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Who wants to be a president — despite the challenges?

Who wants to be a president — despite the challenges?
This year’s election in America highlights the challenge of ageing leaders reluctant to give way to younger generations. The paradox is that despite the problems of becoming a president, so many people want those jobs. (Illustrative Image: US President Joe Biden during a state dinner in honour of Kenya's President William Ruto at the White House in Washington, DC, on 23 May 2024. (Photo: Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Former US president Donald Trump during a campaign event at Crotona Park in the Bronx, New York, on 23 May 2024. (Photo: Bing Guan / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

This year’s election in America highlights the challenge of ageing leaders reluctant to give way to younger generations. The paradox is that despite the problems of becoming a president, so many people want those jobs.

When I retired from this place and the office of Secretary of state, it was in the firmest contemplation of never more returning here… Those with whom I then communicated could say, if it were necessary, whether 

I met the call with desire or even with a ready acquiescence, and whether from the moment of my first acquiescence I did not devoutly pray that the very thing might happen which has happened. The second office of this government is honorable and easy. The first is but a splendid misery. – Thomas Jefferson, 1797 (before becoming  vice-president, then president 1801-09)

Why do some people even want to become leaders of their nations? These days, in most countries, with such jobs, the challenges are unremitting, the responsibilities are crushing, and demands upon an incumbent’s time, attention and support are constant. It can be just as Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president (and before that drafter of the Declaration of Independence, the new nation’s first secretary of state, and then its second vice-president under John Adams) had judged it, some two centuries ago. 

The question of why so many want those desks must be posed, and answers attempted, especially given the dozens of elections this year. And, of course, there is an even larger tally of persons who want these jobs – really, really want these jobs – in their respective nations. (There are, of course, places where elections are by-passed in favour of military coups or even, in a few places, with hereditary arrangements. But elections are, increasingly, the norm.)

Is it for “the same old story, a fight for love and glory” as the song, As Time Goes By, made famous in the film, Casablanca, says? Or is it collective acts or delusions from hubris on the part of those contenders? 

Or, even more prosaically, is it for the power, riches, status and benefits that can be theirs upon gaining office? Is it the inevitably very nice house, the jet, the helicopter and special limo, the honour guards and a staff of deferential aides, and all those other benefits? Or is it still something more? After all, one could relatively easily gain all those material manifestations of status in the private sector – but without the political turmoil and public scrutiny if wealth and power were the goals.

White House contenders

Consider several examples. In the US, as almost everyone on the planet knows by now, this year’s presidential race is pitting two elderly men – Donald Trump and Joe Biden – against each other for the ultimate prize, although there are also several third, fourth and fifth party candidates. (Actually there are more, but none of those would-be candidates has a chance to gain more than a simple line item in the final results. That should make us wonder why they even bother or why anybody gives them any money to try.) 

In the current election, one of these two men is a wealthy, former businessman/showman/pitchman in his late seventies. He is simultaneously a seriously unprincipled serial liar, a twice-impeached former president and a self-confessed sexual predator (on the infamous “Access Hollywood” video tape, in case anyone is wondering). 

In this view of two old bulls, are we looking at a 21st-century version of King Lear, but this time with two rival kings trying to rule beyond their respective times?

He envisions himself the representative of the forgotten working man and woman and thus a symbol of their “retribution”. He had previously been elected for one four-year term of office, but was then defeated for a return engagement in the White House. But now he is back for what must be a third and final attempt – win or lose. The man’s hubris seems to acknowledge no limit. Or, as he has said: “Wherever I go, I know that if I could build a skyscraper in Manhattan, I could do anything.”

The other candidate, of course, is an even older man and the incumbent president who has had a lifetime in political office from the time he was 30. He has constructed a career as a self-confessed moderate, cross-party conciliator, compromiser and calm negotiator. This is in tandem with his status as something of a flesh-and-blood incarnation of the ordinary working men and women he sees as the backbone of the nation – built upon his own modest upbringing.

But at this time in their lives, like most of the rest of us might plan on doing, you would think both men would want to sit back and take it easy. Maybe sail around the world on a luxury cruise as an occasional lecturer/entertainer, visiting places they haven’t been to before, taking stock of their lives, being more attentive to their grandchildren, writing (or dictating) their memoirs, giving a few thoughtful speeches at prestigious study groups, and playing the role of elder statesmen (as so many of their predecessors have done). 

This would be in place of a physically enervating, soul-destroying race for the presidency – one more time – as it consumes any energies they have left. 

Perhaps the temptations of vast power and international acclaim are too enticing to ignore. Perhaps what they are undertaking is one last effort to reach for the brass ring yet again. Perhaps there is an insistent feeling, running in background in their minds, that they have not – at least not yet – put their own, definitive stamp on national and world affairs that would finally allow them to sit back, rest on their laurels and contemplate an eventual starring role in the history texts and documentary videos and films of the future. 

Of course, for Trump there is also an increasingly urgent need to fend off a posse of federal and state prosecutors, all eager to hang his scalp on the wall over a long roster of unprecedented criminal charges against a former president. 

In this view of two old bulls, are we looking at a 21st-century version of King Lear, but this time with two rival kings trying to rule beyond their respective times?

Holding on to power

Such a predilection is not limited to American politics. Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, already in his sixties, has been reshaping his country’s constitution so he can continue ruling into the next decade. China’s Xi Jinping has carried out something similar in his party’s and country’s basic documents. 

Both men have been in charge for years, and both came from backgrounds that guaranteed they harboured grudges and grievances (Putin’s humiliating experiences in the fall of communism and Xi’s memories of a father rusticated in the Cultural Revolution) that may only be assuaged by remaining on top until the inevitability of human mortality is revealed.

When one looks at the issues confronting a president in America, whoever is elected will have an overflowing, extremely troubling inbox.

Thinking about this in the context of South Africa, there are similar examples of political figures who have had extraordinarily hard times relinquishing a hold (or attempting to regain a toehold) on power. Think of Jacob Zuma, now 81, drummed out of his old party, harried by continuing legal battles, who is now seeking to take revenge on his old comrades electorally. 

And then there is Helen Zille who has fought to maintain a hand on the tiller of her party’s ship, even as that party has a whole cohort of younger leaders eager for chances. Further, there is a cadre of other younger figures who have effectively been driven from their party to seek political fortunes elsewhere. 

Once bitten by the thrill of being in charge, it often seems nearly impossible for increasingly elderly leaders to step aside, unless by death, save for those with the principles and moral fibre of someone like the late Nelson Mandela. (Think Kamuzu Banda in Malawi, Omar Bongo in Gabon, Equatorial Guinean leader Teodoro Obiang, or a hereditary quasi-monarchy like the three generations of the Kim family in North Korea. Then there is Benjamin Netanyahu who holds onto power to ward off prosecution on corruption charges.) 

Maybe this is less Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous (and famously hard to define) “will to power” and more an unwillingness to let go of power gracefully once held – and a belief only they can do it right. (See our earlier article for further thoughts on the geriatric trend lines in leadership globally.)

Formidable fissures

When one looks at the issues confronting a president in America, whoever is elected will have an overflowing, extremely troubling inbox, even if they ruthlessly delegate less-pressing issues downwards. But, as it is said, a president’s inbox only gets the nearly intractable problems because the easy ones are solved well down the hierarchy.

Regardless of one’s partisanship, the current fissures in American society and politics are formidable. These include the heated debate over reproductive rights, and now, even access to birth control. 

Further, there is a deep dispute over immigration by undocumented immigrants (or illegal migrants, depending on your view of it) – and even whether migration is good or bad for the economy.

Moreover, the challenges of identitarianism and inclusion in American politics remain pre-eminent for many. This impacts on how hard it has become for the country’s political institutions and leaders to mediate (even if they wish to do so) between conflicting interests and ideals and reach solutions the broad majority of citizens will accept.  

Then there are the related realms of foreign policy and international economic policy. The issue of support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression is roiling the country’s political landscape, even if a (slipping) majority of Americans continue to voice support for helping that beleaguered nation. But the cost of such support almost certainly will also make the relationship between the US and Russia ever more fraught. Managing all this will be much more than Trump saying he can do it in just one day.

Concurrently, the Biden administration’s support for Israel, while it continues to have support from a majority of elected representatives, has become increasingly problematic in the face of the Netanyahu government’s military actions (in retribution for the 7 October attack) now threatening the survival of hundreds of thousands in Gaza. 

While the student and other protests make headlines, they are not a threat to the US government, but they promise to make any administration’s ability to deal with the tensions arising from continuing support for the Netanyahu prime ministership increasingly difficult. Finding a path to a settlement for Gaza as well as a larger Mideast settlement – including Saudi Arabia and Israel jointly – may be the goal, but making it happen may yet be impossible. It will remain a deeply divisive problem bedevilling whoever wins in November.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

Similarly, support for a substantively independent (but not formally so) Taiwan remains strong in the US. However, the stronger the embrace, the more the Chinese government in Beijing will push back and attempt to advance their claim in word and deed that Taiwan is an indivisible part of China. This comes in tandem with growing rounds of economic protectionism measures between China and the US rooted in fears about China’s growing economic presence.

While we are at it, there is also a whole litany of issues related to climate change. These have both domestic and international aspects, none of which will be easy to solve even if the immediacy of the issues are no longer in doubt.

All of these issues – each with multiple memorandums in thick folders – virtually scream out: “Read me first.” And yet, someone will get the job, come November’s vote.  

The funny thing is that something similar is taking place in many other countries carrying out votes for their respective leadership this year. India’s election is ongoing, the South African one is just about upon us, and the British are soon to have one as well. And there is no reason to assume solutions are obvious for the problems faced by any of these nations. DM


Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

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