Symbolic vs. functional

[Peter Suderman]

Atrios wonders whether a presidential victory by Obama, as an African-American, or Hillary Clinton, as a woman, would represent the more significant historical event.

One cannot deny that having a woman become president would be a tremendous advance for feminism, and perhaps more than an African-American president would represent an advance for the cause of racial justice

And in a follow-up post:

An Obama victory would signal that we've gone another step towards the future race blind utopia, and it would be a tremendous thing for this country, but having a woman as president of the United States wouldn't simply signal an advancement in attitudes, but would actual be more of an advance in and of itself.

Ezra Klein agrees, and I probably do as well, though I think there's plenty of room for disagreement here (quite a few of Atrios' commenters seem to as well). But I wonder: How much does, or should, this matter? Should historical precedent really play a part in a person's decision to vote for a particular candidate? My sense is that it depends on the way one looks at the office.

On one hand, if the president is merely someone who is elected to perform a set of duties—if you view the office primarily in a functional sense—then these sorts of precedents probably don't matter. Performing the specific duties of the office as well as possible is the only thing that matters, so any characteristic of the candidate that doesn't explicitly add to his or her capability in that respect is unimportant.

On the other hand, if you view the office in a more symbolic sense—as someone whose identity and character, apart from their specific management and decision-making duties, is crucial in setting a tone for the nation and in setting an example for the country's residents—then race and gender precedents are extremely important.

I lean toward the former, but I think both views are reasonable, and I doubt most people hew entirely to one view or the other. But whichever one they prefer probably says a lot about how much weight, if any, they place on identity-oriented precedents.