It’s not just that the video is rhetorically and visually effective, with the former president speaking movingly (over images of medical workers and ordinary Americans wearing masks) about “how small our differences are” and how “in the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God.” Those and other lines in the video stir us because that’s how presidents, in their capacity as heads of state, are supposed to talk. They don’t speak as political actors out to vanquish ideological enemies. They speak as if they reside in a civic space shared by all political actors, on every side of every conflict that divides the polity. They seek to elevate themselves above the political fray and communicate to each and every one of us first and foremost as Americans.
Achieving this exalted position is often a challenge for presidents — precisely because they are expected to fulfill two roles at once, one political and one extra-political. Other governmental systems divide things up differently. A prime minister, for example, is the head of the party (or coalition of parties) that constitutes a majority in the legislature, but someone else — a monarch, a separately elected ceremonial official — serves as head of state. The United States expects the president to perform both duties, despite the sometimes considerable tension between the two roles.