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So, What’s So Tough About Being President? A Computer Game Shows Us

students play icivics
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Students at Frontier Elementary School play the online game Executive Command.

A new president usually comes into office with a dose of optimism. They see positive public-approval ratings during the honeymoon period of the first few months — and then that tends to drop. Presidents need support to get anything done, that’s how this system of government was designed. But that’s getting harder to do.

That tough spot in the Oval Office is explored through the lens of a computer game called Executive Command. It was developed by a nonprofit group called iCivics. I sat in with some pros to watch how it’s played.

“Basically you’re acting as president,” explained Amelea Swiderski, a student in Michael Johnson’s eighth-grade social-studies class at Frontier Elementary School.

“You have 100 percent public-approval rating,” I pointed out to her. “You know that that’s like unheard of in real life?”

“Well, I feel pretty good being president right now in this game,” she laughed.

“What’s your agenda?” I asked.

“It’s youth, so working for the people under 18,” she said.

A trip to Congress and a good speech help promote that agenda.

“Obviously they like the security idea so far. I have to go back to Congress,” student Tommy Arnold said.

He’s trying to get Congress to focus on Homeland Security policy, while juggling a bunch of other bills the public wants to see passed or vetoed.

“Right now my inbox is pretty full,” he said.

The point of the game is to give students a sense of how the Executive Branch operates. Granted, the game poses questions that are pretty black and white, like whether people who can’t pay their taxes should instead pay with a well-crafted song and dance.

But Arnold said it’s giving him an idea of just how tough the real job is.

“It’s probably hard because everything relies on you,” he said. “You have to make the right decisions and if you mess up, everyone hates you basically.”

Matthew Dickinson is a professor of political science at Middlebury College who writes about the presidency, and he said the presidency has always been a tough job.

“One of the great difficulties that presidents face is the frustration that comes with realizing, to a certain extent, they’ve been handed a scepter of leadership that is only sporadically effective. It’s the illusion of power,” he said.

Illusion being the key word here. Remember what Arnold said, that he thinks it’s probably hard because everything relies on you.

Dickinson says this is the perception a lot of the public holds. But the ability to make big changes during a presidential term is diminishing as government becomes more and more divided along party lines. Decades ago, he says, the president could reach across the aisle and grab more support for an idea.

“But over the course of 40 years, parties have shed their non-conforming members,” Dickinson said. “There are very few liberal Republicans, and very few conservative Democrats. And so the only way you can get things done is to rely on your own party, and that just seems to send the wrong message to the public.”

So Arnold’s second assumption is spot on — people get really frustrated. They vote one party out of office, hoping the other will bring the change they want to see.

This is what the game is trying to instill in the students. You only “win” at being president if you make both Congress and the people happy. Oh, and those other foreign powers, too.

“And now we’re at war, basically,” Arnold explained after receiving a declaration of war in the game.

“Do you think this messes with your security agenda?” I asked him.

“Um, yeah, a little bit, just because I have other stuff to do.”

Arnold’s teacher, Johnson, said in the end, it’s not so much about which choices they make or which opinions they have.

“The main thing is I encourage my students to think and be able to support their opinions. Whatever your opinion is, you have to be able to justify it and support what you believe,” he said.

Even if you definitely won’t get 100 percent public approval in real life. 

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.