LOS ANGELES, March 9, 2015—With the season three premiere of Netflix’ popular political drama “House of Cards” having come and gone, some viewers have expressed disappointment at what was, to many of them, a series that was notably less than the high energy, suspense filled story line that gripped them in seasons one and two.
Season three seems to focus more on the personal relationships between characters, slow building emotional dialogue, and the cranking up of suspense for season four, none of which provided the excitement viewers had come to expect for season three.
Perhaps one reason the season may not have been as gratifying for viewers as it might have been is because the writers of the show did one thing very well, perhaps better than they had to: illustrate a vision of presidential leadership that is genuinely relatable and inspiring to modern voters, delving so deep into political substance that they emerged with something that was, while a little lackluster for television (or the Internet), politically brilliant in a non-fictional way.
Americans want a president like Frank Underwood’s podium personality. Not Frank Underwood as he actually is behind the scenes in this show (most of us feel we have more than enough crooks and liars in office already), but Frank Underwood in the way he presents himself to the American people.
We get a good look at this Frank Underwood beginning the moment he decides to reveal to the people (after having inherited the presidency) that he would not be running at the conclusion of his term for another four years as president in his own right.
(Spoiler alert: Frank is lying.)
Under these circumstances, it is remarkable that this character then proceeds to articulate a sentiment that Americans have been waiting to hear from any president for what seems like forever:
“For too long, we in Washington have been lying to you. We say we’re here to serve you when, in fact, we’re serving ourselves. And why? We are driven by our own desire to get reelected.”
Even so, that fact seems perfectly obvious to many. But then, Frank moves to talking about what has been called the “third rail” of American politics: Social Security, Medicare and our vast, rickety entitlement system.
“You are entitled to nothing,” Underwood says, later explaining that, while the New Deal was an effective and a noble endeavor at the time of its formation, its excesses are what saps the vitality from those who genuinely try to pursue the American dream.
But while this line in the speech reads like a rallying cry for conservative reform (something akin to Bill Clinton’s famous “the era of big government is over” line), Underwood moves quickly to claiming that the fault of government has been that it has failed to give people the tools to obtain the American dream. This sets the stage for a proposed massive government spending plan to create public and private sector jobs funded by the radical reduction of entitlement spending.
President Underwood’s imagery is telling. He stretches both arms outwards as far left and as far right as he can, combining the most conservative spending cuts with the most liberal stimulus spending to form a plan that sounds politically impossible. That cues the most powerful part of the scene:
“We cannot maintain the welfare state as we know it. Now, that’s not a popular thing to say. Anyone running for office wouldn’t dare utter those words. Every advisor and consultant and staff member would beg a presidential candidate not to say them. But I can say them, because I will not be seeking the Democratic nomination in 2016.
“Candidates are cautious. They must equivocate, they dodge and tip-toe. But I’d rather leave this office having accomplished something of value, than secure another four years having done nothing at all.”
It is not that everybody believes that we must largely undo our entitlement system that makes this speech resonate with an audience, whether fictional or real. Nor is it necessarily the case that most Americans prefer massive government spending programs to create jobs.
What is certainly true, however, is that Americans want to hear politicians tell the hard truth on the one hand and then do the hard thing on the other. They want Congress and the President to lead with conviction and then execute with competence. But at the same time, most voters want to see these actions implemented in a rational way, irrespective of their impact on political popularity.
(Spoiler alert: Frank knows this, and presents himself as an honest individual who’s withdrawing from public office, aiming to motivate people to clamor for him him to change his mind.)
Our real government in Washington fails because it does not lend itself political risk taking, as power is held by office holders driven primarily by their desire to get re-elected.
Ultimately, it is worth taking a chance on the truth of one’s convictions. Those politicians that do so tend to be the ones who are worth remembering.