Pretending to be President Obama?

| Forum Editor

Jeff Nelson’s unstated campaign to become the Wash. U. version of President Barack Obama is off to a great start.

His recent campus address was a wealth of presidential parallels. Not only was it named the “Campus State of the Union,” its post on the Student Union Web site actually included a picture of the real State of the Union. Even better, Nelson’s speech itself contained many lines reminiscent of Obama’s trademark oratory.

Consider Nelson’s opening assessment that despite the weak economy, “the state of our student body is strong—stronger than at any other point during my time at Wash. U.” In his own state of the union address, President Obama delivered a comparable opening, declaring that out of the ruin of the economic downturn, “the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

Nelson continued the presidential rhetoric with his plea that “we continue to stand unified,” his reference to his “ambitious agenda” and his promise to make this “the most open, transparent and accessible administration in recent Student Union history.” If Nelson just eliminates the words “Student Union,” he can probably recycle those phrases for later use on the floor of the U.S. House.

If only Nelson had his own Shepard Fairy portrait and Portuguese water dog. Oh, and if only he was talking about health care and economic policy instead of school calendar improvements and the problem of over-programming.

It is true that Nelson did not ever quote Obama in his speech or even make gratuitous references to hope and change. Nevertheless, he was certainly trying to act as presidential as is possible for someone discussing parochial concerns like campus food.

Yet I can hardly fault Nelson for engaging in a crime of which I too am guilty. In fact, I suspect all Wash. U. students are at least slightly complicit. As college students, we are all engaged in our own moments of playacting.

We playact as fully trained doctors by joining EST. We mimic real teachers by tutoring elementary school students in the afternoons. Nelson imitates our country’s president, and I pretend to be an op-ed columnist with real influence and readership.

Our theatrical pursuits are not harmful or even futile; on the contrary, these invented roles often have real-world value. EST provides an incredibly useful medical service for Wash. U. students. Tutoring helps struggling students succeed. Nelson plays a truly important role in improving our undergraduate experience. As for me, well, at least my parents like my columns.

But I think that the true value of these pursuits often lies in the future. Our playacting is primarily a way of training for our roles in the real world. EST members grow up to be doctors, tutors become teachers, and Jeff Nelson will eventually run for president. I’d add that I might grow up to be a real columnist, but given the state of journalism, I think I’m more likely to end up living in a cardboard box and using newspapers as heating fuel.

I often wonder whether the time and effort we spend on campus concerns might be better spent on problems affecting the real world. I think that even as college students, we have a great deal to offer to the broader community. Yet perhaps the world is often better served by our playacting.

Without years of medical training, EST members are not qualified to serve as doctors. College-age tutors are often not quite ready to command a classroom. Jeff Nelson has a few more years before he’ll meet the constitutional qualifications needed to run for president. And while I don’t think there are a lot of specific requirements for becoming a professional columnist, the fact remains that The New York Times will not soon hire me.

So I cannot condemn Nelson for his charade. After all, his chances of becoming president are probably better than my journalistic job prospects.

Besides, college should be our time to practice, to pretend to be useful and important, in the hope that one day we actually will be. If we are lucky, we can accomplish some good along the way. Mostly, however, we can enjoy our small stage while it lasts and prepare for our real debut.

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