legislative victory to tout in his re-election campaign.
Just because the president went through a transformation of conscious doesn’t mean that the Senate will undergo the same transformation and push through these two bills. And in fact, we aren’t really supposed to believe that will happen. This is a statement by the president, that he will stand on values and a push towards what America should be, both to the people of that America, and through the film to the people of this America.
So maybe we can assume his approval rating starts to swing back up to a normal looking 45 or 46 percent, but that still does not put him in the range for comfortable re-election, and short of a war in Libya, I am not sure how it would get there.
The only remaining avenue for a revitalization of Shepherd’s re-election is his rhetoric. He proves himself to be a terrific speaker with a quick wit throughout the entire movie. He carries himself well, is easy to listen to, and has a commanding and comfortable presence. The dude is super electable, and it is no surprise he won his first campaign. But we get an example of what the next year of battles with Rumson are going to look like, and I am not sure his speech was as triumphant as his staff thought.
I like his opening… “For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being President of this country was, to a certain extent, about character. And although I’ve not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I have been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being President of this country is entirely about character.”
It’s strong, it’s on the offense, it turns Rumson’s rhetoric into the president’s favor. It’s a strong opening. But then the speech gets a little wobbly. Shepherd goes on to defend two points of attack against him- his ACLU membership and his girlfriend’s protesting by burning the American flag.
He does a decent job of defending his ACLU membership, but the ACLU is the ACLU to whoever has an opinion on it, and it felt weird addressing it in the first place. So I guess that makes it a wash.
The second issue was worth addressing, however, and a much more difficult topic to address. Flag burning is a bad look… The President dating a flag burner… not great. The president’s earlier argument, that he posed in private, about how long ago she did it and how he didn’t know her then felt like a slipperier but safer escape from this attack. But he didn’t choose to do that, he goes high risk/high reward and plays the freedom of speech card.
He has some decent lines, “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag.”
This has got some ‘oomph’ to it. It says I’ve been there, and I’ve wrestled with this and there are no easy answers you simpletons. But he should’ve stopped there, because then he ends with a quasi-endorsement of flag burning. At the very least it can be perceived as a statement that he will tolerate it, “The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.”
Yeah… no. That doesn’t work for anyone in America. Call it a mistake, condemn it and say you have to tolerate it though because that is America, but this… is a questionable stance at best.
He bounces back some with another terrific call out of Romson’s rhetoric, “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.”
This gives me some confidence in his ability to fight back. It’s clear and eloquent and puts a thumb on exactly why people responded so strongly to his and Sydney’s relationship and what feels so bad about that reaction.
But I even quibble with the context of this argument though. He frames the entire speech, and this awesome section around the idea of a ‘serious man.’ America needs a serious man (him) and does not have time for a trivial man (Rumson). But where in the last couple of months that this movie documents does President Shepherd show himself to be a serious man? The bombing of Libya to be sure, but he honorably skated over that action, and that news cycle was replaced with news of him dancing with women at State dinners and then inviting that woman over for a sleep over in the residence.
So I think this is a good speech, and a good beginning to a counter campaign, but I am not sold it is the pronouncement of victory I am supposed to feel when he says, “My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President.”
Oh well… at least he got the girl.
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