In the National Museum of American History there lies an exhibit titled "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden." Only 43 men have had the honor and misfortune to guide the American people through turmoil and adversity, carrying this glorious burden on their shoulders.
The president serves many roles that require dealing with an unfathomable amount of stress and making morally ambiguous decisions on a daily basis. On top of that, he (and in the future: she) is also expected to provide an external appearance of strength, confidence and calm as Commander- Consoler-in chief and the "leader of the free world."
Illinois State Senator Barack Hussein Obama came onto the national scene with his sensational Keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and hasn't looked back since. "Barry," as he was known in his youth, entered the White House at age 47 as a youthful politician who bucked the conventional impression of presidents as old, wrinkled white men. Though no presidency can feasibly be compared to each other, given the differing circumstances and events, this president's aging has been starkly noticeable – though this might be because 1) his hair is black; 2) he's a pop culture phenomenon (just look at all his memes!); 3) news is overly saturated nowadays. At the least, his aging has been well documented and has begun to show as he enters his early 50s (he turns 52 in August).
Eight presidents have died in office, while six others have passed within five years of their retirement, but all have aged a great deal over their presidencies. Here's a retrospective look at some key events (or categories, as I may have cheated) that have made that guy look like this guy.
1. Financial Frustration: The Great Recession and Euro zone Financial Crises
I don't know how many times the words "Great Recession" has been said, but there is probably no single larger event that has caused President Obama more headache and premature graying. The effects of this economic collapse almost jeopardized Obama's re-election and continue to plague the country today. From the moment he became president-elect, the economy was in free fall due to, among many factors, loose regulation, irresponsible investment practices, poor government oversight, and disillusioned confidence. Fourth quarter GDP in 2008 contracted by an annual rate of 6.2%. The first quarter of 2009 faired no better, contracting by 6.1%. Average national unemployment peaked at 10.0% in October 2009, increasingly worse when sorted at the state level, by industry, and by race. Unfortunately, the U.S. was not without its sympathizers.
Here's a nifty timeline of the financial chaos in Europe. It's decently technical, but one does not have to be well versed in financial lingo to understand the terms "bailout," "bankruptcy," "austerity," and the American vernacular "debt crisis." While things started with Greece's largest debt in modern history, one by one the economically unstable Euro zone members succumbed to bailout and caused global economic strife. Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and later Cyprus banks; all had their hand in the mess. When Europe made the U.S. recession seem relatively tame, you know things were getting bad.
2. Natural Disasters: Grief and Crisis
Natural disasters are something that neither government reform nor free market principle can prevent. Although death rates from natural disasters are falling as we are more equipped to preempt and respond, the economic cost of disaster recovery is increasing. Every dollar spent on rebuilding what once was is a dollar lost on investments, research, education, health care, defense, and other worthy expenditures. Most of all, you cannot put a price on the human cost of these deadly disasters. Catastrophic natural disasters do not adhere to political boundaries. The U.S. is repeatedly among the first responders abroad. From the Haitian earthquake in January 2010 (disputed, ≈250,000 dead; $14 billion in economic cost) to the Japanese tsunami/earthquake in March 2011 (≈20,000 dead; $300 billion), these events have crucial impact on U.S. foreign policy, national security, and – in the case of potential nuclear fallout in Japan – domestic health and environmental hazard.
At home, the effects of Hurricane Sandy meant balancing between a re-election campaign and emergency response in the waning weeks of Election 2012, all the while managing the country's daily domestic and foreign agendas. The recent example of the Oklahoma tornadoes shows the impossible task that lies before the president: the task of trying to comfort and reassure those that have lost loved ones and/or their entire livelihoods to an unaccountable agent. The role of consoler-in-chief is an underappreciated role that leaves nothing but hopelessness and heartbreak no matter how much empathy is offered.
3. Man-Made Disasters: Anger and Crisis
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Aurora, Colorado theater shootings. The Sandyhook Massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The Boston Marathon terrorist bombing.
When there is so much in life that is out of our controls, it is infinitely more frustrating when things that can be curbed or possibly prevented happen anyway. Even if the agents of destruction are "brought to justice," there is no way to reverse the damage; there is only the option of further destruction and retaliation. With few responses available, there is only the mission of preventing the same act from never happening again. Presidents, like celebrities and icons, don't always feel like "real" or "normal" people to the public. But it's moments of tragedies like these that we remember the president must respond with grace and composure when he must, like the rest of us, burn with anger and confusion inside. Tragedy takes the air out of all our wings.
4. The Morality of U.S. Might
Nobel Peace Prize winner, author, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel (called "a messenger to mankind" by the prize committee), in a recent visit to the University of Chicago, cited American morality as the main reason for why the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. Not military might or economic prosperity, but moral authority. Whether or not you agree with his opinion (or the premise of American Exceptionalism), the question of American intervention abroad has been a long-debated dilemma since the Republic's inception. With genocide and ethnic conflict raging abroad in Darfur, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria, at what point (if there is any) is there a moral imperative to stop the bloodshed of innocent people? Or can Americans, fresh off two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, no longer act the role of peacekeeper abroad. These questions have no answers, and despite the president's power, perhaps no single person may have the authority to determine this.
5. Expectations and Obstructionism
Both at home and abroad, huge expectations have been put on President Obama. Detractors of the president have urged the revoke of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Obama just a few months into his historic presidency. At the start of his second term, the prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open and his conviction in coalition-building and multilateral action is being tested. He has himself acted unilaterally with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the implementation of drone strike programs. There are legitimate concerns for both aspects – national security and civil liberties – but ultimately he is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
At home, the household quote from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to make Obama a "one-term president" is the leading example of Republican obstructionism in Congress. An onslaught of attacks provoked by the 2012 Elections; budgetary brinkmanship with the fiscal cliff, sequester, and debt ceiling; and deteriorating relations with Speaker Boehner haven't made things better. Recent scandals involving the AP Press and the Judiciary department have furthered antagonized relations between the press and White House.
Liberals criticize his liberal credentials while conservatives criticize everything he does. Meanwhile, pundits, supporters and dissenters alike, are busy misleading the public and/or misunderstanding the actions of the Obama administration. Illusions of a powerful negotiator in the mold of Lyndon Johnson's "Master of the Senate" coupled with the impression of the bully pulpit capable of riveting the public has put unfair expectations on the president. People just keep in mind that all actions by Congress have been pre-emptively curbed to accommodate the president's veto powers (you'll rarely see a veto because the legislation has been formed to avoid one). The separation of powers in our government is designed for incremental gains in progressive policies. Barack Obama, the person, is fairly liberal. Barack Obama, the president, is more moderate to ensure policies that will feasibly be implemented and accepted. His true preferences and the ones he offers may differ at times. Often times the president uses his influence to pull the legislation as liberal, in this case, as possible.
6. Presidential Paternity: Father-In-Chief
Alright, so the first daughters might not be world news, but they are certainly the world to Obama, the father-in-chief. First daughters Sasha and Malia Obama entered the White House at the ages of 7 and 11, respectively. Today Sasha is 11, Malia 14. By the time his second term ends, Malia will be off to College and Sasha will be entering the prime of her teen years. If you ask the president and the first lady why he prematurely grays, they'll point to his other job as father-in-chief. If being surrounded by non-cooperative Washington elite and immersed in the political world wasn't stressful enough, dealing with two teenage girls who don't care for politics is a whole ordeal in itself.