At this point in the presidential primary race it’s good to pause and remember a fundamental fact about our current American political system: the U.S. president is not as powerful as we often think and is certainly less powerful than presidential candidates claim that they will be once they are elected and assume office.
In our hyper-polarized political system, presidents simply don’t get their way on most big things unless a super-majority of Congress agrees with them. And despite what they will say about the ability to compromise and “bring people together” and to be a “uniter” during the campaign season, presidents are rarely successful at persuading Congress to agree with them. Also, presidents generally do not cause polarization, so they will be able to do very little to “fix” it.
For more details on this, read this primer on the “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency.”
Does that mean it doesn’t matter who emerges from the primary campaign or ultimately elected president? Of course not. What it means is:
- Right now during the campaign season the candidates are promising the moon and beyond. A good rule of thumb is to expect that they will be able to accomplish maybe 5-10% of what they are promising in terms of their domestic agenda, perhaps more if they focus on small incremental goals instead of major world-changing goals.
- Because the U.S. House (and very possibly the U.S. Senate) will continue to be controlled by Republicans in 2017, a Democratic president will not be able to bring about many drastic changes. She or he would basically prevent a Republican Congress from pursuing their major policy goals just as they will prevent her or him from pursuing her or his major policy goals. A Republican president, on the other hand, will be similarly blocked by a Democratic filibuster in the U.S. Senate unless 1) Republicans manage to win 60+ seats in the Senate and/or 2) the Senate filibuster is eliminated.
While presidents are not omnipotent and may not be able to accomplish their major policy objectives in our hyper-polarized climate, they still have a number of important powers. For example:
- Because they have more ability to act unilaterally in foreign affairs, they will have more influence in international matters than domestic matters. So their foreign policy proposals are important. (But we should remember that even then their ability to control world events is not absolute.)
- Presidents have the ability to nominate Supreme Court justices which have long-term effects on the future and direction of American politics.
- Presidents have the ability to act through Executive Orders which are becoming an increasingly popular option for presidents to use to bypass Congress in our hyper-polarized climate. The Courts have curbed this power to some extent, but expect it to continue to slowly grow regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is in office.
- Presidents may not be able to get everything they want, but they can control what they talk about and what they focus on. This, in turn, affects what the media talks about which affects what society talks about. Presidents have a lot of influence to “set the agenda” and shape our national conversations. This is an important power. They don’t have the power to change our minds about political matters, but they have a lot of power to determine what is is that we talk about.
So here are some important “reality check” questions to ask ourselves during the heat of campaign seasons:
- What is each candidate’s plan to accomplish his or her objectives given the realities of a hyper-polarized Congress? How realistic or feasible is that plan?
- Given that these candidates will not be able to accomplish everything that they are proposing, what are their “smaller scale” back-up Plan B’s? What might they do after their initial attempts to follow through on their campaign proposals fail?
- What does each candidate talk about? What do they focus on? What is his or her worldview? What are his or her fundamental assumptions about the political world? That will influence what we as a country talk about for the next four to eight years and how we talk about it.