Thinking About the American Presidency

Dec. 30, 2015 To understand the American political system, it is important to grasp how little power the American president has at his disposal.

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By George Friedman

There are only a few days left in 2015 and so it is time to begin paying attention to the U.S. presidential elections scheduled for Nov. 8, 2016. The election begins roughly four years before it is held, sometime around the time when the last inauguration is held. The United States is a democratic republic in which the people elect representatives, and the ultimate representative is the president, the only office for which all Americans vote.

It has been said that American elections last too long. I don’t think so. In a democratic republic, politics is and should be continuous. The British are interminably involved in politics even though the electoral process is fairly short. The difference between the British and American systems is not the constant noise of politics, but rather for most of the time in Britain, the public is not formally included in the process and then a few weeks before the election they are suddenly admitted. The American election is a permanent feature of our public life and several years before the election the public has the ability to participate in the process. The Iowa caucus would seem odd to most. There are months or years of preparation for this strange spectacle until one cold night, all of these people who deeply care about politics are packed into a room, elected officials and ordinary citizens, to achieve very little. This was what the founders intended. An extended electoral process diverts the government from making decisions, and thereby creates the paralyzed government Madison intended.

The extended process has another virtue. You can ignore it for a long time and not miss anything. The British electoral process is so short, if you blink — or fall into a minor coma — you can miss it. Not so with the American presidential election. Like cable news, it is on continually and you can’t miss it, regardless when you regain consciousness or, for that matter, when you are bored and decide to tune in.

I personally like to start paying attention at some point in January before the election. Until then, the process is like going to a heavy metal concert, and arriving in time to listen to the front bands, drawn from the finest garages, holding the less talented parolees. By the time the main band starts, everyone who arrived early is lost in a fog of chemicals and bad music. Not so the late comers. They are here for the main event.

That is where we are at this moment, transiting from the garage bands that bought themselves a few minutes on the stage, to the real players. But the first phase was indispensable. It allowed new candidates to try out their best stuff and allowed older candidates to quietly shuffle off the stage. It engaged the obsessed and the political class, including the grassroots political class, in frenzied activity, making them part of the process.

One of the interesting dimensions of American politics is that hardly anyone cares about presidential elections until about 10 months before the election. The first few years are defined by people who profoundly care about the future of the Republic and think that getting an early start will help, or by those looking to enhance their social life. In a country designed to elevate private life above public life, those who are obsessed with public life years before an election are totally unrepresentative of the country. In a country that is moderate due to its overall indifference, the stage has been swamped with people who believe not only that the Republic is doomed, but that their activities have significance. The rest of the citizenry know that their votes don’t count unless the election ends in a dead tie. But these others have convinced themselves that unless their candidate wins, we are all finished. By definition this self-selected group is as unrepresentative as imaginable, and even if you will, somewhat freakish.

Anyone looking at this electoral process will miss its virtue. The electoral process keeps the deeply committed and ambitious from doing much harm by turning them loose on each other. It also misses the point that preliminaries are meant to involve, divert and amuse the engaged public — as well as to increasingly paralyze the government. Now as winter locks in the nation, things become serious.

It is important to remember that the American president is not powerless, but has limited power. He must align with a legislature divided into two houses, each with different and bizarre rules. He faces a Supreme Court that is frequently divided, and in our time able to paralyze any presidential program based on the vote of one aged Supreme Court Justice. He also faces 50 quasi sovereign states and is sometimes held responsible for the number of jobs created. But the truth is that the Federal Reserve Board has more power over the economy than the president. As to foreign policy, he is trapped by the realities of the powers arrayed in the world. He can do anything he wants internationally, so long as he has the power to do that, and the American public doesn’t object.

To understand the American system, it is important to grasp how little power the American president has at his disposal. He is strangely a totem, the embodiment of the state like a monarch, while at the same time a mere mortal desperately trying to persuade someone to follow him. The early participants in presidential elections believe they are shaping the future of the country. But presidents don’t even have enough power to get judges they appoint confirmed by the Senate. Defining the future of the country requires both an extraordinary moment, and extraordinary insight. Roosevelt’s management of World War II might count for such a moment, but it is not clear that Wendell Willkie could not have done as well.

Nevertheless, the American presidency was crafted for the unexpected moment, such as 9/11, where fundamental decisions need to be made within hours or days. When I vote for president, I ignore the policies and programs because they will rarely have the opportunity to pursue them. The American public is very clear in how it votes — it looks at the candidates, not the issues. This has been seen as a sign of shallowness. It is actually a sign of their deep understanding of the presidency.

The most important decisions presidents make are the ones they were never prepared for and have no policy for. Truman and Korea. Eisenhower and Suez. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Johnson and Vietnam. What their farm programs might have been is of monumental irrelevance. First, they can propose but Congress and the courts must enact. Second, it was the crises that defined their presidency. They had no policy for any of these, because they did not know what was coming.

When voters say they judge the person, what they are saying is that character is more important than the intentions. Intentions of presidents are crushed by history. Character, if you can glimpse it, tells you if the person is smart enough to understand the moment of history he is compelled to govern in, and the constraints it imposes on his choices. He needs to understand what is possible and impossible, in order that he have the ability to cause the least damage to the nation. Because in the end that’s what presidents must do. And the president must have the strange combination of hubris in imagining being president, and modesty, in understanding how little it means.





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