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Pen-Pushing President

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"For all the talk of men coveting the Emperor's throne, Ivan had never heard of anyone speak of coveting his desk."

Who didn't dream of one day becoming President of a country, executive of a big company, or leader of a big organisation? You can give orders, make strategic decisions, and hold one of the most important and spotlight-earning jobs! You can be a hero and a model citizen!

And now that you have won the election/executive selection process, here is a pen and a rubber stamp: warm up your arm, 'cause from now on you will use them a lot. Apparently, the main activity of people in charge is to spend their days alone behind a big desk and review big stacks of files. Of course it is Truth in Television to some extent (notably in law-related responsibilities), but naturally, in fiction it tends to be exaggerated. Expect some secretary to occasionally pass by with an additional stack of files, much to the dismay of their boss. Usually Played for Laughs to show a less glamorous side of leadership. May be Played for Drama if the effect is to make the character wish they'd never sought or accepted the job in the first place.

Despite the title, it can apply not only to "Presidents" but also to any job involving some kind of important leadership.

Can be the reason for someone being Kicked Upstairs. May result in Trash of the Titans if disorder comes on top of quantity. Compare Vast Bureaucracy, Beleaguered Boss, Beleaguered Bureaucrat, Obstructive Bureaucrat, and Corrupt Bureaucrat. May be a Badass Bureaucrat.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • King Enma in Dragon Ball, as the man in charge of deciding who will go to Heaven or Hell, is usually shown chain-stamping files without so much as looking at them, while complaining about his insane amount of work.
  • In Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Simon has this kind of life in the second part of the story, as President of all humans on the surface. Well, before shit happens at least…
  • Hanaukyō Maid Team. In one episode Taro finds that one of his daily duties as head of the family is going through a huge pile of paperwork and signing documents.
  • The Hokage is sometimes portrayed like this in Naruto, including Tsunade after she assumed the role. They are by definition one of the strongest fighters in their village, but their job is mostly to assign missions rather than go on them. The same goes for Naruto himself during the Boruto period as he is seen constantly overloaded with piles of papers in his Hokage's office.
  • Etna from Disgaea: Hour of Darkness becomes this in the anime after becoming Overlord. It's hilarious considering her normal personality
  • In his Food Wars! debut, Eishi Tsukasa, current First Seat of the Elite Ten, starts complaining about the massive amount of paperwork he had to deal with when Soma, Subaru, and Takumi decided to hold two Shokugekis during the Fall Classic tournament. He briefly mopes about how stressful the responsibilities of a first seat can be. Later, when Azami replaces Senzaemon as the new director of Tootsuki, the bureaucratic changes that are taking place in the school increase the amount of paperwork that needs to be done, and most of this paperwork is given to Tsukasa. There's also a scene where two of the Elite Ten pushed their paperwork onto him, to which he's looking at with despair.
  • In YuYu Hakusho, Koenma spends a lot of his scenes stamping documents while he watches whatever Yusuke is up to.
  • The guild master of Fairy Tail is usually stuck having to deal with the vast paperwork sent by the Magic Council because of the property damage a Fairy Tail wizard causes whenever they go on jobs, something that both Makarov and Mavis share in equal distress.

    Comic Books 
  • The graphic novel Emperor Doom has Doctor Doom successfully Take Over the World using a mind control device... only to learn the hard way that this trope is the result. As ruler of the world, he's now obligated to handle all the paperwork and all the decision-making that comes with the role. It bores the hell out of him, to the point that when he becomes aware of an impending rebellion against his rule, he does absolutely nothing to stop it because it represents a way out of the position.
  • Judge Dredd: When Hershey becomes Chief Judge, she sometimes laments that she spends most of her time signing documents that she doesn't even have time to read and misses being a street Judge. Dredd himself worries that he'll end up in the same position, so he always refuses to be Kicked Upstairs.
  • In Fables, Prince Charming becomes mayor with Beauty as his deputy, only for both to discover just how much paperwork they have to deal with, hate their jobs, and make a general mess of it. He eventually resigns and goes back to military strategy and tactics (which he's actually pretty good at), but Beauty stays on, after eventually getting a handle on the job.

    Comic Strips 

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animation 
  • The Simpsons Movie: The President is disappointed that, instead of leading the country, he is forced to spend his days signing papers and approving motions.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, the President is seen continually signing pieces of paper, each with a different pen. It later gets revealed that he's signing blank pieces of paper so that it can be claimed that the President had signed something with the pen.
  • In Bruce Almighty, when Bruce is made God for a Day, he is suddenly confronted with the prayers of a significant chunk of the Buffalo area, which are presented in one scene as a massive layer of "Post-It" notes covering every wall and surface in his home. He then clears the clutter by instantly converting them to an e-mail format on his computer ("You've got prayers!").
  • In Caligula, the eponymous emperor is shown signing papers 'in the name of the senate and the people of Rome' without even reading them or asking anything about them, until he rapidly gets tired.
  • In Predator, Dillon fulfils this role. As a Colonel, he outranks everyone else on Dutch's team (Dutch included) and in his most famous line he says he's "been pushing papers for the CIA".

  • Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series: In "The Mule", Mayor Indbur III inherited the post of absolute dictator for the Foundation from his grandfather (who was brutal but able) and father (who was brutal and nothing else) and is essentially a born pencil-pusher who happened to inherit absolute power. He always corrects the grammar and spelling of the reports he reads before giving them his stamp of approval. It's evidence of his bookkeeper personality that he must correct the improper usage of commas before he will place a document in his Out Tray.
  • The Belgariad: In The Malloreon, Emperor Kal Zakath runs up a tremendous sleep deficit trying to oversee the bureaucracy of an empire larger than the world's other kingdoms combined. He works out how to delegate the duties once Garion points out that they were inherited from the first emperor: an insane Physical God with the divine power to do it all himself.
  • Discworld:
    • Sam Vimes spends a few City Watch books lamenting the piles of paperwork he's obliged to deal with as its Commander. Eventually averted when he recruits some secretarial help, first from the Gooseberry-imp and then from A.E. Pessimal.
    • The Fifth Elephant: Sergeant Colon becomes Acting Captain in Vimes' absence, and his reaction to the paperwork is to just throw it all in the fire. Including the pay dockets. The Watch goes on strike as a result, which actually lowers crime—criminals know that Mr Vimes will not be happy when he returns, and the last thing they need is to draw his attention to them.
    • In the Wizard books, Archchancellor Ridcully just lets the paperwork pile up on his desk, despite being headmaster of what is ostensibly the highest university of learning on the entire Disc. In fact, he periodically bins it and assumes that if anything is really important someone will start shouting. Lampshaded in Going Postal: "Haven't I always said I wanted a paperless office, Stibbons?" "Yes sir, that's why you throw it out of the window."
    • Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, is usually seen at his desk, looking at some kind of paperwork, especially when he wants to put visitors on edge. Sometimes, it's just the newspaper, but once it was "the report from last night's secret meeting of the Thieves' Guild inner inner council". Another, he had a certain number of files with just the names sticking out. The names of the citizens he was talking to.
  • Oksana Pankeeva: In Strange Kingdom Chronicles, that is King Shellar's primary occupation. According to flashbacks, it used to be borderline torture, even with him only needing two-three hours of sleep a day. When we first meet him, he is actually doing better, having figured out for the most part how things work, so that he can have some social life as well.
  • In Rainbow Six, John Clark laments that he's a bureaucrat and not an elite counter-terrorism soldier like his men. Rainbow jumps out of helicopters and trains to put bullets between eyes with perfect accuracy, Rainbow Six sits at his desk and has to justify the dollar value of each bullet.
  • In the Robert Silverberg series Majipoor, the Coronal lives in a splendid palace at the top of a mountain and enjoys all the perks of a King—until he becomes the Pontifex and has to live in a vast underground labyrinth overseeing the planet's bureaucracy.
  • Ascendance of a Bookworm: Being an archduke is shown to entail a lot of paperwork, and the story keeps mentioning things that the duchy's archduke has to sign off on personally, such as authorizing adoptions involving nobles. This comes on top of a lot of paperwork that is best dealt with by the archduke simply because he's one of the few people with the right skills to take care of it. It's implied that the duchy in which the protagonist lives is able to run smoothly, despite having a Brilliant, but Lazy archduke who doesn't like doing paperwork because his main Hypercompetent Sidekick is a Workaholic.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: In the novel "Station Rage" it's revealed that the Cardassian military had to force military leadership to take turns dealing with the paperwork in order to keep the military supplied and functional. Cardassian Guls hate having to take on this responsibility since they have to deal with an entire government apparatus comprised of Obstructive Bureaucrats.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga, Emperor Gregor Vorbarra is a very actively engaged ruler of his tri-planetary space empire. To the extent that his cousin Ivan notes that many have coveted the emperor's throne, but none have coveted his desk.
  • Downplayed in the first Conan the Barbarian story published, The Phoenix on the Sword. It deals with an older Conan who has become king of Aquilonia. In his first scene he complains to his second-in-command, Prospero, about how the "matters of statecraft weary [him] as all the fighting [he has] done never did", and the narration mentions how out of place his tanned, athletic body seems "among those luxuriant surroundings." It describes him sitting behind an "ivory, gold-inlaid writing-table" and his first action being laying "down the golden stylus with which he had been laboriously scrawling on waxed papyrus", clearly drawing on this trope, but it's clear from the rest of the text that he's mostly burdened by the problems in his kingdom he can't just fight his way out of. Still, having to write decrees and such in order to deal with those problems is clearly not something he enjoys.

    Live-Action TV 
  • M*A*S*H: In "Commander Pierce" Hawkeye is left in command by Colonel Potter, and learns just how much paperwork comes with being the CO of an army unit. Hawkeye puts it off until Potter returns, forcing Potter to play catch up with the amount of paperwork that piled up while he was away.
  • On one episode of Running Man, the final elimination game had it set up where one player was named the King, who was the only one allowed to get players out by ripping off the name tags on players' backs. However, they were allowed to do this for a few minutes until they had to go back to their office to stamp sheet after sheet with the royal stamp for several minutes, leaving the other players free to hunt for the hidden paper ballots they could use to vote for a new King (including themselves).
  • The Stargate SG-1 episodes "Zero Hour" and "Lockdown" played this for laughs as Jack O'Neill settled into his new job as commanding officer of Stargate Command. Both episodes featured an instance of sorting through piles of reports and memos to find something.
  • This is the basic concept of Yes, Minister and sequels. One episode has Sir Humphrey remonstrating Bernard for not keeping the Minister busy with such paperwork because otherwise he might start getting busy reforming the public service (i.e. putting Bernard and Sir Humphrey out of a job).
    • Subverted in Yes, Prime Minister. Hacker assumes being Prime Minister must require an even larger workload, but Bernard informs them that the Prime Minister's duties are actually quite light, as there's no one above them to make them do anything.
    "There's a lot of things people want you to do, and a lot of things you should do, and any number of things you can do, but very few things you have to do. It's up to you. You're the boss."
  • In NewsRadio, when Lisa is given Dave's job of News Director she has this experience.
  • Star Trek:
    • One of the least favorite tasks of Commander Riker and Counselor Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation is conducting crew evaluations given the mountains of paperwork that come with that task.
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: After being appointed to a leadership role in an allied fleet, Martok finds that a larger part of his job is filling out paperwork, which he absolutely despises. Starfleet Admiral Ross isn't too fond of dealing with paperwork either, especially since that with the Dominion War going on a lot of that paperwork are casualty reports he has to sign off on.
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch: In "Terrible Things," Sabrina's aunts warn her against using charitable magic, as messing with mortals' lives can lead to terrible things. Sabrina ignores their advice and helps her friends and teachers with their goals. Jenny wants to be class president, so Sabrina magically makes her the winner. But when Jenny meets with the principal to discuss her ambitious plans to improve the school, he bluntly tells her that she doesn't have any actual influence or power over decisions—the job basically exists to agree with whatever he says. A heartbroken Jenny becomes jaded and bitter, making Sabrina realize that she should have listened to her aunts.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Magic: The Gathering, Jace Beleren becomes the living embodiment of the Guildpact, a magical enchantment that enforces the laws of the City Planet of Ravnica. Sounds awesome, right? As it turns out, not really, as the job involves lots and lots of paperwork. This isn't helped by the fact that Jace is a Planeswalker but can't easily leave the plane without shirking his duties. (When the position is eventually transferred to someone else, he is immensely relieved.)
  • Warhammer 40,000: Becoming an inquisitorial representative is usually less clamoured for than other positions at the High Lords of Terra. The Inquisitor in question is now not only locked away from actively fighting the Emperor's enemies but now has to somehow act as a spokesperson for the entire incredibly factionalized Inquisition, all while also navigating the complex politics of the High Lords. The role is therefore usually filled by members whose mandate is close to Terra anyway.

  • The conflict of King Charles III begins when the character of Prince Charles is requested by Prime Minister Evans to sign the new Media Regulation Bill into law and Charles refuses to do so, voicing his concerns that the bill goes too far to restrict the freedom of the press. Prime Minister Evans flat out tells Charles that his duty as a monarch is to sign bills into law whether he agrees with them or not, as no law can be passed without the King's Consent, and without the ability to pass law Parliament is effectively an inert institution.
  • Tsukino Empire 2: Beginning of the World has a scene where Prince Shun is stuck in this situation (with Haru more or less holding his hand and doing it for him), when all Shun wants to do is talk about his crush, Prince Hajime.

    Video Games 
  • Hades himself in Hades; as ruler of the Underworld, his job essentially boils down to this. Since his Titan-slaying days are long over, he now has to deal with massive amounts of paperwork in order to keep the Celestial Bureaucracy running. He's usually seen working at his desk and hardly ever leaves it unless he's faced as the Final Boss after Zagreus successfully makes it to the surface.
  • Death in the Neverwinter Nights 2 fan campaign Dark Waters is portrayed as a long-suffering bureaucrat who forgives your in-game deaths because he's too busy to process you into the afterlife.

    Visual Novels 
  • Averted in Melody with Hank Sharp, president of Sharp Records. Hank personally identifies talent for his company and makes a point of attending his musicians’ shows when he can.
  • Dlanor A. Knox's job as Inquisitor of Heresy in Umineko: When They Cry, consists mostly of this. She goes on the field only when a death sentence has been pronounced.
  • Demonbane: Ruri Hadou is depicted as this in the sequel. She compares herself to the beautiful princess being held captive by the terrible demon, and this demon's name is "paperwork".

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 
  • Ren & Stimpy:
    • When Ren becomes president of Stimpy's fan club, this is all he does (specifically, answering Stimpy's fan mail), and it leads him to have a mental breakdown.
    • There's a similar use of the trope in "Pixie King," in which Ren works to become King of the Pixies only to find that rather than absolute power and authority, he has the responsibility of acting like a queen bee and producing eggs forever.
  • Commander Nebular from Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, due to being the Space Ranger's commander, is forced to constantly do paperwork by his robotic desk.
  • The Simpsons: In "Lisa's Substitute," Homer uses this trope to console Bart after he loses the class president election to Martin Prince. Sure, he won, but Martin will wind up doing extra work and won't get to do any cool real-president stuff.
  • In one episode of the eighties Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, the turtles find themselves stuck in an alternate world where they never existed and Shredder rules all. After spending the whole episode dodging his henchman and trying to figure out a way back home they finally meet him — and he begs them to take him back with them. Turns out that running the entire world is a massive pain in the ass.
  • When he's not trying to stop Peri and Entree from messing around with the town, Mayor Two Legs Joe from Spliced spends his time giving endless papers the Stomp of Approval.
  • Codename: Kids Next Door: In "Operation I.T", it is revealed that the job of Supreme Leader is this. When she isn't trying to keep everyone under control, Numbuh 362 is stuck signing paperwork, preventing her from going on missions. It's one of the big reasons she wanted to give up the job.
  • Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero: In "Defending the Earth", Penn zaps in as the President of an alternate Earth's United States. He immediately decides to have some fun with his position, such as prank-calling China, or making homework illegal. Sashi is quick to point out that he can't do any of that, and that his job actually revolves around signing bills from the legislative branch into law.

    Real Life 
  • In the military, this is often mockingly referred to as a "Chairborne Ranger", a high-ranked officer who spends his days behind a desk in a cozy office yet pretends to know how life is on the frontlines.
    • Also delightfully and colorfully known as a R.E.M.F. — Rear Echelon Mother Fucker.
    • While there are quite a few military personnel whose primary duties involve office work, anyone who stays in long enough will eventually get Kicked Upstairs and find more and more of their time spent doing administrative work. Even the grunts in the field.
  • Adolf Hitler expressed his horror at the prospect of being stuck behind a desk signing papers.
  • Franz Joseph I, second-last emperor of Austria-Hungary. As the story goes, he would sit for many hours at his desk and even correct punctuation mistakes in the papers he worked at. The people nicknamed him "old Prochaska", as if he were a small clerk. "Prochazka" (a very common surname for Czech-speaking people) meant "walker" and he got the nickname after his picture appeared in newspapers walking alone through Prague in 1901. The nickname outlined his modest appearance.
  • Vladimir Putin, then-Prime-Minister of Russia, quipped in September 2009: "Yesterday was the day for signing papers — four suitcases of documents". At a press conference on 14 February 2008, he also said that he worked like a slave at the galleys for straight 8 years. Due to a lucky typo, this caused some Memetic Mutations: namely, "like a slave" was mangled into "like a crab" (in Russian: "как раб" vs "как краб"), making "The Crab" a nickname for Putin in certain Internet circles.
  • Philip II of Spain was considered a dedicated bureaucrat.
  • Speaking of pens and presidents, Harry S. Truman started the tradition of using multiple pens to sign a bill and giving the used pens to the people who helped pass the bill. Presidents will often go through twenty to thirty pens when signing landmark legislation. Lyndon Johnson used 120 pens to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
    • This got parodied in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, where every scene involving the President had him continuously signing blank sheets of paper so that there would be a large quantity of pens that had been used by the president to sign something.